Its name is enough to send shivers down people’s spine… but is Greyfriars Kirkyard really the spookiest cemetery in Scotland (and possibly even the world)?
I don’t think so.
Greyfriars has haunted people throughout the world for years now. It was the inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. JK Rowling found some familiar names such as McGonagall, Moody, and Thomas Riddell. Supposedly, Greyfriars as a whole was the inspiration for the cemetery in Godric’s Hollow, where Harry Potter’s parents are buried. And perhaps the most infamous claim to fame for the churchyard is the Mackenzie Tomb, supposedly home to the Mackenzie Poltergeist.
For years, I dreamed of visiting the infamous Greyfriars Kirkyard. I imagined what it would look like, the history that would surround me, and the ghost stories that would haunt me long after I left. And in September 2019, I finally got to walk through the gates of Greyfriars Kirkyard and see it for myself.
Stories raced through my mind as I entered the kirkyard, recalling the horrific tales of the Mackenzie Poltergeist.
The legend of the poltergeist isn’t nearly as old as you might think. It only came into the supernatural spotlight in 1999 when a homeless man sought shelter in the mausoleum and was supposedly attacked by an unseen force (though reports of that story even seem to be conflicted). Since then, there have been nearly 200 reports surrounding the Mackenzie Mausoleum and the evil spirit lurking inside, not to mention a slew of ghost hunting TV shows and books written about the legendary spook.
Now no one knows for sure what the Mackenzie poltergeist is. Is it the ghost of the wicked George Mackenzie, one of the most wicked prosecutors of the Covenantors in the 17th Century? After all, he was rather ruthless, torturing and executing his enemies just feet from where his tomb stands today. Could it be a violent spirit that likes to scratch and bruise those foolish enough to venture too close? There are plenty of photos that might be considered evidence of this notion. Is it a demon? The tales of individuals being possessed might say yes to that… including every TV show out there. Or is it just hysteria surrounding a legend straight from “the most haunted cemetery in the world?” I suppose no one knows for sure, even if it is one of the most documented paranormal cases in recent history.
When I visited, I found an unassuming tomb surrounded by other tombs that had been vandalized over the years in a sea of tourists snapping pictures.
And I found that not just the Mackenzie Poltergeist, but Greyfriars Kirkyard as a whole, did nothing to overwhelm me.
Now, there’s no denying that Greyfriars is a must-see attraction on any tour of Edinburgh. But sadly, it seems as if that is what it has become: an attraction.
Tour groups flock to the hallowed grounds, clogging the paths. There’s a gift shop on-site, selling T-shirts, merchandise, and books all about the ghosts of Greyfriars. Harry Potter fans wander around dressed in their house colors or even wizard robes, snapping a selfie at the Riddell grave.
It could be because I had this image in my head of rows and rows of tombstones, disheveled from centuries of standing in the Scottish elements–an image that I’ve had in my head since I was a creepy little child. But I found Greyfriars Kirkyard to be overwhelmingly… underwhelming.
I started asking myself, “Why is this the spookiest cemetery in the world?” It didn’t look spooky, it didn’t feel haunted, and the crowds made it feel like a kitschy tourist attraction, rather than a 450-year-old cemetery (which by my American standards is pretty damn old).
I’d like to suggest a new nominee for the spookiest cemetery in Scotland (and perhaps one of the most memorable ones I’ve visited around the world):
The Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling.
This little churchyard is what 11-year-old Amanda envisioned Greyfriars to be. Nestled beneath Stirling Castle. Rolling hills of green. Graves and tombstones pointing every which way. Grave art that I’ve never seen anywhere else. And ghost stories. Lots and lots of ghost stories.
Granted, Stirling doesn’t have the fame that Edinburgh does. The notoriety surrounding Greyfriars overshadows any history or ghost stories coming from the Holy Rude’s churchyard. Nevertheless, the Holy Rude haunts me to this day, while Greyfriars continues to be a disappointment.
I won’t dissuade anyone from visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard. If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you’d be a fool to miss out on it, even if you’re just there to rub Greyfriars Bobby’s nose and peek inside the Mackenzie Mausoleum.
But I will encourage you to go beyond Edinburgh’s crowded streets and head south to Stirling. I will tell you to venture off the beaten path and explore the lesser-known cemeteries scattered throughout Scotland (and even in your own neck of the woods for that matter). I will implore you to create your own spooky adventure and not just go where the professional ghost hunters and tour guides tell you to go… much less believe what they tell you to believe.
Because if you simply do what you’re told and go where everyone else goes, I promise you, you’ll be disappointed.
Have you been to Greyfriars Kirkyard? Did you have an encounter with the Mackenzie Poltergeist? Do you believe the poltergeist is real? Let me know in the comments below!
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