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GREYFRIARS CHURCHYARD: And the Mackenzie Poltergeist

by Brian Allan (c) 2000, Revised 2003


1st Visit

DATE Sunday March 5th 2000,
TIME 10.00hrs (Sun.)
LOCATION Greyfriars Kirk and Covenanters Prison
PERSONNEL. Brian Allan, Anne Marie Sneddon
Jim Lochhead (mediums) Alison Gray, ('The Scotsman,' Reporter,) Forbes McPhail, (Presenter, BBC Radio Scotland)

EQUIPMENT. TriField meter, Video camera, 35mm cameras

2nd Visit

DATE Thurs. 6th April 2000
TIME 14.00 Hrs
LOCATION Greyfriars Kirk And Covenanters Prison
PERSONNEL Brian Allan (SPI) Anne Marie Sneddon
& Jim Lochead, (mediums), BBC film crew, plus
Toyah Wilcox, TV Presenter

EQUIPMENT TriField meter, tape recorder & 35mm cameras


Over the decades here have been many accounts of bizarre and unusual sightings in the grounds of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, but recently these have centred round reports citing the presence of 'evil spirits'. According to those involved, there have been poltergeist type attacks on upwards of fifty visitors within the churchyard, particularly in the grim confines of the Covenanters Prison. One of the alleged evil spirits is the so-called Mackenzie Poltergeist that has allegedly physically assaulted people visiting the Covenanters Prison during late night conducted 'ghost walks' There are several possible explanations for what has occurred and is occurring in the confines of the Covenanters Prison and the surrounding. These include everything from genuine psychic events to the deliberate exploitation of emotions by unscrupulous commercial tour operators. However, there are also unusual but natural environmental phenomena that may contribute to the happenings and they are all examined here. It is up to the reader to decide whether the events described are genuine paranormal phenomena, the action of unusual external factors or simply the results of calculated manipulation combined with genuinely eerie surroundings

History and Background

Historically, the term 'Covenanter' applied to Scots Presbyterians who rejected the ecclesiastical modernisation's of King Charles I of England. This took the Episcopalian view that various changes in religious practise should be imposed within the church and a hierarchy of bishops should govern. Ultimately this precipitated the anti-covenanter 'Bishops Wars,' which proved financially disastrous for Charles I and culminated in the English Civil War in which a Covenanter army fought. Following the restoration of the Monarchy in1660, due to their religious/political stance, the Covenanters began a period of martyrdom. The crown declared the covenant illegal and for the next 25 years the signatories suffered brutal persecution. Attempts to restore their religious beliefs resulted in three rebellions in 1666,1679 and 1685, all of which were viciously suppressed. The prison itself dates from 1679, when some 1200 Covenanters were imprisoned within the churchyard awaiting trial. The recent 'attacks' have caused the people affected to be pushed, bumped and sometimes hurled to the ground, in twelve cases the victims were allegedly knocked unconscious. The supposed assaults are frequently attributed to the restless, malevolent spirit of a ruthless 17th century Lord Advocate, George MacKenzie, also known as 'Bloody Mackenzie,' who's earthly remains ironically lie within a vault just outwith the black, wrought iron gates of the Covenanters Prison. MacKenzie's fearsome reputation was richly deserved, known as a hanging judge he took particular delight in consigning dozens of Covenanters to the gallows.

The Present

The paranormal activity reported within Greyfriars Cemetery and the Covenanters Prison is not a recent event, the churchyard has been the scene of alleged psychic phenomena over several centuries, some witnessed by more than one person. Perhaps the term 'Covenanters Prison' gives a slightly misleading picture of the area, conjuring up the impression of a vast gloomy edifice. In fact, the 'prison' is an open, narrow, rectangular area, which, although slightly smaller than it was previously, is still around 100 meters long and perhaps 12 meters wide. For its entire length it is lined on both sides with tombs and vaults, most of them open to the elements. Only three have a roof and a barred door: one of them is left open and the other two, one of which is the scene of the alleged attacks, are locked. We were soon to learn that the scene of the alleged psychic assaults was also the site of other, much older abominations.

One of the victims, college lecturer Amanda Hamilton of Portobello, experienced feelings of suffocation as if a hand had been placed over her face. She also claimed to have been left with large bruises on her neck and face. Ms. Hamilton had been taking part in a guided tour of the area (one of the many 'ghost walks' for which Edinburgh is well known), when abruptly she felt dizzy, found it difficult to breathe and passed out. Regaining consciousness she found herself sitting on the ground; other people on the tour helped her to her feet and asked if she was OK. According to Ms. Hamilton, she would not re-enter the churchyard again. The tour guide, Mr. Jan Andrew Henderson, proprietor of 'City of the Dead Tours', claims that this type of incident occurs on an average of once a month, the usual outcome being cuts and bruises. Interestingly, in some instances the marks do not appear until the next day. I have to say that having attended similar tours the guide is not above hyping the already charged atmosphere for dramatic affect. This is certainly true on tours of the so-called 'Underground City' vaults in Niddrie Street off the Royal Mile, which deliberately include considerable gory and atmospheric detail.

A spiritualist minister, the late Rev. Colin Grant, made a recent attempt to 'exorcise' or 'cleanse' the area after allegedly contacting the spirits of hundreds of men in the prison. Mr. Grant is reported to have attempted the cleansing armed with the traditional weapons of bible and crucifix. At his first attempt, evidently fearing reprisals from the spirits, he refused to proceed beyond the gates. However, he did return at a later date but was unable to make contact with the spirit of MacKenzie, it unclear if he succeeded in cleansing the other spirits. Sadly, Mr.Grant, who suffered from a heart condition, passed away recently while conducting a seance at his premises in Edinburgh, much to the consternation of the client.

Permission to proceed with the project was obtained from Mr. George Bell at Edinburgh City Council. He advised me to contact the churchyard visitor centre informing them of our intention, I did this and after some clarification they were agreeable. As is often the case in situations such as this, expectations can run high at the prospect of gleaning some scrap of evidence, some shred of proof one way or another concerning the afterlife. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, the spiritual aspect is usually the most difficult to quantify since we have to rely almost entirely on the subjective impressions of the mediums involved. It is sometimes possible that the mediums can amplify what they perceive as 'spirit energy' and allow us to interface with it. This, although a remarkable and quite unique sensation, is still subjective and open to various interpretations and limitations

Technical Considerations

It is worth making clear from the outset that there is more than one explanation for all these claimed phenomena. Apart from the influence of the spirit world, possible causes range from neurological conditions and hysteria to externally induced electro-magnetic fields. As a precursor to the investigation, I contacted the 'British Geological Survey' (BGS) at Murchison House in Edinburgh requesting information on the rock formations below the area. There are two valid, non-spiritual, possibilities here. Either there are (A) electromagnetic (EM) fields created by the action of micro tremors on the underlying rock formations interacting with sensitive people, or (B), there are low frequency terrestrial standing waves of around 5 to 7Hz, which can induce blurred vision, nausea, disorientation and in extreme cases, loss of consciousness. If this is the case, then hopefully these unusual, but naturally occurring phenomena may present an explanation for the bizarre happenings. If not, then our psychic colleagues may be able to shed some light on these otherwise inexplicable goings on. Whatever the cause, hopefully we can clarify the situation once we have concluded our evaluation.

The reply from the BGS showed that the ground beneath the Kirkyard consists of mudstone turning to sandstone at about 300 ft. According to the information, if the pores of the sandstone were to become saturated with mineral electrolytes, this would in effect create tens of thousands of tiny batteries. Given the right conditions, a micro-tremor perhaps, the stored energy could be discharged creating a short-lived electrical field above the ground. This could affect a sensitive person by causing a tiny seizure in the temporal lobe of their brain. These seizures appear to run in distinct patterns where the people affected experience the same or similar images. It is rather as if the 'hard wired' responses in the human brain are common throughout all races and when triggered produce similar images, although social and cultural mores may produce some variations and it was our intention to test this theory using a magnetometer. On the other hand, if the meter detected nothing, then hopefully our psychic colleagues could help supply the answers

The First Visit

We finally set a date for March the 5th to begin the investigation and prepared accordingly. Arriving at the cemetery we were met by council employee, Mr Stuart Feighan, who unlocked the prison gates for us. It is normally kept locked because Edinburgh, in common with other large cities, has problems with vagrants, the homeless and people suffering from drink and drug related problems and the rudimentary shelter afforded by the old tombs is better than nothing. Taking Stuart to one side, I asked him to indicate where the most 'active' area seemed to be. This proved to be one of the tombs sited on the left-hand side of the prison looking from the entrance. Once I had rejoined the group and we had access to the prison area we entered, locking the gate behind us. Journalist Alison Gray and a photographer from 'The Scotsman', plus Forbes McFall, a presenter from Radio Scotland, had joined our party, which consisted of Anne Marie Sneddon, Jim Lochhead, and myself. These agencies had expressed an interest in covering the project, which was convenient as it allows us to convey our findings to a wider audience hopefully promoting a better understanding of the phenomena.

As the mediums strolled around the area, I began taking readings of the local magnetic field strengths. I was disappointed to find no deflection at all on the meter even in its most sensitive stetting. Moving slowly down towards the bottom of the enclosure I noticed that there was some movement from the indicator. Although just off zero, there was an almost imperceptible increase in the strength of the local magnetic field. When I reached the rest of the group, Anne Marie had sensed the presence of a man standing beside the entrance to one of the vaults. I moved over and surveyed the area with the meter; there was a definite increase in the reading. Entering the tomb, I noticed a steady field reading; Anne Marie said that she sensed a more powerful energy on the other side of the wall. I moved round and to my excitement the meter indicated a higher reading than before. Returning to the group the psychics suggested that I try some measurements where they sensed more energy, once again the meter responded positively. I laid the instrument on a low wall beside us adjacent to the energy field; it maintained a steady (low) indication of 1mG, (milligauss). This was by no means a strong field, but nevertheless it was an encouraging sign. The mediums offered to intensify the field. They both stood quietly, Anne Marie extended her right hand, holding it about 12 inches above the meter and Jim extended his, stopping just above Anne Marie's. Almost as one, they closed their eyes and bowed their heads in concentration. Incredibly, the indication on the meter increased slowly, settling at 1.5 mG. They gradually decreased the 'energy field' intensity and the indication fell back to the previous reading. Then astonishingly they proceeded to do exactly the same thing again, once was perhaps a coincidence, but twice and on request is something else.

We were thrilled by this development, at last we appeared to have a visible form of direct interaction between the mediums and whatever local anomaly was present. I cannot state with any certainty what the exact nature of this field is, except that it registered on the 0-3mG scale of the meter, therefore by inference it is electro-magnetic in nature. Still discussing this, we crossed to another open tomb at the bottom of the prison; again there was a clear, steady reading of 1mG on the meter. Anne Marie mentioned that there were spirits moving around us displeased that we were there. As she said this, the indicator needle abruptly shot fully upscale and dropped immediately back to its former reading. While this may have also been a co-incidence, I do not believe so; the meter had registered a transient reading, an anomalous 'spike' in the local magnetic field.

We wandered slowly back towards the gate, closer to the affected tomb; I looked back towards the group. Anne Marie made to enter one of the tombs lining the walls; suddenly she staggered back and beckoned to me. "Quickly, here, take a reading here" she said indicating the tomb and I hurried towards them. I entered slowly, the meter held in front of me as if it would ward off whatever was present. Sounding slightly breathless, Anne Marie said "It pushed me back out of the doorway, its really annoyed at us being here". To my disappointment there was nothing measurable there, no reading at all, the mediums both suggested that we try sensing the energy with our bodies, still nothing. We left this open vault and carried on towards the gate and the tomb. As we entered I felt an air of expectation, but examining the meter I found nothing, totally flat, not even a background reading, which could in itself be significant.

The mediums could both 'see' a child, a young boy, standing in the doorway watching us. Anne Marie shuddered, her nose wrinkled in disgust and she glanced at her partner Jim, "The smell is appalling, its like rotten meat, filth and offal, there's something not right in here", Jim agreed that he too could smell the fetid stench. My colleagues and I could detect nothing which was probably just as well, but the psychics could smell death and corruption, the smell of the Covenanters prison itself, but there was more. The mediums were convinced that bizarre ceremonies had been held here in the covered tomb, perhaps witchcraft, but more likely the black mass and Satanic Rituals. This comes as no surprise, Edinburgh, like a surprising number of tows and cities, has practising covens, usually they are based on Wiccan teachings and relatively harmless, but sometimes they are not. When Wicca decides to display its darker side, then Satanism is its twin brother, its darker sibling. Unless run with a strong degree of discipline, a coven can easily tip over the edge, sliding into the pit of devil worship. This can be for a variety of reasons, revenge, money, power and sex, often a combination of all of them and the results are seldom pleasant. Although it was cold and windy outside we exited the tomb it was still preferable to the dank surroundings of the tomb. Evidently the some of the local 'street people' do not find the ambience too off putting, as there were still a few (empty) cans of beer etc. against the walls.
Another find in one of the tombs opposite was viewed with an equal mixture of fascination and horror, there was what appeared to be a human thighbone lying in a corner amongst the dead leaves. No one wish to touch it, but the round ball of the hip joint could be easily seen, while I am no expert on anatomy the bone looked human enough to me, and we all exited the prison considerably more quickly than we entered. This evidently is a problem in old cemeteries where natural forces tend to bring remains to the surface; in Greyfriars, due to overcrowding the area with the dead in times past it is a frequent event, the remains are usually re-interred by the attendants.

Second Visit

At the request of BBC television, we had occasion to visit the churchyard and prison once more, this proved rather more unsettling for us. Our first visit had generated considerable interest from various media groups; one of these was BBC TV, who asked us to recreate our earlier visit for the Sunday morning programme 'Heaven and Earth'. We returned on Thursday 6th of April where me met the production team, and after an interview we re-entered the prison. We approached the tomb and opened the heavy, iron gate revealing the dark interior, I entered closely followed by the presenter Toyah Wilcox, the spring sunlight cut bright slices through the dusty atmosphere, the rest of the party, eight in number filed in and stood in silence. The mediums were clearly uneasy, I quickly became aware of nausea sweeping over me and I felt dizzy, almost as if I was outside my body. My colleague glanced at me and leaned against a wall, a grim expression on his face, he told me that he too felt very dizzy and squeamish. I left the group in the tomb and went outside into the bright sunshine, the nausea continued. A few moments later the rest of the group joined me. The mediums looked pale and particularly ill at ease, I did not have to be told, that there was indeed clearly something 'not quite right' about the tomb. Although the TriField meter did not detect any anomalous magnetic readings, it was regrettable that we did not have equipment to measure for low frequency sound waves. Curiously, the presenter, the director and the camera crew were not affected, only the mediums and myself. It is the considered opinion of the psychics, Anne Marie and Jim, that a 'Lower Astral Entity' currently inhabiting the tomb is creating the problem. This entity has been drawn to the site because of the ceremonies and rituals that have been conducted within it, the mediums sensed that this had been during the late 1800's.

There is however another possible explanation, it may be that we are all slightly 'sensitised' through having been at several sites of alleged ghostly manifestations and poltergeist activity in a short space of time. This explanation is based of the theory of the relationship between electromagnetically sensitive people and unusual happenings. The theory posits that if certain people are exposed to magnetic fields they become 'sensitised' and can develop adverse physiological and psychological reactions to them. This theory has the virtue of plausibility, given that recently through our research we all fit this particular profile, particularly the psychics, Anne Marie and Jim who have the additional problem of continual exposure to a particularly strong magnetic field at their place of business.

This particular tomb is visited by the 'City of the Dead' tour during their visit to the 'haunts' of old Edinburgh and importantly, is where all the problems appear to originate. In the course of a conversation with Jan Henderson, who operates the City of The Dead tours on which the assaults have occurred, another two intriguing possibilities emerged. Jan felt that possibly some chemical changes were taking place within the tour groups. He suggested that when tour groups enter the tomb and became a little fearful; they unconsciously release either hormones or pheromones. Since they are in an enclosed area, the effect of these body chemicals becomes magnified and affects sensitive people causing some of them to become unconscious. It is also interesting and perhaps significant to note that the vast majority of these incidents occur on the tours led by Jan himself, at the time of writing eleven incidents have occurred on Jan's tours, only one on the tours led by his colleague. This has to be attributable to something other than chance; therefore it is possible that he is a factor in the enigma.

If this is the case, and it seems likely that it is, then the scope of the investigation will include Jan himself. Why he should act as a catalyst is at present unclear, nor does it explain other factors, e.g. why do some of the affected people only show signs of injury hours later and why were four of our party affected when he was not present. All the sensations we experienced within the tomb were entirely subjective; it appears that the interior of this grim building does affect certain people. Until all the environmental factors have been taken into consideration, it would be unwise to dismiss the reaction of visitors to the area as either imagination or hysteria.


While we did not achieve any especially dramatic results during this investigation, we did establish that the meter detected an anomalous change in the local magnetic field, which the mediums perceived as 'spiritual energy'. This of course inevitably leads to speculation regarding the nature of the interaction, there are three possibilities that spring to mind; 1) Was it a localised but naturally occurring field being amplified and physically manipulated by the talents of the psychics, or, 2) Did it emanate from the mediums as a form of resonance? And finally, 3) The only remaining possibility has to be that the spirits themselves are somehow inducing the small increases in the EM fields.

Although my own research favours the third option, following some enquiries it also appears that as I suspected, the tour guides play up the supernatural aspects and make a point of mentioning that several people have previously been 'attacked'. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if anyone on the tour is of a nervous disposition or suggestible they might react adversely within the confines of the mausoleum, this is of course the most obvious and convenient explanation of the events attributed to the malignant, Mackenzie Poltergeist.

This aside, the mediums did sense a series of presences, unpleasant and otherwise, in and around the prison and in several instances the magnetometer measured a real, physical variation. This was a genuine interaction with magnetic fields where individual presences were located and most importantly, the mediums later demonstrated this ability on demand in front of five witnesses. The demonstration was remarkable on several levels, not least because whatever this ability is, it manifests as an additional sense along with the traditional five human senses already present within the medium. Once more this leads to speculation regarding the nature of the ability since it does not appear to be entirely passive since it acts upon external objects, in this case a moving coil meter. Also unusual were the physical reactions I experienced inside the tomb, why the sudden overwhelming feeling of nausea and why did it quickly vanish once I moved outside? Was this an adverse reaction to energies released by the rituals carried out in side the burial chamber?

There are some interesting anomalies emerging relating to the assaults and the circumstances in which they occur, which open fresh avenues of research. Apart from any non-spiritual aspects, the mediums feel that the prison area would benefit from a conventional religious blessing. While they could easily carry out a cleansing, they consider that in this case it would not be appropriate. Perhaps a few words of blessing from the minister of Greyfriars church would provide some comfort for the tortured souls still trapped within the prison area.



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