It is extremely convenient that the ghosts of several restless plague victims have taken up residence in one of Edinburgh’s poshest hostelries, the Radisson Blu Hotel (formerly the Crowne Plaza Hotel). The reason being, the hotel is within stumbling distance of several of the Royal Mile’s haunted pubs as well as several spirited sites well-worth visiting along the Royal Mile. Located on the corner of South Bridge and High Street, the hotel has the reputation of being the most haunted in Edinburgh.
Radisson Blu Hotel www.radissonblu.co.uk/Edinburgh
Description and Historical Background
Heralded as “the finest example of medieval architecture built in modern times,” this hotel was designed and built 14 years ago to blend perfectly with the surrounding buildings that make up the Old Town. Though the building is relatively new, the ground it occupies is impossibly old and riddled with the catacombs known as the underground vaults. This structure was literally built on top of homes where hundreds perished from the Black Plague. Many of these tortured spirits are said to roam the hallways of this grand hostelry.
When the building housed the Crowne Plaza Hotel, it was featured on the Travel Channel’s series Haunted Hotels. Employees like Angus Grant claim to have had several brushes with bogles while working in the hotel late at night. Grant tells the story of making his rounds at 3:00am on a morning when he received quite a shock. Upon exiting the elevator on the first floor, Grant was confronted by the absolutely motionless and apparently solid figure of a young girl crouched in a doorway, dressed in rags. The youth stared at him intently for a few seconds, then leapt to her feet and begin running down the hallway towards another set of elevators. Grant gave chase. The scampering figure turned a corner and disappeared from view. When Grant turned the same corner just seconds later, the girl had vanished. She wasn’t in the hallway or in the elevator. Suddenly, a cold blast of air rushed past Angus, moving in the opposite direction. A very perplexed Grant resumed his rounds, albeit with a greater since of unease while exiting the elevator on each floor.
Legend tells the story of a poor basket weaver and his daughter who lived in the vaults beneath the hotel over 400 years ago. The young girl was the first to develop plague symptoms and began to die. Her distraught father did his best to accommodate her suffering and in the process became infected as well. This was more often than not the fate of family members of plague victims living under the South Bridge’s cramped quarters. One person would become infected and start exhibiting symptoms of this vile disease, including delirium and a breakout of black boils (hence the name Black Plague). As a result, the family’s quarters would be quarantined by the city in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. Once confined, the plague quickly spread throughout the family. The basket weaver’s daughter succumbed and he soon followed. Many employees of the hotel believe that it is the spirits of the weaver and his daughter that have been sighted stalking the hotels many floors.
Our next haunted watering hole, known as the Mitre, is located just past the South Bridge.
Description and Historical Background
The Mitre refers to an object called a Bishop’s Mitre http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitre owing to the fact that the tavern is built on the site of a fine tenement building that served as the residence of John Spottiswood, Bishop of St. Andrews in 1615. In fact, this area of the High Street was locally known as “The Bishop’s Land.” Spottiswood was forced to leave Scotland during the reign of Charles I. The King had attempted to introduce the Liturgy in church services and was met with incredible resistance from the staunchly Protestant congregations. The Bishop’s tenement burned to the ground in 1814. The present building was constructed in 1901 and still boasts it’s original façade. Inside the tavern, the original paneling is still visible along with the cabinetwork, some engraved glad and a Jacobean-style ceiling.
I was first told about the hauntings at The Mitre and the pub next-door, the Royal Mile Tavern http://www.royalmiletavern.com/, by a young man working at the haunted White Swan pub in York (more on haunted York in an upcoming post). The ghost is believed to be the spirit of John Spottiswood. Perhaps he’s decided to spend the afterlife in the building that was the home he was forced to flee in life. Another possibility for Spottiswood’s hanging about the Mitre is the legendary presence of the Bishop’s throne buried under what is now the bar area. There is a block of concrete that workmen have tried to drill through several times—however, this task has proven impossible and fueled the reputed throne theories.
The lingering spirit is most often felt on the back staircase as well as in the cellar. These areas are chronically cold and members of the bar staff often report feelings of being watched. Many refuse to visit these areas by themselves. One night, two employees were working in the cellar. The main bar upstairs had been closed for the evening. All of a sudden, the jukebox in the bar roared to life, startling the two unnerved folks in the cellar below. Gathering their wits about them, they ventured upstairs to find that the jukebox had been switched on. They unplugged the machine and returned to their work in the cellar. A few moments later, they were horrified to hear the jukebox blaring upstairs once again. They promptly left for the evening.
From the Mitre, we’re going to backtrack just a tad so turn right on High Street and cross the street passed the phantom “plagued” Radisson Blu Hotel. Keep walking and make a left at South Bridge.
The South Bridge, that spanned the Nor Loch, consisted of 13 stone arches. These spaces were used for housing the poor, creating an environment that was dank and crowded with families squeezing up to fifteen people into a single musty room. Disease flourished in this atmosphere of desperate poverty. Death was commonplace in the absence of sunshine and fresh drinking water. In other words, conditions in Edinburgh’s underground city, born from death, created the perfect setting for a 21st-century haunting. In the pubs that occupy these eerie spaces today, it’s what’s below the ground that may come back to haunt you. As you walk along looking for the entrance to our next stop, Whistle Binkies pub, think about the vaults that are directly below your feet—and the paranormal cast of characters who haunt them.
First of all, I know you’re wondering “what is a Whistle Binkie?” This is the Scottish term for a traveling musician who plays for small change at weddings and gatherings. Whistle Binkies http://www.whistlebinkies.com/ is known as a live music venue and the name is appropriate.
Two neighboring pubs also benefit from their location within the haunted vaults of the South Bridge and along with Whistle Binkies play host the aforementioned cast of paranormal players. Plan to visit The Banshee Labyrinth http://www.thebansheelabyrinth.com/ (formerly Nicol Edwards Experience) as well as Bannerman’s http://www.bannermanslive.co.uk/ as you cruise the most notoriously haunted stretch of cobblestones in Edinburgh. All three pubs are teeming with invisible tenants.
Sightings of apparitions include that of a young woman, dressed in white, but with numerous bloody wounds; a very tall man dressed in 18th-century fashion complete with knee-length leather boots known as The Watcher; a small lad in blue with a high starched collar; and a short middle-aged gentleman wearing a leather apron and knee-length trousers. Photographs have captured some of the ghostly figures in their supernatural habitat.
After quenching your thirst at one of the pubs above ground, go down under to tour “the most haunted place in Britain” according to the BBC known as the underground vaults. Three tour companies lead groups of ghost enthusiasts down into these creepiest of labyrinths:
Auld Reekie Tours http://www.auldreekietours.com/underground.html
Mercat Tours http://www.mercattours.com/ghostly-underground.asp
City of the Dead Tours http://www.blackhart.uk.com/underground.html
Consistently voted “one of the most haunted places in the world” and visited by every paranormal TV show from Britain’s Most Haunted to America’s Ghost Adventurers, there’s certainly something going on inside these underground vaults.
I’ve personally gone on all of these tours and strange things have transpired on each one. Each tour company leads brave visitors into different areas of the vaults. At the end of a Mercat tour in 2008 as our group enjoyed a pint together to cap off our night in the vaults, one of the women in our group found a ghostly image she’d captured on her digital camera while on our tour. She passed her camera around and I’ll be darned if it didn’t look just like…well…a ghost captured on film. If I’d seen it posted on the Internet, I would have muttered, “CG,” (computer generated) and gone on to the next. But this photo was still on her camera, sitting there in between several dark non-descript photos of the vaults.
On a November evening in 1997 that was appropriately damp and gloomy—or, as they say in Britain, gray and blustery—with a chill in the air that seeped into your bones and warranted the coats, gloves, and scarves that the Auld Reekie tour participants all wore, our small group made it’s way along a dirt passageway lit by flickering torches along the walls of the subterranean cellar. I lingered at the entrance of a tiny darkened room, once occupied by a cobbler and his family of sixteen. Peering inside I tried to imagine the dozens of families who spent their lives living down here three hundred years ago without sun and fresh air, several feet below the bustling town above.
The rest of our group had turned a corner up ahead and I was alone in the dark. Suddenly, I felt three sharp tugs on the back of my coat. These were hard tugs that caused my coat to slide backwards over my shoulders. Whirling around, the passage behind me was empty. As the goosebumps rose on my arms, I quickly made my way back to the tour group (actually, I ran) and sought out our tour guide. Upon hearing my story of the mysterious tugs, the guide told me that many tour takers had experienced this phenomenon while walking the dank corridors of the underground vaults.
Next time, we’ll visit haunted Holyrood Palace at the World’s End of the Royal Mile.