Old Mr. Boots has scared hundreds down in the Vaults under Edinburgh's South Bridge -- preferably blonde women in their mid-20s. "Men are fairly safe," says Gary, a sturdy Scotsman with a bushy red beard who's been leading groups for Mercat Tours down into the Vaults under the Scottish capital for several years.
Nobody knows who Mr. Boots was in his living days. But the hateful spirit certainly does not approve of visitors wandering around in the Vaults, where he got stuck after his death some time in the 1800s. To scare the living away, he breathes heavily, invisibly walks around with pounding steps, pulls hair, punches, pinches, and sometimes even shows up.
"People who have seen him say he wears a blue coat and heavy black military boots," says Gary, who admits he has been converted when it comes to believing in ghosts. "I was open-minded, but didn't think there was much to it. Since I started guiding tours, I have seen horrifying things happen to groups down here."
He even got attacked himself: "Once an arm came 'round my neck and squeezed tight. The group later asked who it was who tried to strangle me."
Most entities down in the Vaults are more peaceful: The "Watcher" in a former pub room just watches, a shoemaker in the "Safe Room" dislikes only wearers of nonleather sports shoes. The spirit of Jack, a well-dressed boy of about 6, is known to be playful; he tugs on jackets or takes people's hands.
The times when Jack or the shoemaker were still alive were stricken with violence and disease. By the 1830s, Edinburgh's population had grown too much, so people moved underground: In the Vaults built into Edinburgh's bridges, people worked and lived -- ordinary people of Edinburgh at first, soon the poorest, and then those who feared daylight and the police.
The Vaults became a lawless zone, dark, dirty and dangerous. Death was ever present, and so were body snatchers -- people who took dead bodies, even stole them from graveyards, and sold them to anatomists. Eventually, the Vaults were cleared of all human occupancy by the Town Council, sealed -- and forgotten, for a long time.
Not far from the Vaults, only about a 10-minute walk away, is Greyfriar's Kirkyard. Famous for the heart-throbbing story of a little dog that kept vigil at his master's grave for 14 years, the cemetery also has a reputation of being the most haunted place in Scotland's most haunted city.
As if it weren't enough that the graveyard hill once used to be a small valley, and over the centuries was built up of hundreds of thousands of corpses -- most often victims of war, bubonic plague and other diseases -- the Lord Advocate "Bloody" George MacKenzie added thousands of souls to Greyfriar's grisly history.
In 1637, Scottish Presbyterians signed the "National Covenant with God." They opposed the attempt of King Charles I, an Episcopalian, to impose a new liturgy and prayerbook upon the Church of Scotland.
A civil war was the result. Successful at first, the Covenanters luck turned in 1660: Their movement was pronounced illegal by the Crown, and the Covenanters were persecuted. In Edinburgh, George MacKenzie was responsible for that. He imprisoned 1,200 survivors of the war's last battle, the Battle of Bothwell Brig, in the Covenanters Prison at Greyfriar's Cemetery without proper shelter or food.
A total of 18,000 Covenanters died for their beliefs. Most of them were put to death by MacKenzie; the Lord Advocate himself died a natural death in 1691.
That same year, by the way, a man named David Brown settled down in Edinburgh. Brown was Jewish, and his application is the earliest proof for Jews living in Edinburgh.
By 1780, an organized Jewish community existed. The first Jew to buy a burial plot in Edinburgh was the dentist Herman Lyon, who had come to Scotland from Germany in 1788; he purchased a plot of land on Calton Hill. Today, no headstones indicate the location of the burial site, and only a few people know where it is.
The Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation (www.ehcong.com ) offers regular services: Friday evening at 8 in summer (April 14 to Aug. 25), or just around sunset at other dates, with Saturday-morning services at 10 (starting at Nishmat), followed by kiddush (at around midday).
While Herman Lyon's tomb has been searched for a long time, MacKenzie's grave down in Greyfriar's is avoided by everyone with a sane mind. MacKenzie was buried right next to the Covenanters Prison, just steps from a number of Covenanters graves. Though many stories tell about his soul wandering around, frightful hauntings began only quite recently -- in 1999, after a homeless man desecrated MacKenzie's tomb on a cold December night.
"Something was obviously raised then," says Jerry, a young man guiding Blackhart's "City of the Dead" tours to the usually locked Covenanters prison and the Black Mausoleum inside.
"In the past five years, we've had more than 400 people walk out of here with scratches, bites or burns," he warns. "More than 170 have passed out, and two reportedly went insane after going inside the Mausoleum."
All Blackhart tour guides have had incidents like these on their tours; some have made their very own experiences. Jerry claims to see a boy, about 12, standing in a corner of the prison or inside the mausoleum regularly.
"There are lucky ones among us who will never experience anything paranormal," says Jerry. "But most people are inductors -- they will see, hear or feel such things eventually. In this part of Greyfriar's, that usually happens after about 20 minutes."
But don't worry: "Eighty percent of it is suggestion," says tour guide Gary down in the Vaults. "It's just those last 20 percent you need to be concerned about."
Info to Go
There are probably hundreds of ghosts haunting the Scottish capital. Most of them call the city's Old Town their home. Here is where some can be found:
· Edinburgh Castle has got numerous ghosts: John Graham of Claverhouse, George MacKenzie's accomplice in persecuting the Covenanters, appears periodically in the castle.
A steward of the Duke of Gordon, once governor of the castle, wanders the walls since he was stabbed by the duke. The dungeons are said to be haunted by the ghosts of prisoners held there during the Napoleonic War.
· Mary King's Close is the most haunted of all haunted closes in Edinburgh's Old Town. Some 300 years ago the plague swept through the city. In Mary King's Close, now situated underneath the City Chambers, hundreds of people were walled in and not permitted to come out. Nobody -- neither man nor mouse -- survived.
· The Scotsman Hotel, North Bridge: In 1990, a security guard at the hotel ran into an employee whom he was sure was dead. Also, a blonde woman is said to haunt the house.
· St. Mary's Street apparently is haunted by a young woman, a victim of a motiveless murder in 1916.
· The West Bow (Victoria Street) gets visits by a phantom coach and the ghost of a sailor named Angus Roy.
· George IV Bridge: Vaults under the bridge are said to be haunted by a Highland chief. In 1973, he was spotted by librarian Elizabeth Clarke.
Several tour operators offer ghost tours to Edinburgh's haunted sites. Some are:
· Mercat Tours, 28 Blair St., Edinburgh EH1 1QR (www.mercattours.com )
· Mary King's Close, 2 Warrinston's Close, High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1PG (www.realmarykingsclose.com )
· City of the Dead Tour, Blackhart Entertainment, Tron Church, 122 High St., Edinburgh EH1 1RU (www.blackhart.uk . com)
· Auld Reekie Tours ([email protected] )
· Witchery Tours, 84 West Bow (Victoria Street), Edinburgh EH1 2HH (www.witcherytours . com)
British Airways, Lufthansa, United, US Airways and Northwest offer regular flights from Philadelphia to Edinburgh. They usually include one or two stops.