Poltergeists are notoriously malevolent. Often, they are nameless entities bent on filling old homes with wickedness. But in the case of Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard, the famed “Mackenzie Poltergeist” may actually be the otherworldly extension of one profoundly evil man from 17th century Scotland.
Sir George Mackenzie was a well-rounded individual. On paper, he defined intelligence—not only as a lawyer and a writer, but as a government official. His education was the sum of time spent at the King’s College, University of Aberdeen, the University of St Andrews, and the University of Bourges in France. He was a member of the Scottish Parliament and a member of the Privy Council of Scotland.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In 1677, Mackenzie became Lord Advocate and served Charles II of England. His primary responsibility was to punish anyone who rejected the Church of England or refused to swear loyalty to Charles. Many of these dissidents were members of Scotland’s Presbyterian Covenanters. Originally, Scotland was to remain a Presbyterian country—as outlined in the National Covenant of 1638, which was adopted during the reign of King Charles I. Related: Edinburgh Castle: Scotland’s Haunted Fortress on the Hill
But Charles II refused to honor that agreement, and George Mackenzie set out to do the king’s dirty work. On June 22, 1679, Mackenzie rounded up approximately 1,200 Presbyterian Covenanters at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge and took them to Edinburgh. Because there were so many captives and such little space in which to house them, a makeshift prison was assembled in Greyfriars Kirkyard to incarcerate the remaining 400. It became known as Covenanters Prison.
During the winter, prisoners were subjected to inhumane treatment—including starvation, exposure to the harsh elements, and torture. Some prisoners were deported while others were executed and buried in Greyfriars. This state-sanctioned reign of terror was the direct handiwork of Mackenzie, who eventually became known as Bloody MacKenzie.
All told, Mackenzie was responsible for killing nearly 18,000 people during the eight-year period in Scottish history dubbed “The Killing Time.” Related: The Chilling, Tragic History of Tasmania’s Separate Prison
Mackenzie died at Westminster on May 8, 1691. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, not far from the site of his atrocities. His tomb, designed by architect James Smith, is known as the Black Mausoleum.
And 300 years after his death, the legend of the Mackenzie Poltergeist was born.
The story began when a homeless man staggered through Greyfriars in 1998, either looking for shelter or something to steal. He came upon Mackenzie’s tomb and burgled his way inside. While trying to pry open a casket, he fell through a hole in the floor to a burial pit, where he found himself among the rancid bones of plague victims from centuries past. The stench of death filled the man’s nose, and he ran off screaming into the night. Related: Burke and Hare: the Anatomy Murderers of Edinburgh
Not long after the late-night episode, two visitors to Greyfriars encountered an eerie presence at the tomb. The first claimed that a sudden blast of cold air pushed her back as she neared the mausoleum’s entrance. The second remembered next to nothing—instead, she was found unconscious near the mausoleum with choke-like bruises around her neck.
In the 20 years since word of the Mackenzie Poltergeist entered the mainstream, nearly 500 visitors have claimed to suffer mysterious assaults at Greyfriars. Many end up with bruises, burns, lacerations, or gouge marks. Others suffer blackouts or are overwhelmed by nausea. Still more report odd sounds, such as pounding or knocks.
An exorcism at the mausoleum was attempted in 2000 by Colin Grant, the minister of a spiritualist church. Grant said he felt the presence of hundreds of tormented souls—and most certainly the presence of evil. Eventually, he left Greyfriars in distress. A few weeks later, the minister was found dead of a heart attack.
Even to this day visitors on tours have reported being attacked or feeling extreme unease in or around the vault, with some even showing poltergeist symptoms such as scars and cuts on their bodies.
But, also to this day, it has enough strange goings-on to attract a steady stream of ghost hunters, wizarding fantasy fans (including fans of the Harry Potter franchise), and the television producers and writers who follow in their wake.