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Edinburgh – A Haunting City Break

Rebus's den, bodysnatchers and the Banshee Labyrinth captivate Chris Tordoff

Written by . Published on October 4th 2011.

Edinburgh – A Haunting City Break

Yes, there is life after the Festival. Indeed, early September is perhaps the best time to visit Edinburgh. The ghosts of Burke and Hare and many a troubled soul from the turbulent past reclaim the city when the mists of autumn replace the arts-hungry throngs. Chris Tordoff went spook hunting and found much more to delight him.

GRASSMARKET is such a sedate corner of Edinburgh to mooch around in, yet there’s turbulent history in every cranny. Once it was a major market for horses and cattle. But an altogether more sinister spectacle attracted the city’s residents – public executions.

Drum Minors On The Royal MileDrum Minors On The Royal Mile

Legend has it a fishwife by the name of Maggie Dickson was sentenced to hang by the neck for the murder of her own baby. “Divine intervention” or sheer luck, “Half-Hangit Maggie” survived the tight embrace of the noose and was cleared of all charges, but not without prompting the authorities to add the words “until dead” when passing sentence in future.

Today the wide sloping thoroughfare is home to many traditional pubs, including, naturally, the welcoming Half-Hangit Maggie along with restaurants and boutique shopping galore. Each May this cobbled stage set for spectacle hosts the Grassmarket Festival, too.

It was amongst these picturesque surroundings we found our lodgings. The Knight Residence, nestled amongst inviting second hand bookshops, boasts elegantly modern self-catering apartments, ideally situated for both the New and Old Towns, not to mention the crowning glory of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh Castle.

Scott MemorialScott Monument

The Castle dominates the Edinburgh skyline. Surveying the city from the battlements conjured up childhood dreams of chivalrous knights, great sieges and all manner of boy’s own stuff. The view is truly spectacular, from the Forth estuary to Arthur’s Seat; you can see why the stalwart defenders of Edinburgh built this impregnable fortress on an extinct volcano.

There is no end of fascinating sites and exhibits within its stout walls, from St Margaret’s Chapel, guarded by the imposing siege cannon Mons Meg to the recently completed National War Memorial of Scotland.

Holding out against tireless invading armies can be thirsty work. The Royal Mile offers an abundance of watering holes, enough to satisfy the weariest of siege-starved knights – and today rubbernecking tourists from across the globe.

Tartan, shortbread and whisky emporia soon pall, though. To understand the ghosts within the stones a visit to The People’s Story is a must. Oral and written tales from all walks of life can be found here, dating from the 18th century to the present day, bringing the city’s history alive.

 in-training partner and that was the Surgeons Hall Museum. Originally intended as a teaching aid for the students of the Royal College, the collection was eventually opened to the public in 1832, making it Scotland’s oldest museum.

Through exhibits depicting the fascinating yet gruesome story of surgery and its pioneers we found ourselves in the pathology wing. We shuffled along shelf upon shelf of jars containing various body parts, shattered bones and terrifying surgical instruments as ill-gotten, watery cadavers stared out at us from their transparent tombs.

Oxford BarOxford Bar

The rain-lashed streets and dark foreboding alleys still conceal the city’s miasma of deceit and murderous intent, albeit now within the pages of Edinburgh’s cantankerous detective, John Rebus.

Ian Rankin’s love of his city is evident when he designated The Oxford Bar in Young Street, New Town, as his beer-loving sleuth’s “office” of choice when pondering his latest murder case. Once It was the haunt of Edinburgh’s Renaissance writers. The fine selection of Scottish ales and whiskies are enough to unlock the most determined bout of writer’s block.

Plus If you look closely at the far end of the bar you will see the world famous Oxford Bar pie machine, built circa 1950, it's a veritable heirloom to the regulars. Stocked with the infamous ‘Falkirk’ pies and sausage rolls and bridies.

After being in the company of such literary heroes it was only proper to pay homage to Scotland’s greatest scribe, Sir Walter Scott. The 200ft high Scott Monument is a standing testament to the love and admiration the people of Edinburgh had for the great man.

Auld Reekie's VaultsAuld Reekie's Vaults

If you’re fit enough to tackle the 287 steps to the highest viewing platform you will be rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of the city.  First spot from this vertigo inducing height was the impressive neo-classical National Gallery of Scotland complex.

That collection boasts masterpieces from Raphael, Monet and Titian but on a short break I’d recommend sticking to nature’s canvas. Stretching the length of bustling Princess Street, at the city’s heart, the Princess Street Gardens offer an amazingly tranquil escape.

A visit to Edinburgh isn’t complete without a tour of its underground streets and there are several tour operators to choose from. Our spook-ridden descent came courtesy of The Auld Reekie Tours. Dominic, our guide, led us through Edinburgh’s atmospheric alleys and streets – and into its murky and gruesome past. Once the scene was set, we descended into the eerie vaults.

The very stones themselves echo the terrible stories of squalor, crime and murder. After all, this was the hunting ground of Edinburgh’s most notorious body snatchers, Burke and Hare.

As we stood within these dark hovels with only the sound of dripping, fetid water to be heard, we sensed we were not alone. Wandering spectres, ghostly ladies and dangerous poltergeists reputedly stalk the very foundations of the South Bridge; we felt like  unwelcome guests encroaching on their unearthly domain.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as our nerves were well and truly shot) we were spared a spectral encounter and finished this very entertaining tour with a wee dram of complimentary whisky and shortbread in the Banshee Labyrinth. A pub connected to the vaults, rich with its own tales of the unexplained. I’ll spare you the old joke about having a spirits licence.



Chris Tordoff stayed at the Knights Residence courtesy of Hoseasons (www.hoseasons.co.uk), Britain’s leading self-catering holiday company with access to 40,000 properties across the UK and Europe.

Bedroom At Knights ResidenceBedroom At The Knight ResidenceThe Knight Residence, 12 Lauriston Street, Edinburgh  EH3 9DJ  (0131 622 8120, www.theknightresidence.co.uk). One-bedroom apartments from £109 per night, two-bedroom from £129. Until March 31 2012, prices for 2 adults sharing a one bedroom apartment start from only £44.50 per person per night, 4 adults sharing a two bedroom apartment start from only £29.75 per person. 

 Getting there:
First Transpennine Express offer tickets from Manchester to Edinburgh from as little as £7 one way.

An attractive alternative is to fly from Manchester Airport with bmi Regional. Up to four flights a day to Edinburgh from Manchester. Fares from £44 one way inc taxes.

Across its various tours Auld Reekie offers “a working witches temple, legendary haunted vault with over 70 paranormal occurrences, medieval torture chambers (with instruments from the infamous Nuremberg Castle) and our terrifying execution dungeons featuring real guillotines, racks, etc.“ Ghost and Torture Tour, £9.50 (con £8.50), Terror Tour, £12 (con £10) and the one Chris went on: Underground Tour, £8 (con. £7). All can be booked at www.auldreekietours.com.

The essential guide for visitors to Edinburgh and Scotland can be found at http://surprise.visitscotland.com.

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