When you first visit Edinburgh’s old town, you’re immediately struck by the tall, gothic buildings through which tight alleyways and steep staircases wind. Built on extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat, the city is hilly, multi-level and full of nooks and crannies where mischief can hide. Known locally as ‘Auld Reekie’ (middle Scots for “Old Smokey’ – when buildings were heated by coal fires, smoke would billow into the air), the capital is renowned for its dark beauty and atmospheric architecture.
But it’s not just the buildings and famously dreich weather that gives Edinburgh its dark reputation. Mara Menzies from the Scottish Storytelling Centre speaks of the city’s uncompromisingly violent history. “We have countless characters across the centuries whose depraved imaginations have caused unbelievable misery and agony for thousands of people.” Princes Street Gardens, the beautiful park that rests underneath Edinburgh Castle, was once the Norloch – a local lake where supposed witches were drowned despite their protests of innocence. In the seventeenth century, Scotland’s Lord Advocate, Sir George Mackenzie (or Bloody Mackenzie to give him his gruesome nickname) designed tools of torture and murder in the city, to be used on Presbyterian covenanters who disagreed with King Charles II. “No one could forget Burke and Hare,” her colleague Fiona Herbert adds. In the early 19th century, Edinburgh University was leading the way in new medicine, but there weren’t enough corpses for its great medical minds to experiment on. Some wily entrepreneurs took to digging up graves of the recently deceased in return for money from the University, but Burke and Hare chose something far more chilling: they became serial killers, “supplying Edinburgh University with their victims for which they were paid well, no questions asked”.
Uncovering Edinburgh’s horrible history
Experiencing Edinburgh’s grizzly past first hand is easy; a sizeable chunk of the capital’s tourist industry is now ‘dark tourism’ (a term coined in 1996 to explain attractions associated with death and tragedy), and caters for brave souls who want to delve deeper into the legends of Auld Reekie. Menzies and Herbert list some of the city’s most popular gothic attractions as Menzies explains how people are endlessly “fascinated by what we are capable of as humans” – whether evil deeds or enduring adversity. Edinburgh’s historical tales of death and tragedy appeal because they are based on real events, in a real place. Providing genuine context to the gruesome stories makes them even more frightening, and, by extension, entertaining!
Sightseer ghost tours abound throughout the old town. Mercat Tours, based just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, offers a selection of different walking tours through the city’s graveyards, alleyways and vaults. Their trained storytellers delight in sharing dark tales of murder and torture in Auld Reekie with willing audiences. The rather brutally named City of the Dead Tours is known for its notorious ‘Poltergeist Tour’. In this, guides lead hardy souls to the ‘Black Mausoleum’, a small tomb in Greyfriar’s Cemetery, famous for being home to the paranormal activity of The Mackenzie Poltergeist. If trudging the steep steps of old Edinburgh isn’t your idea of entertainment, you can always hop aboard the city’s Ghost Bus Tour where you’ll be transported around the capital’s macabre and malevolent sights aboard the relative safety of a black routemaster.
Popular attraction The Real Mary King’s Close allows visitors to explore a warren of hidden streets that snake from the Royal Mile down towards the Norloch. Tour guides lead folk through seventeenth century dwellings and reveal the disease, murder and intrigue that were part of everyday life in Edinburgh times gone by. For those on a budget, Menzies suggests one of the easiest ways to experience Auld Reekie’s past is simply to wander the secret spots for yourself. Allow yourself to get lost around the Grassmarket and Cowgate and “stop occasionally to feel for any changes in temperature”, although – as she cheerily adds – if you do feel a coldness, “DON’T PANIC, fear is known to feed evil spirits!”
The Celtic influence on Halloween
Given the Scottish capital’s proudly creepy history, it’s hardly surprising to uncover strong links between Halloween and venerable Celtic traditions. Nowadays, when we think of Halloween, we think of pumpkin carving or fancy dress. But not many people know that Halloween originates from an ancient Celtic festival to mark “Samhuinn” – the end of summer and the start of the leaner, harder winter. During this time, livestock would be slaughtered and communities would gather together to enjoy an opening-of-winter feast.
The name itself derives from the old Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve – the eve before the holy day, or All Saints Day, set by the Catholic Church in the 9th century as November 1st. The beginning of November was traditionally the time that folk assembled to pray for friends, family, martyrs and saints (hallows) who had died.
Halloween expert Lesley Bannatyne, has researched its history thoroughly. She points out that Irish sagas recorded by monks between the 9th and 12th centuries describe Samhuinn (or Samhain as it’s known in Ireland) as a magical time for the mythical peoples of Ireland. During the period “legendary kings were slain, monstrous birds released, sacrifices made, great loves consummated.” In his 1795 poem ‘Hallowe’en’ (or ‘Night of the Witches’) the much loved Scottish poet Robert Burns writes about the trickery and pranks traditional on the night “when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands.” It seems clear that, just as today, October 31st was a time of year that captured the imagination. The supernatural stories told by ancient Celts, coupled with the seasonal descent into darkness meant Halloween was always thought of as an eerie, otherworldly time.
The growth of Halloween
Scottish and Irish immigrants to America took their ancient traditions of Halloween with them, and in the boom years of early twentieth century consumerism, the American Halloween industry was set in motion. Retail giants such as Woolworths began selling paper costumes and decorations for trick or treating, creating much of the imagery – spiders, pumpkins – we now associate with October 31st.
Halloween flourished in the US, assisted in no small part by advertising execs and Hollywood movies. Although the festival originated in Scotland and Ireland, it really exploded into the American consciousness last century, and, as Bannatyne notes, “Halloween celebrations were exported, first with Americans abroad – servicemen and teachers in American schools – then by companies such as Guinness, which marketed Halloween in bars around the world.”
However the UK, and Scotland in particular, can certainly hold its own began when celebrating the festival. Several of the customs that make Halloween unique began in Scotland and are practiced to this day. Bobbing for apples (or ‘dooking’ as it’s called in Auld Reekie) remains a widely played game at Halloween parties. The custom of dressing up is still called guising (short for disguising) in Scotland, and originated in the late nineteenth century when children would dress up and go from house to house looking for coins or food as gifts. Halloween would be unrecognisable without both. Together Scottish and American influences continue to inform Halloween horror shows, movie nights, parades and parties.
All Hallows’ Eve in Edinburgh
Visit Edinburgh in any season, and you can enjoy – if that’s the right word – the scarier side of the city. Year round you’ll see costumed figures directing willing tourists through the old town, regaling them with gruesome stories designed to set their hair on end. Yet visit during Halloween, and you’ll experience completely unique celebrations. The Scots know how to celebrate Halloween and there are special happenings laid on throughout the city for that eerie time when the living and the dead meet.
The Scottish International Storytelling Festival: Festival of Dreams, is a whole programme of events which runs from Friday the 21st to Monday, October 31st. Enter the National Library of Scotland on Halloween at 6.30pm to hear a spooky selection of ‘Ghostly Tales for Telling’ penned especially for the festival with Fiona Herbert and other storytellers in attendance. But you don’t have to wait until October 31st to get in the Halloween spirit. Mara Menzies will be hosting ‘Guid Crack at Hallowe’en’ on October 28th at the Circus Café.
The Real Mary King’s Close is running ‘Condemned’, a late night tour experience especially for Halloween. Travel back in time with one of their guides to explore Edinburgh’s tumultuous relationship with witches and witchcraft and you’ll discover how fear and suspicion took a deadly toll on the city’s residents. Tours run at 9pm from Thursday the 27th until Sunday, October 30th.
For those that prefer a more traditional Halloween, Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society hold the Samhuinn Fire Festival on October 31st each year. The event is rooted in the customs of the old Celtic send off to summer. Spectators line the Royal Mile to witness a spectacle unlike anything they’ve seen before as dozens of characters in intricate costumes appear from the side streets of the old town bringing fire and drums to create an epic, atmospheric performance. The festival’s centrepiece – a face-off between the kings of summer and winter – is a tribute to the traditional ‘Galoshan’ plays of Scotland. On Halloween, youngsters from towns and villages across the country would dress up and act out plays for the entertainment of their community. Line Auld Reekie’s streets from 9pm for the leaping, jumping fire procession.
Festival Trustee, Erin Macdonald, thinks Samhuinn is an opportunity for people to come together and “mark the turning seasons” in a totally unique and visually stunning way. The Society also run the spring Beltane Fire Festival which mirrors the Halloween festival by marking the beginning of summer. But it’s Samhuinn, and its place in the Edinburgh calendar that Macdonald considers particularly special: “it gives us the chance to break out our creativity in a dark way – building unusual characters and costumes and dramatic battles between light and dark. Edinburgh’s the perfect stage for it, steeped in so much history and folklore… dark corners and murky October weather.”
Halloween’s enduring affection
If Edinburgh’s Samhiunn Fire Festival is a reimagining of ancient traditions, its modern counterpart must be the Halloween processions that take place throughout major western cities. The most famous of these is unquestionably the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, in New York City. Here, the Scottish tradition of guising has been embraced wholeheartedly.
Jeanne Fleming, Artistic and Producing Director of the Greenwich Village parade, believes the abiding popularity of Halloween is down to the sense of freedom it allows. It’s an opportunity to wear costumes, “a day when everybody can become an artist–a performer.” In New York City, the Halloween Parade is a chance to show the rest of the world what a creative place it is. “It’s an open and free event that encourages folks to let their imaginations run wild and perform for and with each other on a grand scale… It brings everyone together.” Since its 1974 inception, the procession has remained proudly uncensored and non-commercial. The costumes that grace it are true expressions of creativity and celebration. As Fleming beautifully puts it, they are up to date “folk art” – a reimagining of their Celtic roots.
Whether spooky or celebratory, the basic human desire to mark the changing of the seasons has not diminished with time. Throughout the centuries, the coming of darkness has been an opportunity for communities to gather and celebrate together. As pumpkins and lanterns are placed outside twenty-first century homes and trick or treat is encouraged in modern neighbourhoods, this remains as true now as it was for ninth century feasts. Unlike Christmas or Thanksgiving, Fleming notes that Halloween is “a holiday that can be celebrated with ‘the new American family’ – that collection of friends that one works with and lives with outside of actual familial ties.”
Perhaps the festival’s enduring appeal worldwide can be found in the way it brings together different tribes and alternative culture. Friendships and fun are celebrated in a non-sentimental way thanks to a heady blend of nostalgia, horror, humour and freedom. Halloween expert Bannatyne refers to its mystery and fantasy as the ultimate antidote to modern, western life:
“At Halloween we can wrap our arms around the reality of the other 364 days and satirize, emulate, exorcize, and celebrate it. Banks fail, wars rage, floods ravage. The joy of Halloween is not that it’s dark and we revel in that; it’s that Halloween can bring a bit of light and laughter into the darkness. Our onetime children’s holiday turned blood-and-guts carnival may just be the right antidote for a myriad of ailments.”
Read our Virgin Atlantic staff’s top Edinburgh picks – for Halloween and beyond
Gillian, one of our Aircraft Maintenance Managers thinks Auld Reekie’s Halloween Vaults and Graveyard Tours (finishing with a complimentary whisky) are a must. Senior Legal Counsel Jennifer rates cocktail bar Bramble highly, and Tim from our Technology Innovation team doesn’t stop in Edinburgh without visiting The Piemaker on South Bridge. Here you can find haggis, turnip and mash pies or, as Tim puts it, “everything quintessentially Scottish in an easy-to-eat pastry package.”
Experience the Scottish capital’s eeriness this Halloween. Book your flights to Edinburgh with Virgin Atlantic today.