Why, in our post- superstitious age, do so many people get a thrill out of things that go bump in the night? Fife novelist JAMES ROBERTSON goes on the trail of Edinburgh's ghost industry.
Hex and chopping
BELIEF IN GHOSTS IS ON THE INCREASE. AT LEAST in the tourism industry. Otherwise down-to- earth operators are putting their faith in ghosts and other macabre manifestations from the past: they are good for business. From lnverness to Glasgow. indeed from New York to Melbourne. you can usually find a ghost tour. gorefest. murder trail or chamber of horrors lurking somewhere not far off the tourist track. Edinburgh in particular has taken up the spook‘s tour idea with a vengeance. as a stroll tip the High Street will confirm. You can hardly move around Parliament Square for all the blood-streaked billboards advertising guided walks in the company of any number of spirits. witches. bodysnatchers and hangmen. And there seems to be no shortage of folk keen to have the wits scared out of them up a dark close. Something strange, not to say sinister. is going on.
Undoubtedly the closes. wynds and cellars of the Old Town do lend themselves to this kind of experience. But what brings out the ghoul in your average punter. and why in our post-modern. supposedly post-superstitious age. do so many people get a thrill out of things that go bump in the night? Partly. it’s that very awareness that we have lost something of the spirituality of previous ages. A ghost tour is a way back into the past. Even if we're too sophisticated to fall for all that hocus-pocus. we can go back in time to an age when the other world was absolutely real to our ancestors. and those who got involved in it were taking a very dubious walk on the wild side. If they went too far — became, as it were. the Devil‘s fellow-travellers — and were found out. they could expect no mercy from their peers.
A combination of long winter nights. foul weather and gloomy religion has perhaps made the Scots as fond as anyone of a bit of
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hex and chopping. but this is not something unique to Scotland. On a baking June afternoon in 1997. in the old Maltese citadel of Medina. l retreated underground into the ancient dungeons. and was confronted with a dripping waxwork display of severed limbs. corpses rotting in cages. whipped and mutilated witches. and every kind of torture implement. while the rooms echoed with a series of blood—curdling screams on a tape— loop. [I was all rather depressing. but it was nice and cool. I noticed striking similarities between some of the gruesome instruments and those used in bygone Scotland. liurope‘s torturers seem to have either exchanged information on technique. attended trade conventions. or broadened their minds through travel.
I shouldn‘t have been surprised at the Maltese experience. since no society has a monopoly on the vile and unbelievably brutal things some people do to others. My knowledge of Scottish methods of torture came not from any personal predilections but from the research I was then doing into I7th— century Edinburgh. for The l-kumliv. (lore seems to go hand in hand with ghosts. and. as it turned out. my novel has its fair share of what the law used to call "demembration". of
and of spectres real or impersonated. It is set partly in the lo7()s. a time of religious and political repression which resulted in much imprisonment and abuse of the (‘ovenanter opposition. as well as the dispatching of numerous daft old ladies and simple lassies who were made the sc‘ttpcgottts for the country’s ills.
The modern part of the novel. set in the l‘)‘)()s. looks at how we imagine the relationship between past and present. All lidinburgh ghost tour was the perfect vehicle for pursuing this theme. An actor playing the part of a ghost digs a little more deeply into his characters “real” history. and finds that it is a lot less comforting when not dressed up as spookery. lior ghost tours may be entertaining. but there is an argument for saying that they can obscure as much as they illuminate.
To take _itlst one example: Sir (ieorgc Macken/ic. King‘s Advocate from 1677. had a reputation for rigorous prosecution of the (‘oyenanters. for which they dubbed him “Bluidy .\lackcn/ie". llis mausoleum in (lrey'friars Kirkyard w as long considered a fearsome place by l81lt and l‘)lh century schoolboys. But Mackenzie was a considerable lawyer. with an enlightened attitude towards the crime of witchcraft. an