I pass at least four dead men on my way to class every morning, the number varying by the route I take.
If I take the long way, looping around Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, past the spires of St. Giles’ Cathedral, I glimpse the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume, scowling at onlookers from their towering marble statues. If I zigzag through Greyfriars Kirkyard, following the footsteps of 19th-century body snatchers, my way to school is marked by more weatherworn gravestones than I can count. Whether I pass them on my way to lecture, read about them for homework or stroll through their old haunting grounds on a Sunday afternoon, ghosts in all different forms are very much alive in Edinburgh.
Yet instead of discomfiting the city, these resident specters are an integral part of the Edinburgh landscape and the conceptualization of the capital as the most haunted city in Europe. So, what better place to celebrate Halloween than in a city built on ghost stories, even if you’re a bit of a scaredy cat like me?
Legend has it that King David I founded Edinburgh’s Holyrood Abbey on the spot where he was miraculously saved from a charging stag in 1128. The abbey, once a glorious site of Christian worship attached to Holyrood Palace, has lain in ruins since the 18th century. Yet these very ruins, set against the dramatic cliffs of Arthur’s Seat, have taken on a life and inspired tales of their own.
Generations of poets, artists and musicians make pilgrimages to the Abbey’s ruins, seeking divine inspiration in the sublime of melancholic decay. Silently standing in the nave and looking at the remaining spires piercing the cloudless sky, I can almost feel the spirits of the abbey and can see why so many writers have flocked there. Holyrood Abbey, like many of the austere buildings in Old Town Edinburgh, looks like it came straight out of a Gothic novel. Or rather, the eerie ruins and haunting characters of Gothic novels look like imaginative embodiments of Holyrood Abbey.
Scotland’s ghosts continually invade both my bedroom and my literature course with our study of Romanticism and Scottish Gothic. I get chills reading Scottish-folk ghost tales while in bed, and neither the wind blistering outside my window nor my jaunts through graveyards do much to help overcome my overactive imagination. These mythical stories, which were passed down orally from generation to generation before they were recorded by ballad collectors, feature murderous ghost brides, encounters with witches in barren moors and dates with the devil and are so vivid I picture them whenever I get a glimpse of the Scottish countryside.
The spectral characters of my literature class gain new life yet again in the costumed tour guides lining the Royal Mile. Dressed in full Dickens-esque regalia and advertising haunted tours of the capital, these guides expose the everyday tourist to Edinburgh’s phantoms, albeit melodramatically and with lots of kitsch. The number of ghost tours on the Royal Mile has drastically increased with Halloween growing nearer. Tacky tours aside, Edinburgh plays its supernatural reputation to its advantage and boasts countless Halloween events, traditional Celtic fire festivals and opportunities for modern people to come face to face with the city’s ghostly past.
The Edinburgh skyline, like my literature novels and the ancient ruins scattered across Scotland, is an ever-changing elegy to the ghosts of the city’s past. Monuments to Scotland’s famous sons, such as Admiral Horatio Nelson and Sir Walter Scott, survey the living from their perch on Calton Hill and along the Princes Street Gardens, remaining a constant reminder that their spirits are still with us today.
Even though I’m not one for scary stories, there’s something captivating about living in a city full of ghosts. Maybe it’s the thrill of watching these mythical stories become reanimated to fit and reflect today’s society, or maybe it’s just this Gothic inspiration fueling my imagination. Either way, I may just cut through another cemetery on my way to class tomorrow.
Margie Fuchs is a junior in the College. Life on the Fringe appears every other Friday.