No gimmicks – that was my main criteria for choosing a tour to get to know the creepy side of Edinburgh. I didn’t want out-of-work actors in gory costumes leaping out at me and shrieking; I wanted to legitimately get to know the historical part of the city that’s inspired so many scary stories over the years.
So my heart sank when I got to the meeting point for my nighttime tour with Viator and found a grinning man covered in fake blood, grey zombie makeup and sporting an old-fashioned suit while theatrically making a series of jokes to the crowd. He finally paused his patter before dramatically turning towards me.
“Hello! Where’s your boyfriend?” he asked with a huge fake grin on his face as I approached. I internally sighed but played along, “I’ve not got one.”
His plastered-on grin got even bigger as he spotted the chance for a joke. “Oooh! Ladies and gentlemen, please excuse me, the tour is cancelled for the evening” he replied, and pretended to escort me off by the elbow.
But when he finally got around to asking for my reservation, it turned out I wasn’t on his tour at all. Behind the costumed theatrics was a different tour group – and nobody was in costume, shrieking, or making cheesy jokes.
That was more like it.
Edinburgh’s Haunting Atmosphere
It’s easy to see why Edinburgh is the setting for so many spooky tales and legends. There’s a near-constant wind whipping into the city. Sometimes it’s a gentle breeze, like a little laughing creature dancing in and out of the streets. Other times you can hear it howling through the tiny closes, every so often mischievously scattering someone’s papers or sweeping their hair across their face to temporarily blind them.
On the very worst days the wind roars so hard it feels like an invisible monster chasing and pushing you around so the city can devour you, blowing you off your balance into a stream of traffic or off the rocky cliff of a hillside.
The city center is covered in sandy church towers blackened by centuries of simply existing in such a harsh, windy climate. Late at night, the tall buildings cast long shadows on narrow cobblestoned streets, filling them with pools of shadows. And it’s not uncommon to stumble upon a graveyard filled with looming tombstones.
They say you’re never more than five feet from a buried body if you’re walking around Edinburgh.
You really don’t need any gimmicks to make the Scottish capital seem like a creepy place. It does a fine job on its own.
Scotland has long been home to plenty of storytelling and legends. There are all kinds of fantastical creatures in Scottish folklore, like the brownies that clean your room if you’re nice (but will burn down your house if you take them for granted) and redcaps, who get their name from their hats they keep red by regularly dipping them in fresh human blood.
Then there are the giants who supposedly roamed the north of Britain, one of who gave his name to the peak of the ancient volcano that overlooks Edinburgh – Arthur’s Seat.
There’s no shortage of great stories here, and there’s actually a historical reason for that. Scotland was one of the last places to receive the written word, so stories were passed on verbally.
That’s just the fairytale stuff though. Bloodthirsty redcaps might be creepy, but what’s much scarier in Edinburgh are the real people who have done some pretty horrific things here throughout the years.
Vampires. Witches burned at the stake. Cannibals. Grave robbers.
Real Life Horror Stories
Those aren’t just characters in the spooky fictional stories that have come out of Edinburgh. Those are all real people who have lived here.
OK, so the vampire is only somebody who thinks he’s a vampire, but he did do some real-life bloodsucking. And of course, the “witches” were just ordinary people somebody important didn’t like the look of. They got burned at the stake anyway.
The cannibals and grave robbers, though, are exactly what they sound like – or perhaps even more horrific.The most notorious cannibals were a 48-strong family who attacked lonely travelers in the night and devoured them.
Grave robbers did a roaring trade in Edinburgh for years, thanks to the city’s universities’ strong medical and anatomy programs. Legally, the students and doctors were actually allowed to use some bodies – so long as they belonged to executed criminals. But that only gave them about 5-6 bodies a year, so doctors started buying up bodies at alluringly high prices.
The grave robbers adapted to the new situation too; they re-branded themselves as “resurrectionists” and got to work digging up bodies.
Some went a step further, making some bodies of their own by killing off people unlucky enough to cross their paths. The most famous of them are Burke and Hare, who were eventually caught after killing 16 people.
Burke was convicted and hanged, while Hare got off in exchange for testifying against Burke. You can still visit Burke’s remains today – ironically, in the Edinburgh Medical School’s Anatomy Museum.
Still, the resurrectionists did lead to two big changes in laws. First, people like Burke and Hare convinced courts to increase the legal number of cadavers medical schools received to study. And second, the resurrectionists in one Edinburgh graveyard once found that the corpse they’d dug up wasn’t very dead; she’d been buried alive. (This wasn’t uncommon; about 30% of the graves in one of Edinburgh’s old graveyards contain people who had been buried alive). So the law was changed, and now you had to check someone’s pulse before burying them.
Hundreds of years later, people still like to visit the graveyards where all of this morbid stuff went down.
Still Spooky Today
Actually, visiting a graveyard isn’t a weird thing to do in Edinburgh at all today. You can follow in the footsteps of literary greats like Charles Dickens and J.K. Rowling, who both got inspiration for some of their character’s names by wandering around graveyards. Ebenezer Scrooge and Tom Riddle’s names have both been lifted from Edinburgh gravestones.
That’s the thing about Edinburgh’s scary side – it’s still very present today.
The vampire I mentioned above? That happened in 2002. The anatomy and medical schools are still going strong (although now they’ve got legally obtained cadavers to work with). The graveyards are full of curious visitors eager to catch glimpses of the final resting places of people’s names who inspired great works of literature.
Other people go hoping to spot some of the supernatural goings-on that some still claim to see today. Scotland’s storytelling tradition is holding strong.
Just try walking through the old city at night to see for yourself. Make your way along the narrow cobblestoned streets and wander in and out of shadows cast by thin, tall buildings looming overhead.
The Royal Mile’s buildings get lit up in bewitching purples and greens, and large black shadows of birds swoop in and out of the streetlights. Sudden cackles of laughter ring out as bar-hoppers spill out onto the streets from the pubs.
And maybe you’ll hear that haunting, whispering Edinburgh wind following you, lurking just behind you in the shadows.
I was a guest on the Edinburgh Haunted Walking Tour: Mysteries, Murder and Legends with Viator. This is a 2-hour nighttime walking tour of Edinburgh. All my opinions are honest (as always!), so here’s what I liked and didn’t like about the tour:
Positives: it’s not gimmicky, it’s budget-friendly (clocking in at $10, plus optional tips), the tour guide was very friendly and entertaining, and it’s full of great stories and storytelling. It also includes a lot of detail about Scottish legends and culture.
Do go for a drink with the tour guide afterward, as it’s a great chance to hear even more about Edinburgh/Scotland and to meet fellow travelers.
Negatives: none! I really enjoyed this and thought it was an awesome way to spend an evening. But wrap up warm, because even in late May it was a bone-chilling 5 degrees outside, and windy too.
Would I recommend this? Yes, definitely! This is one of my favorite tours I’ve been on.
I definitely did the gimmicky ghost tour haha. In my defense, I didn’t make the reservation, my friend who was studying abroad in Scotland at the time did. In fact I almost backed out of the tour, not because of the gimmicks (I was unaware that’s the tour we would be doing), but because I was terrified we would actually see ghosts (too many reruns of Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures). My friend felt bad and said we could not go but she had already paid for it and I was reasonable enough to not make her waste her money. I remember holding on to her arm for dear life the entire time we were in the underground vaults!
In the end, we didn’t see anything (not sure if I was disappointed or relieved) and an actual human jumped out in the dark to scare us at the end of the tour (it didn’t work). Our tour guide was dressed up like a Halloween theatrical kind of witch. Next time I’d prefer to the outdoor walking tour you did but it was fun and cheesy enough to do it at least once.
Haha I would have felt the same! I heard the underground vaults are super cool though, so maybe next time I’ll check those out. But this tour was really fantastic, there were so many great stories.
You seem to find the most interesting tours! I think I need to try a little harder when I visit places.
Scotland really is full of tales and mystery. When I lived there for a stint in 2012 I found out they have fairy stories like the part of Canada I’m from, which was a fun connection!
There are actually some amazing tours out there, I had no idea there were so many good ones! I used to be anti-tour and very do it yourself, but I’ve totally changed my mind now.
I did not know that Edinburgh had this activity. In Barcelona (where I live) we have a similar activity and is very interesting, I loved it!.
When I visit Edinburgh (I have never been there yet OMG!), I’ll probably include this activity in my agenda.
Yep, there are all kinds of great things to do in Edinburgh. This was one of my favorites though!
OMG I had no idea about any of this stuff. Certainly makes me see Edinburgh very differently. 10 bucks is a great price for a tour – will totally check it out next time I’m in town!
Yes, it was such a good deal! It was one of the most enjoyable tours I’ve ever taken, and it was so cheap as well.
I really appreciate a good tour that focuses on history or some unique aspect of culture. One of my favorites was the Nightwatchman’s Tour in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany.
Ooh that sounds like fun too! I’ll have to remember that for whenever I’m next in Germany.
I really like your angle on this- as someone who has never been to Edinburgh, I picture another charming European town, but this creepy history sets it apart. Loved your writing here… your initial descriptions of the atmosphere brought Edinburgh to life (or shall I say death)! Def must do this tour when I visit!
Thanks, Casey! 🙂 If you go, I definitely recommend doing this tour – it shows a whole different side to the pretty city center.
Your post is called ‘The Creepy Side of Edinburgh’ but it sounds like the whole thing is pretty creepy. Definitely got a feel for the macabre vibe here, but weirdly it just inspires me to go! I missed Edinburgh on my last trip to Scotland, but will definitely hit it up the next time, graveyards and all.
I really love your writing, by the way. It’s nice to read a travel blog with thoughtfully crafted sentences that are carefully written, stimulating, and engaging. Glad I found it, and will definitely be reading more!
Thank you so much, Jakob! It’s so nice to hear that, and I’m really glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
That’s definitely my kind of tour too!
Yeah, it was so much fun! 😀
First of all, that guy at the beginning was the creepiest part of this post! I too am drawn to the, at times, morbid underbellies of cities. You describe Edinburgh’s history in rich detail, resurfacing the monsters and vampires I read about when I was growing up. You always hear about the lush greenery, mountainscapes, and so on about Scotland, but not so much about its city life. This was a welcomed perspective- thank you!
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Cristina! There’s definitely much more to Scotland than its landscapes (although those are pretty stunning).
Really enjoyed this in-depth post, Jessica, along with all of the interesting anecdotes and historical tidbits! I went on a ghost tour of Edinburgh on a high school trip back in 2008 and though we didn’t see anything “spooky” it was fun to descend into dungeons and sewers and hear about the little characters that apparently haunt the town.
Thanks, Trevor! I heard the dungeons are super cool – I’d love to go check those out too.
I went on the Literary Pub Tour and it was fantastic. Drank in 4 Pubs and the actor/tour guides argued whether the events that occurred in each pub had literary significance. Stories about Deacon Brodie, who was the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and many others. If I get to Edinburgh again I would love to take a tour like this one.
That sounds like a lot of fun! I’d love to do that tour, too.
My friends and I did the gimmicky tour of the underground vaults. And I must confess it was one my most terrifying experiences in my life (it seems I’m more on the chicken side of courage) The guy who dressed as a vampire was such a great actor that someway he managed to get me all creeped while I was in the vaults. I even considered leaving the place when he mentioned something like “if you’re too faint of heart or if you feel you might not feel well from this point later, you can now leave the tour…” I couple actually left. When I was about to step out, one of my friends insisted that I stay.
The funny thing is that this was one of my first experiences when I arrived in Scotland, my first English speaking country, and I was still battling with the language. But I was so terrified that I didn’t want to listen anymore to what he said, and I was trying to convince myself that I didn’t understand English, I kept repeating to myself “No entiendo nada, No entiendo nada…” 😀 But more than ever, I could understand every single word, joke, and expression from my vampire guide. Such an anecdote 😀
You should try the underground vaults next time even if it comes with the gimmicky guides 😀
The Sawney Bean cannibal tale probably isn’t true, but it makes a good story! Did you know that it inspired the American horror film ‘The Hills Have Eyes’? I’ve never been on one of the ghost tours, mostly because I thought of them as too gimmicky, but after your review maybe I’ll give the Viator one a chance next time I’m in Edinburgh overnight.
I grew up in Edinburgh’s old Town. Checked the time. through our living room window to check the time as we went to school.
I grew up listening to all the
ghostly and ghastly stories that went on, in the not so distant past.
No wonder so many great Authors, lived there for a visited the Auld Town.
I live in Los Angeles now, I don’t miss the climate, but do miss all those familiar landmarks.
And the Stories that our Grandparents, told us. Many exaggerated, but the True stories were spooky enough with out that Exaggerations
Thanks for taking me back, several decades. Even after nearly 65 years that have passed, it still holds my heart and so many fun childhood memories..
Hi Jessica, Really I did not know about these places and your photography is amazing. you summarize the whole article in a great way. thanks
Thank you for sharing the creepy side Jessica. I’ve been wanting go there with my family forever. For some reason plans have been changed last minute a few time. Now I really wanna go and scare my kids 🙂