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Five Macabre Haunts In Edinburgh

Travel editor Neil Sowerby explores his dark side in the Scottish capital

Written by . Published on July 5th 2013.

Five Macabre Haunts In Edinburgh

The Festival and the Castle, cashmere and kilts on the Royal Mile, a wee dram on route to Holyrood – you think Edinburgh is a jolly place to visit. Think again, says our travel editor, Neil Sowerby

Body Snatchers Branch Out In EdinburghBodysnatchers branch out in Edinburgh

Peter, Our Ebullient Auld Reekie Ghost Tour Guide1 BURKE and Hare, the ultimate corpsing double act. They are celebrated in a lap dancing dive in the shadow of the Castle, but for a real feel of the chill the grave robbers brought to Edinburgh, go underground. Paul, right, our ebullient guide on one of the Auld Reekie Tours, regaled us with bloodcurdling tales, particularly in the firm’s museum of authentic torture instruments. Our walk culminated in underground vaults where Burke and Hare stored their victims’ bodies and even Britain’s Most Haunted investigators got the willies. The complex also houses a weird shrine belonging to the current Wiccan pagan cult. All tours depart from outside the Tron Church on the Royal Mile. Visit www.auldreekietours.com or ring 0131 557 4700. Our 75 minute Ghost and Torture Tour cost £10 (children £8 – if they’re not of a nervous disposition). 

Explaining How The Torture Implements WorkExplaining How The Torture Implements Work; below, it gets scary

Edinburgh %26#8211%3B The Dark Side

Spooky Underground

2 Curious to learn more about bodysnatching? A must visit is to the atmospheric Greyfriars Churchyard. Here you’ll find graves protected by a framework of iron bars called mortsafes. Iron coffins were also in common use to protect newly buried bodies from body snatchers. Most famous of these so-calledsurrection men” were Burke and Hare. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832 the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes were those condemned to death and dissection by the judges. Many more cadavers were needed, which sparked a brisk trade for the medical schools. 

Exhibit At The Surgeons Hall
The most notorious purchaser of corpses was Dr Robert Knox, who acquired 16 cadavers from the deadly duo. Such was his notoriety he had to quit the city. To get a flavour of Edinburgh’s medical heritage visit The Surgeon’s Hall Museums in Nicolson Street, opposite the Festival Theatre. There you’ll see human anatomical and pathological specimens from the early 18th century, charting the development of surgery. www.museum.rcsed.ac.uk/ content/content.aspx. 


Real Mary King's CloseReal Mary King's Close; below, Dr George Rae

Dr George Rae

4 Time to go back underground.The true gem, helping you understand how folk existed in the tumbling tenements of the Old Town is The Real Mary King’s Close. It’s a secret warren of houses, part of a 10-storey deep tenement complex that was frozen in time when the Royal Exchange was constructed on top of it in the 1750s. Underground workshops lingered on there over the intervening centuries until it was reopened as a visitor attraction in 2003. Now guides in character as various inhabitants from the past cannily illuminate the uncomfortable life of real recorded inhabitants in 17th and 18th century Edinburgh, including the eponymous Mary King, a cloth entrepreneur. But it is the ghost tales and the recreation of the plague years that haunt you. In particular, an eerie memorial to the spectre of a child victim and the mannequin of plague doctor George Rae in his beaked costume to protect him from “contagious miasmas”. www.realmarykingsclose.com. 

Deacon Brodie And The Kilted OnesDeacon Brodie and the Kilted Ones; below Dr J and Mr H

Dr Jekyll And Alter Ego Hyde5 Finally Deacon Brodie’s Tavern on the Royal MiIe is superficially a jolly place, the outside thronged with tourists seeking photo opportunities with kilted passers-by. Cabinetmaker’s son and superficially solid citizen Brodie led a double life of murder and mayhem, whoring, gambling and robbing that inspired one Robert Louis Stevenson to create The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It all ended on the scaffold; later when his coffin was opened, guess what, it was empty. Edinburgh all over. Find out more about the great Robert Louis and other great Scots storytellers from Scott to Rankin at the nearby Writers’ Museum (www.cityofliterature.com). There’s a fascinating collection of RLS memorabilia and If that doesn’t sate you step into the lovely St Giles Cathedral and pay your respects at an odd low-relief bronze likeness of the author.

Robert Louis Stevenson Image In St Giles CathedralRobert Louis Stevenson in St Giles Cathedral

After all this stuff clear your head in one of Britain’s great green spaces, the Royal Botanic Garden (www.rbge.org.uk). If time is short, concentrate on the great glasshouses, which house one of the world’s great plant collections. Enjoy my floral gallery below...

HolyroodHolyrood Palace and, below, the Abbey

Holyrood Abbey

Botanic Beauty

Botanic Gardens Pink


Feel The DewFeel The Dew

Glorious In The Greenhouse

So Exotic

Staying (and eating) there:
The Caledonian, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Princess Street, Edinburgh EH1 2AB. Nightly rates start at £239 per night in a double room inc VAT, with breakfast. The Pompadour Menu Gourmand cost £120 with selected sommelier wine pairing. Without wine this seven-courser is £88 a head. For further information or to make a reservation, call 0131 222 888; www.thecaledonian.waldorfastoria.com.

21212, 3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh EH7 5AB. The starting rate for a double room is £150. Lunch Tues-Fri from two courses for £20 to five for £52; Sat lunch three courses for £28 to five for £52; dinner Tues-Thurs three courses for £48 to five courses for £68; dinner Fri and Sat five courses for £68. For further information or to make a reservation, call 0845 22 21212; www.21212restaurant.co.uk.

Getting there:
We drove and left our car in a seven-day park and ride at Sherriffhall. Edinburgh can be reached via both West Coast and East Coast rail services, including the First North West service from Manchester Airport and Piccadilly. Call 08457 484950 or go to www.nationalrail.co.uk for all train times. Coaches operate day and night from major UK cities. For details log on to National Express (www.nationalexpress.com) or Megabus (www.megabus.com). Edinburgh is an hour or so away by air from most UK airports. For operators and timetables go to www.edinburghairport.com. Airlink provides a frequent and inexpensive bus service into Edinburgh city centre, with the journey taking around 25 minutes: www.flybybus.com. With the Edinburgh Pass (see below) tou get the Airlink shuttle free.

To organise a trip to Scotland it’s essential to visit www.visitscotland.com; for Edinburgh visit www.edinburgh.org.

An Edinburgh Pass offers free entrance to 30 of the city’s key attractions – including Auld Reekie Tours, Real Mary King Close and the Surgeon’s Museum – plus many special offers and discounts. Adult prices range from £30 for one day to £50 for three; child prices from £20 to £30. For more information and to book visit www.edinburghpass.com.

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