Wayne from Eerie Edinburgh delves into the haunting tales of Scotland’s most enigmatic fortress and unveils the many Ghosts of Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Castle, perched ominously atop Castle Rock, holds centuries of history and intrigue, making it a hotbed for ghostly encounters.
From the restless spirits of past inhabitants, to mystifying apparitions roaming its ancient walls, we’ll uncover the haunted secrets that have sent shivers down the spines of visitors and locals alike. Join us as we unveil the stories of the Grey Ladies, the Headless Drummer Boy, the Phantom Piper, and many other spectral figures said to wander these historic grounds.
From eerie whispers, to inexplicable sightings, the encounters with these otherworldly entities will leave you both fascinated and intrigued. Read on as we venture into the pet cemetery, where a friendly, scruffy black dog is said to linger in the afterlife, welcoming those who dare to explore its ethereal presence.
Be prepared for an unforgettable journey through the Ghosts of Edinburgh Castle. Make sure to keep the lights on, and brace yourself for encounters with the supernatural!
History of Edinburgh Castle
The Edinburgh skyline is world famous and dominated by one building: Edinburgh Castle.
It stands 445 feet above sea level and sits on top of Castle Rock.
Castle Rock is one of three extinct volcanoes in Scotland’s capital, with the other two being the famous Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill. Castle Rock is believed to have been formed around 350 million years ago, during the carboniferous period, when a volcanic pipe cut through the softer, sedimentary rock, then cooled, forming dolerite.
Archeologists believe there have been fortified buildings here for around 3,000 years. The Celts made their home here, and, as far back as 600 CE, a Celtic tribe called the Votadini, or Gododdin, built Eidyn’s Hill Fort at the top of Castle Rock.
The Votadini people were spread over an area that ranged from the Firth of Forth to the North East of modern day England. The capital of the Votadini territory was believed to have been the hill fort at Traprain Law, about 23 miles to the east of Edinburgh.
Construction of Edinburgh Castle as we know it began around the 11th century, with the building of St Margaret’s Chapel; the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. Over the centuries, the castle has been improved and strengthened by the addition of other structures such as St Davids Tower – destroyed then replaced by the Half Moon Battery – the great hall that dates back to 1511, and the mighty portcullis gate.
Many historical events have taken place behind its thick stone walls. Game of Thrones fans may be surprised to learn that The Red Wedding is, in part, based on an event that took place in 1440 and became known as ‘the black dinner’. On the 24th of November 1440, the 15-year-old Earl of Douglas and his brother David were invited to have dinner at Edinburgh Castle by William Chrichton. After the feast began, it’s said a bull’s head was placed in the centre of the table and the young brothers were seized by Crichton’s men, unjustly accused of treason, and later executed – their heads displayed on Castle Hill.
The castle is believed to have been the most besieged building in Britain, so given its lengthy and bloody history, it’s no surprise that it is also famously haunted.
Edinburgh Castle Ghost Stories
Perhaps the most famous stories associated with the castle are not the apparitions of ancient kings or queens, but two musicians who both are believed to have met horrific ends.
The Headless Drummer
The Banshee is said to be a portent of doom to those unfortunate enough to hear its terrible, mournful wail. It’s believed that its cries herald the death of family members, and belief in Banshees is still strong in many Irish and Scottish families. The Headless Drummer Boy of Edinburgh Castle is equally feared.
The rat-tat-tat of his drums were first heard in 1650 by a sentry posted on the walls, who was disturbed to hear drumming coming from the central courtyard of the castle. He stopped what he was doing and went to investigate the source of the noise.
From his vantage point, he spotted the young laddie walking in a circle round the courtyard, passionately beating his drums.
Given he was on duty, he rightly thought he should go and investigate, and gingerly approached the drummer.
As he neared him, the sentry staggered back in shock. He noticed that the figure, as clear as day and believed to have been a flesh-and-blood person up until that point, had no head.
Disturbed by what he had witnessed, he left the apparition to continue beating his march, and went to inform his commanding officer, Colonel Dundas.
Naturally, Dundas accused the sentry of being drunk and had him locked up for being drunk on duty.
But there are reports that others witnessed and heard the drummer; some staff swear that the drumming went on early into the morning. According to some reports, the same sentry saw the drummer on three separate occasions, and on each occasion he found himself in a jail cell for the night. In an ironic twist, Dundas himself reported hearing the phantom march at a later date. Dundas reported that the drums beat a staccato rhythm, similar to that of a marching English foce. On running the battlement expecting to see the sight of an English army approaching, he was somewhat relieved but extremely puzzled to see no-one there.
Some time later, the realisation hit those who’d seen and heard the drummer; that he had been sounding the alarm. It was not long after the apparition that Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army marched on and captured the castle.
Although he has not been directly seen since, people have heard faint drumming in the dead of night that’s been associated with the little drummer boy.
Residents of Edinburgh should hope he’s never sighted again though. Legend states if his headless apparition is seen once more, ill luck is to befall the castle, for the sound of his drums is believed to warn residents of an impending attack on the castle.
The Phantom Piper
One of the oldest ghost stories in the city is that of the phantom piper.
Long ago, building work was being carried out to fortify the already formidable defences of the castle. The workmen came upon a tunnel entrance, which led into the rock below the castle.
Given the smooth sides of this tunnel, and the appearance of having been finished by metal tools, talk naturally turned to it being carved by the fairy folk.
Historically, fairies in Celtic nations are not the sweet little fairy godmother types we’ve grown up with. Fairies are believed to be far more mischievous and downright wicked if you cross them. Due to this fear, there was a reluctance to step into the tunnel to investigate further.
Despite repeated warnings and protestations, a brave young piper from Clan Ranald volunteered to head down and see what secrets the tunnel held.
Convinced there was nothing to fret over, and, with his trusty pipes slung under his arm, he set off down the tunnel playing as he walked.
Above ground, a group of locals excited by the commotion followed the sound of the pipes as they followed the route of the Royal Mile, downhill towards Holyrood Palace.
About a quarter of a mile later, near the Tron kirk the sound of the pipes ceased and silence soon settled on the street. The locals and builders waited, expecting to see the piper return the way he’d set off. However, it became apparent that the piper wasn’t returning, and he was never seen again.
Fearing for their own safety – and that whatever had taken the piper would escape – it was decided that instead of sending a search party, the safest thing was to cover up the entrance to the tunnel.
The piper did return eventually, or, the sound of his pipes did. It’s said that the skirl of the pipes was often heard moving down The Mile, retracing the young man’s last steps and, as before, stopping when he got to the Tron Kirk.
This story is regularly covered in local ghost tours, and occasionally still reported by passers-by, but the sounds of passing traffic and late night revellers will no doubt muffle his playing these days.
If you ever find yourself during the wee small hours near the Tron, stop what you’re doing and cup an ear. You might just hear the skirl of the pipes rising up from under your feet.
Read more about Edinburgh: Deep beneath the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town lies a hidden warren of streets and tenements with a rich history and a dark reputation: Mary King’s Close.
Whispers of the past: The Grey Ladies of Edinburgh Castle.
A castle wouldn’t be a castle without the ghost of a grey lady. Not to be outdone, Edinburgh Castle has one, perhaps two, wandering through its ancient hallways and corridors.
Many believe that one of our historical hauntings also has links to Glamis Castle, where the tragic story and subsequent apparition of Lady Glamis, Janet Douglas is seen haunting the place she was happiest. Her ghost may also haunt the place where she met her dreadful end.
Born in 1498, Janet was born a Douglas; a clan who had fallen out of favour with the then ruler King James V after her brother Archibald, who was also the King’s stepfather, had imprisoned a young James for almost three years.
After his escape in 1528, James’ hatred only seemed to grow over the years, and this hatred extended to Janet, with James finally catching up with her in July 1537.
Lady Glamis was imprisoned in the castle in 1537, eventually being burned at the stake when found guilty of false charges of witchcraft, or, more likely, the attempted poisoning of the then King James V, who had a visceral hatred of the Douglas clan.
Janet’s execution took place on Castle Hill, just outside the entrance to the main castle and at the top of the Royal Mile. Horrifically, her young son was forced to watch his mother’s agonising death.
It’s possible that the identity of the sorrowful apparition isn’t that of Janet Douglas; it could be of a later inhabitant, Mary De Guise, who, in a strange coincidence, came to Edinburgh the year after Janet’s death to marry the man who’d executed her: King James V.
Mary is probably best known as the mother of Mary: Queen of Scots, and acted as Queen Regent on behalf of her daughter from 1554 until her death six years later.
A staunch catholic, Mary was at odds with the growing influence of the Scottish protestants and, upon her death, her body was held in St Margaret’s chapel, wrapped in cotton and lead for several months before agreement could be reached with protestant nobles to allow her body to be returned to France.
Although she lived mainly in Leith, her final resting place was to be Edinburgh Castle, and it’s possible that it’s her spirit seen wandering through the more ancient parts of the castle.
Whichever unfortunate woman is said to haunt, she has been regularly sighted by visitors and staff wandering through the halls of the great castle, often weeping and wiping tears from her face, seemingly unable to find peace in the after life – and always wearing a 16th century grey dress.
A spectral reunion
In 1689 – the year of the Jacobite Rebellion – English troops, sent north to support King William, were garrisoned in the castle.
To help quell support for the deposed catholic monarch King James II, soldiers had been imprisoning suspected partisans of James within the castle, including a man named Lord Balcarres; an aristocrat and politician.
Given his standing, Balcarres was held in some degree of comfort compared to the common prisoner.
Lord Balcarres reported having a very unusual event happen to him on the 27th of July as he was preparing to retire for the evening.
Balcarres was close friends with avowed Jacobite John Graham, viscount Dundee. More commonly known as Major “Bonnie Dundee”.
Dundee, a popular figure among Jacobites, was immortalised in poem by Sir Walter Scott, written nearly 200 hundred years later:
To the Lords o’ Convention ’twas Claverhouse spoke
E’er the King’s crown go down there are crowns to be broke
So each cavalier who loves honour and me
Let him follow the bonnets o’ Bonnie Dundee
Dundee was known as a fine soldier who’d been tasked with patrolling the south west of Scotland during the unrest the upheaval of the times had brought.
Back in the castle, Balcarres had set himself for the evening and was preparing to get into bed, when he felt someone standing behind him.
Turning round, he was shocked to see Dundee stood in front of him, as clear as day and unmistakably him.
Balcarres naturally assumed Dundee had been arrested and attempted to speak to him, but received no answer other than the viscount greeting him with a smile before turning round and leaving the room.
Curious, Balcarres followed him out, only to find he was nowhere to be seen.
The next day, he learned that Dundee had led a Jacobite army to victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie – however, the victory came at a great cost. Dundee was mortally wounded leading the charge of his highlanders against the government troops. He died the day he visited Balcarress.
This is the only recorded occasion that Bonnie Dundee has been spotted in the castle.
Dragging up the past
At the foot of Castle Hill lies the wonderful Ramsay Gardens. Modern, by old town standards, they were built in the 1890s and have been home to many notable people over the years.
The Poet Allan Ramsay, biologist Patrick Geddes, and sculptor George Clark Stanton all once called the Garden’s home.
They are also home to a very different resident; a spectre whose origin and identity is unknown.
What is known is that he appears out of place, and his outfit pre-dates the modern setting by around 100 years. It might not be his appearance that takes your attention though, should you see him.
He’s also seen to be struggling and dragging a huge wooden chest behind him. I wonder what is in the chest and why he continues to drag it…
To anyone looking at the castle for the first time, they see a foreboding, seemingly inescapable prison for those unfortunate enough to find themselves incarcerated there; but it’s not escape proof.
In fact, there are a couple of notable escapees over the years. One successful, one not so successful.
In 1681, Archibald Campbell – the 9th Earl of Argyll and a prominent figure in Scottish society at the time – was imprisoned in the castle for the crime of refusing to subscribe to the Test Act.
The Act required anyone seeking or already holding public office to take an oath, first and foremost, of their devotion to the Protestant faith.
He was a cannie lad though, as was his daughter Lady Sophia Lindsay.
She visited her father while imprisoned, bringing with her a male servant whose head had been wrapped in bandages due to being on the wrong end of an apparent beating, resulting in some severe injuries to his face.
When in her father’s cell, he swapped clothes with the Earl. They left to return to her carriage and Lady Sophia was inconsolable with grief at how she found her father, thus giving further authenticity to her ruse and providing greater distraction from the subterfuge just undertaken – the Earl had escaped – for now.
Four years passed, and he was recaptured and imprisoned again in the castle, in an area now known as the Argyll tower. Here, he was sentenced to be beheaded, with the punishment to be carried out at the Mercat cross on the Royal Mile.
There was no escape for Archibald this time.
The Earl’s ghost is said to be seen regularly within the tower, sombrely pacing back and forth in the room he spent his last night on earth.
The other, less successful, escape was made by a prisoner who hatched a plot to hide in the dung barrels that he presumed were taken down the Royal Mile and emptied there.
What he didn’t know was that the barrels were instead emptied over the side of the steep, rocky crags and into the Nor Loch below. His escape had been successful, but he met an horrendous end as he went the same way as the dung.
Numerous people have reported his unseen spirit since his death. With some believing his invisible hands have tried to push them over the battlements, onto the rocks below. It could be argued that this may not be his spirit, but the overpowering stench of dung has been witnessed immediately after.
The Spectre of the Steward
Our next story centres around the Governor’s House.
The current Governor’s House was built in around 1740, but a more ancient and foreboding building is said to have stood on the site long before the new house was built.
Around 130 years ago, a soldier named Robert Eliot Westwood was stationed in the castle and lodged in the Governor’s House. Robert was an instructor in the Royal Engineers, and had been lodging in the house with a friend by the name of Tom.
Both men had known each other for a while, and neither were prone to believe some of their fellow soldiers’ tales of supernatural events in their ancient surroundings. Originally from England, prior to joining the army, Tom had lived a previous life as a Schoolmaster and had a firmly grounded belief system.
He put any ghostly tales down to campfire stories and too much Whiskey.
One night, after the usual stories and tales had been spun, Tom and Robert had retired to their second-floor lodging.
Robert was still intrigued by the stories he’d heard and recounted many to the unbelieving Tom, who, as he’d never witnessed any unusual phenomena, dismissed the encounters out of hand.
However, that didn’t stop him making sure all doors to their lodgings were securely locked.
Tom had climbed into his bunk but forgotten to blow out the candle, so Robert warned him: “One day you’ll be burned in your bed. Be sure to put that candle out so a tragedy like that does not happen to us.” At this, Robert blew out the candle and they both settled down to sleep.
A terrible noise shocked them awake – the noise was unmistakable – it was the securely locked and bolted front door into the Governor’s House hitting against the wall as if flung open by some massive force.
A few seconds of silence followed before footsteps were heard; heavy footsteps running up the stairs, towards their lodgings.
Tom gasped in fright, unable to rationalise what was happening and the speed at which events unfolded.
He turned to look at Robert, grabbing his hand in fear just as the door to their lodgings was thrown open and a gust of wind swept through the room. The footsteps came straight for the terrified soldiers and then, as suddenly as it all started, the commotion stopped.
As this all began, a feeling of evil had settled over the room but this had started to lift and, as it did, the room was left in silence.
Aware that their room door was open, Tom and Robert realised that the door to the house also had to be open so they made their way downstairs to secure it.
Upon reaching the heavy main door, they were shocked and confused to see it wide open but with its bolts still shot and no damage to the fittings.
Fearful of what force could have done this, and for their sanity, they quickly secured the door, made sure the bolts were in place, and went back to try to get some sleep.
A few hours passed and, again, they were awoken with a start by the sounds of the front door crashing against the wall, the heavy footsteps on the stairs, and the bedroom door being flung open, followed by a gust of wind and the feeling of evil, then the footsteps rushing over toward them, then…silence.
Like before, they nervously made their way down the stairs to find the main door open and bolts still in place.
Again, they closed the door securely, and made their way back to their lodgings; this time deciding it may be best to stay awake rather than try to get some sleep. And this they did.
As dawn broke, the men recounted their unbelievable tale to their fellow soldiers, expecting to be laughed out of the castle but, instead, they were told about something that may have explained their supernatural experience.
The evening of these events was the 200-year anniversary of a heartbreaking incident.
During the Jacobite rising of 1689, the Duke of Gordon – the then-Governor of Edinburgh – fearing the castle would again come under siege, had made arrangements for his family to travel across the Firth of Forth, to Fife.
His Steward was charged with his family’s protection and had sworn to do so. He could not protect them from the forces of nature, however.
During the short voyage, all aboard the ship except the Steward were lost when a tempest arose and overwhelmed the vessel.
After reaching the safety of the Edinburgh shore, the Steward made his way back to the castle as fast as his horse could carry him. On reaching the Governor’s House, he threw open the heavy front door, ran up the stairs to the second-floor room, and approached the Governor’s room, throwing open the door and relaying the events that had happened to the Governor’s family.
On hearing this news, the Governor – in a fit of rage and heartbreak – is said to have killed the Steward on the very spot where the footsteps stopped. Right next to where the two soldiers slept.
The Loyal Guardian
Not all the spirits in the castle wish you harm; in fact, some will protect and love you unconditionally. So, I’ll leave you today with the story of a good boy.
Within the castle walls is a very special cemetery; a cemetery that dates back nearly 200 years, dedicated to the bravest of the brave: the dogs who belonged to the soldiers stationed there.
A poet once wrote:
Berkin dugs here lie at rest
The yappin worst, obedient best
Sodgers pets and mascots tae
Still guard the castle to this day
One of the dogs laid to rest there still carries on fulfilling his duties beyond the grave.
A scruffy-looking spectral black dog has been seen wandering the castle grounds.
Tail-wagging, bright-eyed, and friendly; many witnesses felt he was so real you could pet him.
So, if you ever visit Edinburgh castle, remember to stop by the cemetery on the way out and bring some treats. You never know who – or what – you might meet.