‘Spooky’ tourist attractions make me laugh and scary movies bore me. So why do old buildings in Scotland freak me out so much?
Halloween is coming up soon and it got me thinking about stuff that scares me, and to be honest I had a hard time coming up with anything. Now I’m not a tough guy, and nobody who knows me would ever call me a hard man. But that’s fine. I’m cool with it. Truth be told I walk in the opposite direction if I see a fight in the street and I instinctively recoil if I get caught in the middle of people having an argument. And if a drunken moron starts mouthing off in a pub you won’t see me for dust. But there’s a big difference between actually being scared of something and being a bit wary of it.
So while I wouldn’t step into the middle of a drunken football fight to break it up, I’m not exactly a complete wimp either. I know that if anyone was to have a go at my other half I’d step in and face a beating, and I’m fairly certain that if I saw a cat stuck up a tree I’d be climbing up there to save it (and I don’t even like cats).
So what actually scares me in my day-to-day life? Spiders? Nope. Heights? Nah. The dentist? Not really. Scary movies? Definitely not. It’s always confused me why people jump at something on a TV screen in the comfort of their own living room. Even as a child I used to laugh at Freddy Kreuger, and Jason Vorhees barely held enough interest to stop me rifling through the pages of the latest 2000AD. These days I watch Michael Myers stomping about in one of his absurd kill-fests and it barely raises an eyebrow, and Chucky’s exploits bore me rigid, although they do make me Chuckle (see what I did there?).
But there’s one thing that does give me the chills. One thing that sends a shiver up my spine and a squeaky bum in my underpants. Old buildings. Weird, dark, smelly, creepy, dank, creaky, spooky old buildings that look like they’ve come out of Stephen King’s worst nightmare. I hate them. I don’t know what it is but they freak me the hell out.
I think it’s the fact that they’re actually real, and unlike some stupid horror movie lots of them have had completely horrible things happen inside them in the past. Things like hangings and beheading and murders and torture and just the general kind of stuff that used to happen all the time years ago but we’re now completely clueless about in our safe, cosy, modern lives. But I guess that’s the whole point about events that happened in the past, we have to use our imaginations, and our imaginations are the ultimate virtual reality experience.
I probably haven’t helped myself by moving to Scotland, a country with more creepy old buildings than anywhere else I’ve ever visited in the world. Every town and village in Scotland seems to have either a gothic church or graveyard or a weird old castle that you know, just know, had an absolutely horrific occurrence at some point in its history. And not only did I move to Scotland, but I moved to Edinburgh, a city with more gruesome murders and executions concealed in its dark closes and wynds than any city has a right to have. I mean seriously, have you ever walked down the Royal Mile late at night and caught a shadow moving in one of the alleyways that lead off it? Forget the Nightmare on Elm Street because the Nightmare on The High Street is where the scares are really at.
So anyway, instead of me wittering on about how Scotland’s old buildings successfully manage to turn my tighty whities into tighty brownies, I thought I’d show you some of the spookiest Scottish haunts that you might like to visit for yourself, especially if you’ve got a fascination with history like I have. The list below features a few sites that are interesting not just because they’re old, but because they’ve got a ghastly history hidden beneath their creaky floorboards. I invite you to come and explore them all. Just remember to bring a spare pair of undies with you.
The Edinburgh Vaults
Let’s start off with a place that arguably has the most horrific history of any place in Scotland, the vaults in Edinburgh. If you’ve not heard of the vaults before, they’re basically a series of underground chambers beneath the modern-day city streets that once housed entire families of Edinburgh’s poorest residents in unimaginably bad conditions.
The story of the vaults begins with the building of the South Bridge in 1785, which was built to link the High Street of the Old Town with the university buildings on the south side of the city by spanning the 1000 foot long chasm that separated them. If you’ve already visited Edinburgh then you might know that the South Bridge is an impressive example of Georgian engineering consisting of nineteen stone arches rising 31 feet above the ground with shops lining the street on either side. And shops on the South Bridge are nothing new. Shortly after it was built, businessmen opened trading booths along the top of the bridge to make the most of passing trade, and the arches beneath the bridge were converted into a series of workshops and storage rooms for the shops above.
Unfortunately, as time passed these underground chambers became part-flooded and fell into disrepair so the shop-keepers moved out, at which time the poorest residents of Edinburgh began to move in. Beggars, the poverty-stricken, thieves and body-snatchers all moved into these forgotten vaults and lived in conditions that must have been unbearable. There would have been hardly any light, no heat, very little fresh air and absolutely no sanitation, and yet entire families had no option but to live out their lives in the slowly flooding rooms under the bridge.
As conditions inside the vaults worsened the behaviour of the criminal elements got worse, and it didn’t take long for rape, murder and muggings to become part of the fabric of the day-to-day life of the unfortunate souls living in the vaults. Eventually, after nearly three decades of squalor, the Edinburgh vaults were sealed up by the city councillors and were all but forgotten about for the next 180 years until a chance excavation unearthed them in the 1980’s. What the historians found was a labyrinth network of rooms where everyday objects including ceramic jars, pots, plates and even children’s toys were strewn about just as they’d been hurriedly abandoned all those years ago.
In the intervening years the vaults were opened up the public, and it wasn’t long before ghostly activities were reported by many of the visitors who dared to step foot beneath the streets of modern-day Edinburgh. Some people hear disembodied voices calling out to them, while others say they’ve seen full-body apparitions walking through the vaults. Others report being stalked by a man wearing heavy boots who throws rocks at them, and yet others say they’ve had their hands gripped by the ghost of a young boy as they were exploring the old abandoned wine cellar. There’s even a chamber that’s believed to have been used for decades by a satanic cult, and the story goes that a woman was brutally sacrificed in the middle of the chamber after the cultists had spent days torturing her. Gruesome stuff.
If you want to get down there and explore the vaults for yourself I can thoroughly recommend Mercat Tours who run regular underground tours where you’ll be shown around by an experienced and knowledgeable guide, either as part of a history tour or one that concentrates on the ghostly tales that have led to the vaults being named the most haunted place in Scotland. The ghost tour is brilliant and genuinely creepy, although I’d recommend going when it’s dark outside to really get into the whole paranormal atmosphere. Just make sure you’ve got someone’s hand to hold while you’re down there in case a ghostly child tries to grab it first.
If you ever find the time to venture past the boundary of Edinburgh while you’re visiting us I highly recommend you take a journey to the nearby Rosslyn Chapel. This stunning chapel has its origins dating back to 1446, and it’s been famous for a long time due to the ornate stone carvings that seem to cover every square inch of its walls. The mysterious symbolism of these carvings has led to many theories as to their meaning, with interest in Rosslyn exploding since it was featured in the movie The Davinci Code. Now I’ll admit that this is one site in Scotland that’s more beautiful than scary, but the fact that there are so many outlandish theories as to what the stone carvings actually represent, and the fact that no-one can disprove them, makes Rosslyn Chapel one of the strangest places in Scotland in my opinion.
For instance, take the Apprentice Pillar. This is an impressive stone pillar that stands at the core of the chapel which has ornate carvings that are more intricate than those in many other parts of the building. The story behind the pillar goes that while the master mason was in Rome looking for inspiration for the design of the unfinished chapel, his apprentice was busy at work creating his own designs on the pillar. You would think that the master mason would have been pleased with his protegés work, but no. Instead, when he returned from his overseas trip the master mason became so enraged with jealousy at the quality of the pillar’s craftsmanship that he beat his junior to a bloody pulp.
Strangely, there’s a carving of a young man with a vicious cut on his head engraved elsewhere in the chapel. Was this made to commemorate the poor apprentice? Another peculiar thing about the Apprentice Pillar is that the vines twirling around it look uncannily like the helix of a DNA strand. Was a representation of the core of all life carved into the core of Rosslyn Chapel 500 years before modern scientists discovered it?
And even stranger is the carving of stalks of corn around one of the windows. There’s nothing interesting about stalks of corn you might think. Except that corn was an unknown crop in Scotland at the time the chapel was built, and in fact it wasn’t known to Europeans at all until Christopher Columbus discovered America some 50 years after the chapel had been completed. So who carved them into the stonework around the window?
And even all this is insignificant to the secret that’s supposedly buried deep beneath the grounds of Rosslyn Chapel. There’s a legend that says that the Knights Templar, the sect of holy warriors who were founded by the Catholic Church in 1119, found the holy grail inside Solomons Temple while they were in the middle east during the crusades. While no-one knows what the grail actually is, we do know that shortly after this event supposedly occurred the Knights Templar suddenly became incredibly powerful, so powerful that the king of France outlawed them out of fear.
In turn, many Templars fled to Scotland where they set up properties not far from Rosslyn, and from that time stories of a secret relic hidden beneath the chapel have surrounded the building. A preposterous theory perhaps, except that there are numerous carvings of Templar Knights engraved throughout the chapel walls, along with carvings of Freemason symbology (the Freemasons and Templars reputedly had close ties). Not what you’d expect to find in a Christian building at a time that was fiercely religious.
You can visit Rosslyn Chapel by car or public transport, but if you’re not happy with making your own way there you can also get a guided tour from Edinburgh with Rabbies Tours. These guys specialise in small groups of no more than 16 people and they offer fun and informative tours for a reasonable price.
Did you know that Stirling Castle was once the most powerful fortification in all of Scotland, even more so than Edinburgh Castle? Most people don’t, and if you’re a tourist visiting Scotland you really should take a journey to Stirling to explore this incredible historic building.
The castle sits proudly on top of Castle Hill, the enormous geological formation that can be seen from all directions in this lovely part of the Stirlingshire countryside, and over the years it has served the nation both as a defensive military position and as a royal palace. Robert the Bruce liberated the castle from the English in 1299, and Mary Queen of Scots was Crowned there in 1542, so it has plenty of history contained in its walls, although not all of it is pleasant.
One sorry tale concerns Queen Mary and one of her servant girls. In 1562, The Queen of Scots returned to Scotland after spending nearly two decades in France and took up residence in Stirling Castle, where she was waited on by a number of servants. One of these was known to be a Highland girl who was believed to be gifted with the power of foretelling the future. The girl told Mary that she had a premonition that if the Queen was to spend a single night in the castle she would die, so after begging Mary to let her keep watch she fell asleep in the corner of Mary’s bedroom.
The girl woke up several hours later to find the bedchamber a raging inferno, likely caused by the naked flames of the candles that had been lit in Mary’s room. As the flames burned through the girl’s emerald-coloured dress she managed to pick up the unconscious queen and carry her to safety, but not before suffering terrible burns in the process.
While it’s a recorded fact that Mary recovered with barely an injury, the poor servant girl was so badly burned that she died shortly afterwards in agony. And ever since that fateful day there have been frequent reports of a ghostly female figure dressed in green roaming through the castle’s corridors, and the legend goes that whoever sees her quickly succumbs to a tragedy involving doom, despair and death.
If that’s not enough to put you off castles for life perhaps this snippet of information will. While exploring Stirling Castle, several tourists have reported seeing a man dressed in full Highland garb walking around in the shadows. As he’s so elaborately dressed most visitors guess he’s a tour guide so they wander over to talk to him. Rather pant-soilingly though, the Highlander simply turns in the other direction and walks away, before completely vanishing into thin air. I don’t know about you, but if I saw that in one of the quiet corners of Stirling Castle I’d be shrieking like a five-year-old girl.
Skaill House is one location in Scotland that I can put money on most tourists haven’t heard of. But if you’ve got any interest in the paranormal then I bet Skaill House is somewhere near the top of your list of spooky Scottish destinations to visit.
This Orkney manor house was built in 1620 not far from the stone-age village of Skara Brae, and it’s had more reports of weird events than any other building I know of. Originally built as the home to Bishop George Graham, it has been extensively altered over the years and has served as the family home to several Orkney Lairds, although today it’s open to public viewing.
While some people hide skeletons in their closets, this building prefers to hide them under its floorboards, and I’m talking actual skeletons here, not the metaphoric kind. And there’s not just one down there either. During the preparation of Skaill House for its first public viewing, fifteen skeletons were discovered near the south wing and under the gravel of the east porch, and radiocarbon analysis showed them to be of Norse origin. It’s known that are a lot of Viking influences in Orkney, and even the word Skaill is an old Norse word for great hall, but could the disturbed bodies of Viking warriors be to blame for the strange events that have been reported?
Doors are known to open and close by themselves at all times of the day. Weird smells are often reported (I suspect the visitor’s dogs are to blame for that one…), and Scottish ‘members of staff’ have been spoken to by tourists when it was later confirmed that no-one was actually on duty.
There have been reports by staff members of sightings of a tall man with dark hair in the shop who disappears when they go to investigate, and even the current Laird has heard loud footsteps in the corridor when the corridor was empty. And overnight guests have reported feeling the weight of a person sitting down on the edge of their bed, only to feel the weight shift when they go to turn the bedside light on.
All that’s creepy enough in itself, but there’s also the mad story of Ubby.
Ubby was a man who long ago had constructed an island in the nearby loch by repeatedly rowing out into the middle of it and throwing stones into the centre. He must have done this hundreds of times because he eventually created his own small island, high enough above the waves that he could sit on it. Ubby obviously loved this little mound of stones in the middle of Skaill loch because in his later years he chose to row out there and die on it, and his restless spirit is believed to have remained near the site ever since.
Dogs especially seem to sense his spirit and there has been more than one visitor who has complained that their dogs get restless and upset in the manor house, and some get so upset that they end up cowering under the furniture (the dogs that is, not the owners).
Whatever’s really going on at Skaill House is still to be understood, although maybe it will never be. Ghostly spirits or not, this is one old Scottish building that definitely deserves its place in this list.
Dunrobin Castle can be found in the village of Golspie in Sutherland, usually surrounded by busloads of tour coaches as it’s one of the loveliest old castles in all of Scotland.
Built in the style of a French château, the castle dates back to 1275 and much of the building has been slowly extended over the last 700 years, with the impressive Scottish Baronial frontage not added until the mid-19th-century. Remarkably, this fortified house has been called home to the same family (the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland), since the 13th-century.
Dunrobin Castle wasn’t always as glamorous looking as it is now though. In fact when it was originally built it was more of a fortified square keep, with walls six feet thick sitting perched on top of a cliff-top look-out position to protect the inhabitants from their enemies. I really don’t think we modern folk can imagine how dangerous life must have been back then for the citizens of Scotland when they had to barricade themselves behind thick stone walls at night. What on earth must it have been like for the average family?
Although this isn’t exactly a creepy building on the outside it has a real maze of rooms on the inside in which visitors can only imagine the stories that must have played out throughout the centuries. And of course, the fact that it’s so old means that it has its own resident ghost. And unlike many unknown ghosts in other castles, we know exactly who the Dunrobin ghost is.
In the 17th-century the Earl of Sutherland was at the height of his power and influence, and among his children was a beautiful young girl called Margaret. It was believed that young Margaret had fallen deeply in love with one of her stablehands, a young man known as Jamie Gunn, in an illicit affair that would have been devastating to the Sutherland family if it ever became public knowledge. Sadly for the young couple they were reported to the Earl by one of his house staff, and enraged that his daughter was courting a man far below her social status the Earl threw his daughter into the attic of the Castle where he intended to keep her until he had found her a more suitable partner.
Margaret, however, was having none of it, and with the help of her maid she fashioned a makeshift rope out of bedclothes and snuck out the window hoping to meet Jamie at the bottom of the castle where they could escape together on one of her father’s horses. Unfortunately, just as Margaret was climbing down the rope her father found her, and the story goes that he either cut the rope out of fury or she let go in fear, but whatever the reality is the poor girl fell from the upper level of the castle to her death on the rocks below.
Ever since that fateful day Margaret has been frequently heard by staff and visitors in the upper floors of Dunrobin Castle wailing uncontrollably for the life of happiness she missed out on with her stablehand lover, while psychic investigators have reported sensing a feeling of unimaginable loss on the castle’s upper floors. It’s certainly strange to think that such a beautiful building could have been the setting for such a tragic event.
Ok, so this spooky place isn’t exactly a building, but it surrounds a building (actually one of the most famous buildings in Edinburgh), and its got a horribly dark history full of murder, persecution and torture. So in my mind it deserves a place in this list of creepy places to visit in Scotland, and if you’re a fan of ghost stories you’ll be glad I included it.
Everyone knows the story of wee Bobby, the loyal Scots Terrier who lay by his owner’s grave for 14 years after he died (read my Bobby guide for more info), but perhaps not so many people know the story of the kirkyard (Scots for graveyard) where Bobby’s owner was laid to rest.
The site where Greyfriars is now located was actually used as a Franciscan friary in medieval times, with no graveyard was attached to it. However, due to the overpowering smell of the decaying deceased in cramped Edinburgh’s Old Town in the 16th-century, it was agreed that a new location was needed to bury the dead. Building works started on the main section of the kirk in 1602, but it wasn’t until 1620 that it was finally completed, with the building that we see today having to be renovated several times after suffering the occasional accidental demolition with gunpowder and fire.
Many notable Edinburgh residents were buried in Greyfriars over the course of its history, including the Lord Advocate Sir George Mackenzie, the poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre, Admiral Sir Charles Douglas and the artist Sir John Medina. And it would seem that Sir George Mackenzie loves the place so much that he’s not content to just sit in his coffin, preferring instead to terrify Edinburgh’s residents above ground.
Mackenzie was known as a ruthless persecutor of the Covenanters during his time in office. The Covenanters were a zealous religious movement in the 17th-century who were repeatedly defeated in several battles with government forces, and after a failed anti-government revolution in 1679 an estimated 1200 Covenanters were locked inside a freezing-cold mausoleum inside Greyfriars kirkyard as punishment. The conditions were terrible for the prisoners. Not only were they kept in a tiny overcrowded space during the bitter cold Scottish winter, but they had hardly any food or water, and of the 1200 people who went into the makeshift prison only 275 came back out alive.
Whether Mackenzie felt tortured by guilt over the treatment of the Covenanter prisoners we’ll never know, but mysterious events have surrounded the kirkyard ever since. Over the years more than 450 tourists have reported walking out of his gravesite with bruises, burns and scratches mysteriously appearing all over their bodies, while another 140 have suddenly collapsed while exploring the ghostly tomb. Even worse, the ghost of Mackenzie has been seen to walk amongst the gravestones late at night and has been reported to have broken some of the bones of the visitors who were caught by him (although why anyone would want to hang around at night in what is widely recognised as one of the most haunted graveyards in the world is beyond me). There has even been a death attributed to the ghost of Mackenzie, when a local psychic attempting to make contact with the spirit had a sudden heart attack shortly after.
Greyfriars is definitely worthy of a visit if you’re interested in the legend of Bobby, but if you take the time to walk around the kirk take a little extra time to wander around the kirkyard as well. But be careful. You just never know who you might bump into.
Read my guide to learn more about Greyfriars Kirk and kirkyard.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into some of the dastardly deeds and ghostly goings-on that have occurred in these historic Scottish attractions, and I sincerely hope it hasn’t put you off coming to visit us in the future. To be honest, this list really is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to spooky places to visit in Scotland and I’m sure I could rattle off another hundred if I put my mind to it, but that’s way too much content to put in one article.
So that being said I’m going to add new articles about creepy places to visit in the near future, and hopefully they’ll give you some inspiration for getting out and about in Scotland and exploring some of the incredible history and landscapes that we’ve got here. Please check back often for new posts, or join the email list to be the first to hear about new Scottish tourist attraction information.
Thanks for reading.