28 Oct Edinburgh – a City Full of Spirits
As Halloween is creeping up on us, we thought we’d get into the ‘spirit’ and explore Edinburgh’s spooky, gruesome past. The city is renowned for its eerie side streets and gloomy castle that has overlooked the city from its vantage point on top of an old volcanic rock since the 12th Century. Tourists flock to the city from all over the world and the majority gird their loins and brave one of the numerous ghost tours. The city has its fair share of ghosts and many people have reported paranormal sightings.
Our first story is from hundreds of years ago when a network of tunnels was discovered under Edinburgh Castle. They seemed to lead to Holyrood Palace, the newer royal residence at the bottom of the Royal Mile. The entrance was so small that only a child could fit through. In order to discover where the tunnels were, a young boy was sent down with his bagpipes to investigate. He was instructed to play the pipes loudly as he walked the tunnels, so that those above ground could hear him and work out where the tunnels led to.
Somewhere near the Tron Kirk, a parish church on the Royal Mile, the sound of bagpipes suddenly ceased. Search parties were sent after the boy but they were unable to find any trace of him. He had disappeared. Convinced unnatural forces were at work, they blocked up the tunnel and the boy was never found.
However, the boy has been heard. To this day people still report hearing the faint, ghostly lament of bagpipes under Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile.
Next we meet the infamous serial killers Burke and Hare. They committed a series of at least 16 killings and grave robbings over a period of 10 months between 1827 and 1828, in order to sell the bodies to the medical school at Edinburgh University.
William Burke and William Hare came from the north of Ireland and moved to Scotland to work on the Union Canal. They became close friends when Burke moved with his mistress to Tanner’s Close in the West Port area, where Hare already lived. Hare ran a boarding house with a widower whom he called his wife, though they were never legally married.
The pair started selling bodies to the university on 29th November 1827, when one of Hare’s tenants died whilst still owing four pounds in rent. To cover his outstanding rent, they weighed down the coffin with bark before the man’s funeral, then took his body to the medical school and sold him for seven pounds and ten shillings. The ease of making money encouraged the two to find more dead bodies.
Shortly after one of the other tenants became ill. Burke and Hare became impatient waiting for him to die, so they took it upon themselves to help him along. They got him drunk on whiskey and then suffocated him. This became the pair’s favoured method of killing because it left the bodies unmarked and undamaged for the students who were later going to dissect them.
It was a successful and profitable enterprise, and the men became greedy. Burke and Hare lured people from Edinburgh’s poorest communities to the lodging house as they were less likely to be missed or recognised. The men were said to have killed 16 people, but the truth is probably much higher.
The killers were eventually turned in by their lodgers after their last victim was killed on Halloween. Hare was given a pardon for giving evidence during the trial, but Burke wasn’t so lucky. He was hanged and publicly dissected in front of a crowd of hundreds who gathered to watch. Burke’s skin was used to make a pocketbook which is now on display at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and a letter written in his blood is kept in the University’s archives.
After all this talk of murders and ghosts, it’s fortunate that Edinburgh has spirits of a different kind to give you courage to get through the night!