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As October creeps on, the nights grow colder and darker, the leaves begin to crinkle and fall, and the thoughts of children all over the world turn towards Halloween. If you live in New England you will be trick-or-treating. If you live in New Cumnock you will be going guising (literally: in disguise). No doubt about it, Scottish children have a ghostly history to be proud of; one rich in direct connections to some of the most terrifying supernatural figures in Western culture.
Perhaps it has something to do with our landscape: seen in the right light (or should that be the wrong light?!) at the right time of year, Scotland’s deep dark lochs, rain-lashed moors and chill Glens covered by slow-moving mists can certainly seem eerie enough. Indeed Scotland’s geography has been providing writers with spooky inspiration for some time now. . .
For instance, as children as far apart as Glasgow and Melbourne don their black capes, slick their hair back and grapple with the oversized plastic fangs this Halloween, how many of them know of the vampires intimate connection with Scotland?
Cruden Bay is a small town on the East Coast, a few miles south of Peterhead, towards Aberdeen. In the late 19th century it was the favourite holiday resort of Bram Stoker the man who wrote the most famous literary version of the Dracula legend and is said to have helped inspire his most chilling tale.
Go to Cruden Bay on a June morning, however when sandy coves, pretty fishermen’s cottages and a beautiful links golf course sparkle in the summer sun and you’ll probably be convinced that Stoker must have had some imagination! Visit the town on a dark October night and a different picture emerges: the jagged gothic struts of Slains Castle dominate the skyline, bats flicker in and out of the towers and, as the wind whistles through the belfry, it becomes all too easy to see where Stoker got his inspiration for Dracula’s castle. In fact you can still pop into the Kilmarnock Inn on the High Street, where you can move through the same rooms and breathe the same air that Stoker once did. He stayed here in 1895, when Dracula’s blood-freezing story first began to creep from his pen. It might be best to go in the daytime however. . .
Frankenstein’s monster, that other staple favourite of Halloween dressing up, also has his Scottish connections. It is well known that in Mary Shelley’s classic Victorian horror story the monster follows Dr Frankenstein to the Orkney Islands passing through Edinburgh on the way, but did you know that Scotland was also intimately connected to the very inspiration for the novel?
Mary Shelley’s husband, and the man who urged her to write Frankenstein, was, of course, the poet Percy Shelley. When Shelley was a schoolboy at Eton he became, in his wife’s words, intimate with a man whom he never mentioned except in terms of the tenderest respect. This was Dr Lind . . . a name well known among professors of medical science. He often said I owe that man far, oh! Far more than I owe my father!
Dr James Lind was an eminent natural philosopher (as scientists were called then) who was born and educated in Edinburgh and whose ideas were to greatly interest the young Shelley. (This Dr Lind should not be confused with his cousin of the same name, the man who did pioneering work on the treatment of scurvy.) Lind was keenly interested in some of the more radical medical theories of the day, particularly those of the Italian physicists Cavallo and Galvani, men whose work focused on the possibility of using electricity to reanimate dead tissue. (Not as crazy as it might sound: the idea was a direct precursor to today’s defibrillating machines so beloved of emergency room dramas.) Lind instilled a passion for these ideas into Percy Shelley, which was to interest him for the rest of his (sadly short) life. Shelley communicated these enthusiasms to Mary, and she in turn channelled them into the novel she was to write: so the ideas of an Edinburgh doctor were destined to live forever in the pages of her immortal tale.
Incidentally the Shelleys visited Edinburgh on their honeymoon. This was in the early 19th century, when body-snatching was at its height and the so-called resurrection men like Burke and Hare were busy digging up bodies from Greyfriars Kirkyard and selling them for medical experiments. It is entirely possible that the Shelleys would have been fascinated by this and it became another strand that Mary worked into the manuscript of Frankenstein.
Also finding inspiration in Greyfriars around this time was Robert Louis Stevenson. The writer often used the empty kirkyard to sit and think perhaps coming up with characters like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while he was there. It is said that Stevenson’s famous horror story Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was based on the case of Deacon Brodie, an 18th century Edinburgh man who was a respectable businessman by day and a thief by night. Brodie was eventually caught and hanged.
In fact Edinburgh can probably make a reasonable claim to being one of the most supernaturally active cities in the whole world. . .
Greyfriars also contains the tomb of George bloody MacKenzie, which is said by some to be the most haunted place in the United Kingdom. MacKenzie was a judge who, in the late 17th century, imprisoned, tortured and executed thousands of covenanters in Greyfriars Kirkyard. (Covenanters were supporters of the National Covenant, a document which pledged to keep Scotland a Presbyterian country and who supported the parliamentarians in the English Civil War. They were outlawed and persecuted by MacKenzie’s boss, King Charles II.) MacKenzie’s mausoleum was opened to visitors in the late nineties and since then there have been over 350 alleged poltergeist attacks: 170 people have collapsed, tourists have reported strange hot and cold spots in the place, and some claim to have been pushed and pulled by unseen forces.
Overactive imaginations or something more sinister? You can judge for yourself. Because Scotland’s supernatural side is not just confined to the pages of literature and history: City of the Dead Ghost Tours run daily walks through the kirkyard, including a visit to MacKenzie’s tomb. Or there are the six-hour Vaults Vigil which take you deep beneath the streets of Edinburgh’s old town, into vaults built over two hundred years ago as storage areas for the city’s jewellers, pubs and fabric stores. These spooky, dimly-lit caverns and tunnels are said to be rich in ghostly activity and visitors have reported hearing strange shouting and banging and on a few occasions there have been alleged sightings of actual spirits.
Or try Mary King’s Close, which lies just below the City Chambers and is said to be one of Edinburgh’s most haunted locations. The area was densely populated during the 16th century when it was ravaged by plague. Afterwards, it was sealed off by the city and stories have grown over the years about the ghosts of the people who used to live there still being trapped in the close. Continuum Tours run a guided walk through the area and, whether you are a sceptic, open-minded or an outright unbeliever in the supernatural, the tour is a fascinating experience, with guides in period costume leading you through the dark alleyways and chill vaults, and providing a backdrop of rich historical information as well as ghostly speculation.
Why limit yourself to a scary movie on the sofa this Halloween? Come to Scotland and experience some of our spookier goings-on in the flesh. Take a walk on the dark side...