Literary Ghosts, Lost Souls and Faithful Hounds at Greyfriars Kirkyard

Blue Orb in Greyfriars Cemetery

It’s 9 o’clock on a summer Tuesday and the sun is just starting to set at Greyfriars. Long beams of golden light cut between the graves, illuminating the names of the long forgotten.  Are we in the company of spirits?

Blue orbs light up in my viewfinder, clear on one shot, gone on the next. I cannot say whether it’s a ghost or a trick of the late evening light. Perhaps it is a ghost, playing tricks with the light and my lens.

Portions of this post originally appeared on 

Greyfriars Kirkyard (cemetery) in Edinburgh is a world famous graveyard.  Behind the tall iron gates you can find poltergeists, tales of body snatchers and the real life inspiration for some of the characters in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The cemetery has been in use since the 1560s.

Entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars is one of the most haunted cemeteries in the world, according to paranormal experts.

On this summer night, Greyfriars doesn’t feel particularly haunted. Flowers are blooming everywhere Birds are singing. Tonight Greyfriars seems absolutely peaceful and beautiful. The only thing missing is a picnic. Wine and cheese in the cemetery? Why not?

The most famous ghost in residence at Greyfriars, is the Mackenzie poltergeist. His mausoleum, the “Black Mausoleum” is pictured below.

Over the past two decades, a number of violent episodes have been documented in and around this mausoleum.  It all began with an incident involving a homeless man who was squatting in the mausoleum, seeking to escape bad weather. After busting open a coffin, the ground suddenly opened up beneath the vagrant, and he was swallowed into a pit full  of bodies.  It turned out he had fallen into a mass grave, beneath Mackenzie’s. Like something out of a horror film, this grave beneath the grave, was full of plague victims. Their remains were still decomposing in the sealed chamber.

But it was a pair of local teenagers who stole the head of Mackenzie in a 2004 prank. They were apprehended and arrested while playing football in the cemetery.

Bluidy Mackenzie Mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirkyard

Mackenzie, aka “Bluidy” (Bloody) Mackenzie was famous for sending as many as 18,000 political prisoners to their death during “the killing time” in Scotland.

He is ironically buried right beside the former field that formed the prison yard where many of the prisoners were held. Many prisoners, including young boys, died because of the inhuman conditions in which they were held.

There are also rumors of many ghosts in the prison yard area as well. But Mackenzie’s mausoleum is at the epicenter of multiple stories of paranormal incidents.  Exorcisms have been performed at least twice. A noted exorcist died shortly after his attempts to clear the spirits.

Prisoners Field in Greyfriars

Many parts of the Greyfriars cemetery are gated to keep the living safe, and away from harm. They are opened only for special tours. Tours come with a warning, because supernatural “incidents” are so frequent.

Multiple people, strangers to each other before the experience,  have had unbelievable encounters together.  The most commonly reported cases involve scratching, bruising, and feeling as if they were being choked while visiting the cemetery.

Prisoners field in Greyfriars kirkyard

Many of the graves at Greyfriars cemetery were relocated from an earlier city cemetery beside the Cathedral of St Giles.

Nobody is sure how many thousands are buried at Greyfriars Kirkyard.  Many of the dead are unmarked, uncounted.

Headstones Greyfriars Kirkyard

The gravestones at Greyfriars list whole families and multiple generations. Every inch of space is claimed. The gravestones butt up right against the homes that surround the grounds.

Can you imagine your back window looking out onto the back side of a mausoleum or headstone?

Statue in Greyfriars Kirkyard


There’s a lot of colorful stories about Greyfriars. These include:

Tales of being buried alive at Greyfriars:

This is a cemetery where people were buried with a small bell attached to a thread that snaked into the coffin. With reason. Exhumed bodies have shown numerous people were buried alive here.

Greyfriars Kirkyard Statue

Greyfriars Bobby:

An unusually loyal Scottish Highland terrier is legend to this cemetery. He reportedly sat by his masters grave daily for over 12 years.  Graveyard dogs were often given scraps, and it is possible that this dog was really two or three similar looking strays that were being fed scraps there. But the story so captured the heart of the city that “Bobby” was given human rights, including the right to vote (before women could vote!).

Bobby’s  statue outside the cemetery draws crowds, who like to rub his nose for luck. A modern headstone placed more recently marks his burial site at the entrance to the kirkyard. His master is buried to the north.

Greyfriars Bobby Headstone

Body snatchers of Greyfriar:

Body snatchers were famously at work in this cemetery once upon a time,  stealing the corpses of the newly buried and selling them as cadavers to the local medical school. This was a frowned upon trade but no questions were asked, so great was the need for fresh cadavers to study. It became customary for families to install metal grates, if they could not afford an enclosed mausoleum, to keep the grave robbers away. This macabre history is part of what inspired Shelley’s “Frankenstein”.

Mausoleums in Greyfriars

Tom Riddle, Moody and McGonagal:

If you are a Potter fan, you will recognize these familiar names. They are amongst the names on the headstones here that inspired JK Rowling when she wrote the first Harry Potter novel. Greyfriars Kirkyard is just a block away from the Elephant House cafe where JK penned the first novel. Greyfriars is also said to be the inspiration for Godric’s Hollow, where Harry’s parents are buried.

Tom riddle's grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard

Greyfriars is just one of many haunted places to tour in Edinburgh. The vaults beneath the city are also famously haunted.

No matter what you believe, Edinburgh is a perfect place to take a walk on the edge of your comfort zone, explore local superstitions and immerse yourself in history.

memento mori greyfriars kirkyard