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While the tourists soak up SCOTTISH GHOST STORIES, a nastier truth lurks in the shadows. Wo'n's: Christopher Wallace

THOSE IN THE KNOW WILL TELL YOU THAT the capital's Old Town has always been a killing ground. Glimpse behind the tartan kitsch of the souvenir shops on the Royal Mile, and the gruesome reality of a macabre past becomes clear. Where spectators now gather on the esplanade for the playground pageant of the Military Tattoo, they once congregated to watch witches burn. Over 400 were torched to the city’s cheers.

The natural amphitheatre of the Grassmarket used to draw even greater crowds 20,000-strong - to witness the last fevered kicks of a hanging felon before retiring to the hostelries to toast the spectacle. Back on the High Steet, where the courts now reside, justice used to be dispensed with a less bureaucratic hand Scotland's own guillotine, The Maiden, was still in use well into the 17th century.

Today, at the same spot, the Mercat Cross opposite the City Chambers, crowds still gather in a strange echo of the past. This is where the sightseers come for their ghost tours round the city’s haunted passages, down the narrow stairwells, shadowy closes and dank catacombs, each seemingly with its own grisly secret. Where, at a pre- arranged signal, a whited-up student will leap at you after stubbing out his last cigarette.

But real ghosts? Here's the irony - real ghosts are all around, in every second face you see. Not that this will be pointed out. Too recent, too believable, too chilling.

Twenty years ago, on a cold Saturday night in October, two teenage girls walked into a bar barely 500 yards down from the tourist huddles at the Mercat Cross. Helen Scott and her friend Christine Eadie were seventeen. They had been drinking with friends in a number of pubs and planned to make this the last stop of the night. Helen still lived with her parents and worked in a kiltmakers shop; her schoolhood friend Christine was an office junior and had just moved into a flat in Holyrood. Unsophisticated, ordinary girls from respectable families, they sat down at a table and were soon joined by two older men. Strangers. Faceless strangers as it

turned out. Some apparently harmless flirting and an hour later the new foursome left. It was 11pm. The girls were never seen alive again.

The name of the pub the girls disappeared from became notorious The World’s End. The sad irony of innocent girls accepting the offer of a final drink during the last orders in such an aptly named establishment was not missed by the press when it came to reporting their murder. Helen and Christine's bodies were discovered, dumped six miles apart in Lothian countryside; they had been beaten, sexually abused and strangled. Their hands were tied behind their backs. Their killers have never been caught.

A Spanish friend once remarked to me how amazed he was by the dress sense of the young in Scotland, particularly the women. A self- confessed cultural snob, I waited on his pronouncement on the parade of corned-beef legs, jacketless girls tottering on high-heeled plastic sandals, painted toenails shining against feet turning blue in the cold. Cheap, I expected him to say, tacky. Instead, he came out with a comment that surprised me. Scottish girls, he said, dress vulnerably. He thought of the equivalent teenagers in Barcelona or Madrid with their padded shoulders, leather coats, boots - everything chosen to empower their appearance by comparison.

Helen and Christine's killers would be in their late forties or early fifties if still alive, and it is unlikely that any offer of a drink from them in today's fashion bars would be entertained by the girls frequenting them. Four years ago, however, the body of Deirdre Kivlin was discovered in a drain on the south side of the city. Another young woman, another strangulation, another killer still free.

Meanwhile, at the Mercat Cross, tickets for the ghost tours are selling fast, offering a sanitised kind of horror, one from a safe, comic-book past.

Christopher Wallace’s latest novel The Resurrection Club is published by Flamingo, priced £9.99.

21 Oct—4 Nov 1999 THE llST 11