The Mackenzie Poltergeist Terrorizes Visitors in Greyfriars Cemetery – Here is the Dark History

The Mackenzie Poltergeist Terrorizes Visitors in Greyfriars Cemetery – Here is the Dark History

Natasha sheldon - October 9, 2018

Since the sixteenth century, Greyfriars cemetery has been the last resting place for the great and good in Edinburgh’s old town. The cemetery was once the rolling fields of a Franciscan monastery. Now, its ground swells to an unnatural height with the sheer numbers of bodies. Amongst those remains are James Hutton, the father of modern geometry, William McGonagall, the so-called ‘worst poet who ever lived” and 37 Chief magistrates and numerous other city officials. The Cemetery is also the last resting place of Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful Skye terrier who reputedly guarded his master’s grave in the cemetery until his death in 1872.

Each year, thousands of tourists flock to Greyfriars to visit these historic graves and listen to the stories of their occupants. They also come for the ghosts. For not all of Greyfriars history is pleasant- and nor were all of its occupants. However, since 1999, a southwestern corner of the graveyard has become known as “the scariest place on earth” because of a very particular haunting, one that leaves visitors with more than an eerie feeling but actual cuts and bruises. For this is the haunt of the so-called Mackenzie Poltergeist, who lurks around the eerily named Black Mausoleum and whose history is tied to the tragedy of the nearby Covenanter’s prison.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist Terrorizes Visitors in Greyfriars Cemetery – Here is the Dark History
A Conventicle Preacher before the Justices by Robert Inerarity Herdman, c1873-76. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The Covenanters

The Covenanters were a group of Presbyterian Protestants who first fell foul of the Stuart Dynasty in 1638. In 1637, King Charles I introduced the Book of Common Prayer in Scotland without consulting the Scottish people. Charles, like the Stuart monarchs before and after him, believed in the Divine Right of the Monarch to dictate the spiritual beliefs of their people. So, despite the general uproar caused by his imposition, he declared anyone who worshipped in opposition to his wishes would be committing treason.

Many Scots, however, despite being loyal to the King in worldly matters, believed that no man could act as the spiritual head of another. So, a number of the most determined embarked upon a deliberate campaign of religious resistance. In February 1638, an ever-growing number of Scottish Presbyterians began to gather in Greyfriars cemetery to sign what became known as the National Covenant where they swore loyalty to the King- but denied his right to dictate their religious beliefs. After several months, the Covenant had as many as 300,000 signatures.

There were repercussions. From the moment the Covenant was signed until the invasion of William of Orange in 1688, the Covenanters were to suffer increasing persecution. Initially, ministers with covenanting sympathies were driven from their parishes and covenanters who refused to worship in the local church were fined. However, the situation intensified after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Charles II had signed the National Covenant in the 1650’s to win Scottish support for his cause. However, once he was restored to the throne, he turned his back on the covenant. The Covenanters began to preach about the countryside in open defiance of this betrayal. And so, what became known as “The Killing Time” began.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist Terrorizes Visitors in Greyfriars Cemetery – Here is the Dark History
The Covenanter’s Prison in Greyfriars cemetery. Picture Credit: Kim Traynor. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Between 1661 and 1668, around 18,000 covenanters lost their lives in battle or because of persecution. Suspected covenanters were rounded up and imprisoned. Some were transported to America, and others were executed. Many others were killed defending themselves against government-sponsored forces deliberately raised to raid their homes. Pitched battles broke out between the two sides. In the aftermath of one such encounter, the Battle of Bothwell Brig in 1679, some 1,400 covenanters found themselves back where it all began: in Greyfriars Cemetary.

The prisoners were held in what became known as The Covenanters Prison. In reality, this was just an open area, fenced off with bars. Over a four-month period, some were tried and executed while others recanted and were freed. However, the majority of those imprisoned were left to die amongst the dead, from exposure and starvation. By November 1679, only 257 covenanters remained. These survivors were sentenced to transportation to the American colonies. However, their ship was wrecked off the Orkney Islands. By the end of the year, only 48 covenanters were left alive. For many, one man and one man alone was held responsible for the cruelty meted out to the Greyfriars Covenanters. That man was Sir George MacKenzie or “Bluidy Mackenzie.”

The Mackenzie Poltergeist Terrorizes Visitors in Greyfriars Cemetery – Here is the Dark History
George MacKenzie. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Sir George MacKenzie

Somewhat ironically, Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh began his career defending Covenanter’s, not persecuting them. As a young advocate of twenty-four, Mackenzie cut his teeth in court defending a leading Covenanter the Marquis of Argyll against a charge of treason. He managed to have the Marquis acquitted of the charge- even though his own letters later damned the unfortunate nobleman. This case was not Mackenzie’s only judicial foray on the Covenanter’s behalf. Five years later, he successfully freed the Presbyterian prisoners taken after the battle of Rullion Green. However, this support was not to last.

MacKenzie had taken on the covenanter’s cases to make a name for himself in the courts- not from any sense of fellow feeling. However, once he had established himself as an advocate, there was no need to show off his skills defending hopeless cases anymore. So, Mackenzie was free to switch his allegiances back to where he felt more politically and religiously more at home: to the King and established Scottish church. Mackenzie began by making speeches against covenanters, gradually escalating to outright persecution.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist Terrorizes Visitors in Greyfriars Cemetery – Here is the Dark History
Condemned Covenanters on Their Way to Execution in the West Bow, Edinburgh, by Thomas Allom. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Mackenzie’s canny move paid off. In 1677, he was appointed King’s Advocate for Charles II in Scotland. As such, Mackenzie was unstinting in his duty to hunt down and prosecute all Covenanters. He formed a partnership with Commander John Graham of Claverhouse, who rounded up the hapless dissenting Presbyterians and delivered them to Mackenzie who condemned them in court. It was Mackenzie who ordered the Covenanters be held in custody in Greyfriars cemetery, who sentenced five of their number to hang in the Grassmarket and who sent the majority of the rest to their doom in the transport to America.

Mackenzie, however eventually fell from grace. His descent began under James II of England/ VII Scotland when in 1686 he refused to abolish anti-catholic laws. However, it was well and truly finished off when William of Orange decided to rid himself of pro-Stuart clergymen in Scotland by handing religious control back to the Presbyterians MacKenzie had so enthusiastically persecuted. Mackenzie was forced to flee Scotland for England. He spent his last night in his homeland, amongst the graves of Greyfriars, mourning his fate.

However, Mackenzie returned to Greyfriars soon enough. In 1691 he died in Westminster, but his body returned over the border to Edinburgh, where it was buried in Greyfriars cemetery. Mackenzie’s last resting place was just meters from the location of the makeshift prison where so many of those he had persecuted died in misery and the spot where the national covenant was signed. His tomb, with its ornate dome and Corinthian columns, was perhaps the grandest in Greyfriars. It also quickly became one of the most notorious, earning the name, the Black Mausoleum.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist Terrorizes Visitors in Greyfriars Cemetery – Here is the Dark History
“The Mausoleum of Sir George Mackenzie, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.” Picture Credit: Kim Traynor. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Black Mausoleum

The Black Mausoleum long had a reputation for being haunted. Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh records show local children in the nineteenth century believed that MacKenzie could never rest in his grave. Those brave enough would enter the graveyard at night and approach the tomb. Then they would shout through its keyhole:

“Bluidy Mackenzie, come out if ye daur, Lift the Sneck and draw the bar!”

It seems that if he was indeed lying restless in his tomb that was just where Bluidy Mackenzie was happy to stay. Until one late night in 1998 changed everything.

It was a night of heavy rain, and a local homeless man was looking for a dry place to sleep. Driven by desperation, he found himself outside the Black Mausoleum. The tomb was locked as usual. However, the man decided to explore- and found a drainage hole or ventilation point at the back that he was able to squeeze through. Once inside, the man made his way down into the tomb’s crypt where he found the coffins of George Mackenzie and his family.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist Terrorizes Visitors in Greyfriars Cemetery – Here is the Dark History
The site of the Covenantors Prison, Greyfriars Church Yard. Picture Credit: Bill Henderson. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Wondering if there was something inside one of the coffins he could use or sell, the desperate man began to prize one open. However, he lost his balance and part of the floor gave way beneath him- plunging him into an earlier burial pit full of moldering skeletons. Hysterical with shock and terror, the homeless man fled the scene, frightening a local dog walker into the bargain with his sudden exit from the tomb. Just one week later, the disturbances around the Black Mausoleum began.

The first victim was a casual female visitor who stopped to look at the Black Mausoleum. Suddenly she felt “blasted back by a cold force.” Before long, other visitors were reporting similar incidents. Some fainted inexplicably or suddenly felt ill or experienced a sense of great unease. Others came away with marks of bites and scratches- even bruises around their faces and necks after feeling a ‘touch’ in the afflicted area. In all, there have been 500-recorded incidents of the poltergeist’s attacks around the area of the Black Mausoleum and the nearby Covenanters prison.

The poltergeist’s activity has even spread, wiping out the home and possessions of one researcher into the phenomenon whose flat backed onto Greyfriars Cemetery just behind the tomb. Many people believe that the Poltergeist is the revived spirit of Judge Mackenzie, roused from an uneasy rest by the desecration of his grave. Others think the activity is a manifestation of hysterical energy, triggered by that night in 1998 and fed by subsequent visitors. Whatever its cause, the Mackenzie poltergeist has undoubtedly put Greyfriars on the ghost seekers map of Edinburgh- and kept the tragic history of the Covenanters and George Mackenzie in the public eye.


Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

Edinburgh’s Most Haunted: Mackenzie Poltergeist, Gareth Edwards, Edinburgh Evening News, October 31, 2014

Who were the Covenanters? Scottish Covenanters Memorials Association.

Greyfriars Covenanters’ Prison, Scottish Covenanters Memorials Association.

Did You Know? – Covenanters, Rampant Scotland

The Ghost that Haunted Itself, Jan-Andrew Henderson, Mainstream Publishing 2001