The Ghosts of Edinburgh Castle

Photo: Erin Smallwood / Getty images

Edinburgh Castle is reputed to be one of the most haunted spots in Scotland. And Edinburgh itself has been called the most haunted city in all of Europe. On various occasions, visitors to the castle have reported a phantom piper, a headless drummer, the spirits of French prisoners from the Seven Years War and colonial prisoners from the American Revolutionary War -- even the ghost of a dog wandering in the grounds' dog cemetery.

The castle (you can get a tour here) standing magnificently between sea and hills, is a historical fortress, parts of which are more than 900 years old. The cells of its ancient dungeon, the site of uncounted deaths, could very well be an eternal place of unrest for numerous spirits. Other areas of Edinburgh also have ghostly reputations: the subterranean vaults of South Bridge and a disused street called Mary Kings Close where victims of the Black Death plague were sealed up to die.

On April 6 through 17, 2001, these three spots were the subject of one of the largest scientific investigations of the paranormal ever conducted -- and the results surprised many of the investigators.

As part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Dr. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist from Hertfordshire University in southeast England, enlisted the help of 240 volunteers to explore the allegedly haunted sites in a 10-day study.

Chosen from visitors from around the world, the volunteers were led in groups of 10 through the creepy, damp cellars, chambers and vaults. Wiseman's team came prepared with an array of high-tech "ghostbusting" equipment, such as thermal imagers, geomagnetic sensors, temperature probes, night vision equipment and digital cameras.

Each of the volunteers was carefully screened. Only those who knew nothing about Edinburgh's legendary hauntings were allowed to participate, yet by the end of the experiment, nearly half reported phenomena that they could not explain.

Wiseman tried to be as scientific as possible about the study. The volunteers were not told which particular cells or vaults had previous claims of strange activity. They were taken to locations with a reputation for being haunted as well as "red herring" vaults that had no history of activity at all. Yet the highest number of paranormal experiences by the volunteers were reported to take place in the very areas that did have the haunted reputations.

Reported experiences included:

  • sudden drops in temperature
  • seeing shadowy figures
  • a feeling of being watched
  • one person reported a burning sensation on the arm
  • an unseen presence touching the face
  • the feeling of something tugging at clothes

One reported sighting was of a spectre in a leather apron -- a ghost that has been seen before at the same location. Wiseman, a skeptic who has in the past attempted to expose the myths of several British hauntings, admitted his surprise at the results. "The events that have been taking place over the last 10 days are much more extreme than we expected," he said.

One of the most interesting overnight experiments involved enclosing a young woman in one of the dark South Bridge vaults, alone -- an experience that brought her to tears. The volunteer was placed in the room with a video camera so she could record what she saw, heard or felt. "Almost immediately," Wiseman said, "she reported hearing breathing from a corner of the room, which was getting louder. She thought she saw a flash or some sort of light in the corner, but didn't want to look back."

The only hard evidence were a few digital photographs that featured such anomalies as dense spots of light and strange fogging. Two photos showed a green glob that no one could explain.

Conclusions

Wiseman has been careful not to jump to any particular conclusions about these supposedly haunted areas. Many of the experiences could be chalked up to common psychological reactions to the unnerving environment.

But perhaps not all. "I must stress that these are only initial results," said Wiseman, who admits to being afraid of the dark, "but already they are looking quite interesting. I'm closer now to being a lot more curious. Something is going on, but I won't be a believer until we get something on film."

What Wiseman found most intriguing is the fact that most of the volunteers' experiences took place in the very rooms that had the reputations for being haunted, even though they had no knowledge of that. The question is: Why? "It could be something quite trivial such as being damper or colder, and we are taking physical measurements to gauge air temperature, air movement, and magnetic fields," Wiseman said. "Whatever the explanation, it means there is something going on because otherwise, we would expect the distribution to have been more random."

Fran Hollinrake, someone who has been looking into the hauntings for a much longer time -- she runs walking tours through many of these same dark chambers -- wasn't as surprised by the findings. "People from all over the world are seeing the same things," she said. "So there must be something in it."

Although the scientific results from Wiseman's study are thus far inconclusive, what is most encouraging perhaps is that scientists have begun to give these paranormal possibilities the attention they deserve.