“During the day, I don’t believe in ghosts. At night, I’m a little more open-minded.”
Scotland in the summer is a gentle dusting of sun and heather. A Scottish winter sets a chill in the bones in an oddly beautiful way, acting like a hug from an old friend more than anything. Spring teases us with an enviable beauty. And then there’s Autumn. A time for Harry Potter reruns, spiced cider sipped at the local pub, and lit candles in foggy windows.
No matter the time of year, Scotland is synonymous with many things. Bagpipes. Highland coos. Haggis. Men in kilts. Ruined castles perched loch-side. And any who have visited Scotland know the country has had its fair share of dramatic and harrowing events in the past.
Any country with as many mist-covered moors and valleys as Scotland cannot be without its legends. And with Halloween approaching, you might be wondering how best to celebrate the spookiest of seasons while traversing our wild landscape.
While you’re here in Scotland, you might hear another word associated with this time of year: Samhain (pronounced SAH-win). Simply put, it’s our word for Halloween but the origin of this celebration is steeped in mischief, wildness, and obscenity. Samhain was a harvest festival celebrated by the Celts. It was a time to mark the final harvest of the year and prepare for the descent of winter.
It was also a time to honour the dead. People believed witches and warlocks emerged to engage in wicked practices. They believed the souls of the dead were free to roam and would cause mischief in their homes.
They believe their ‘Festival of the Dead’ was a day when the veil between worlds was at its thinnest and the underworld collided with the world of the living.
Today, Halloween is still celebrated around the world.
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting our shores during Autumn (in our opinion, one of the best times to experience Scotland), and are drawn to spooky stories the way a curious child is drawn to something unfamiliar, make sure you add the following haunted places in Scotland to your bucket list.
When the morning mists shroud Edinburgh’s worn cobbled alleys, it’s easy to believe in ghosts. There’s a shadowed corner to your left, one you’re hesitant to look at directly, in case you see something you’re not ready to see.
You think that if you keep walking, and find a patch of light, you might be safe. But it’s more than the streets around you that you need to look out for. Have you considered what’s below?
Buried beneath the winding streets of the Royal Mile is Mary’s King Close, an underground close shrouded in myths, legends, hauntings and tales of past atrocities.
During a horrendous bout of Bubonic Plague in the 17th century, victims of the illness were forced down into the close and sealed off to prevent the spread of the disease. Those visiting Edinburgh swear to be able to hear the whispers and moans of the trapped souls who were left to die in those dark corners beneath this vibrant city.
Overlooking Mary King’s Close and the rest of the city, like a guard keeping watch, is Edinburgh Castle. As one of the oldest fortified places in Europe, it’s no wonder it’s bursting with stories, legends, and myths.
Before it was a famous visitor attraction, luring travellers and history lovers inside its walls, the castle had a sordid history, like all castles of its time. Hundreds of prisoners were crammed into the dark vaults within the castle. Can you imagine it? The horrors. The stink. The cries of the damned, including a five-year-old drummer boy.
He was captured at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Not much else is known, other than him being the youngest prisoner of war to be held in the cells. And of course, it’s the perfect fodder for a good ghost story.
Legend goes the castle is haunted by the ghost of a headless drummer boy. That when he was alive, this boy was sent into the tunnels beneath the castle to sound the alarm during an attack. Be warned: if you see his ghost today, it supposedly means disaster is on the way.
“The story was, and is, that in the Castle of Glamis, the celebrated old castle of the Earls of Strathmore, is a secret chamber. In this chamber is confined a monster, who is the rightful heir to the title and property, but who is so unpresentable that it is necessary to keep him out of sight and out of possession.”
It’s almost unfathomable that such a beautiful building could have such a dark story buried within its walls, but that’s Scotland for you.
The story goes that wee baby boy Thomas was born to the Lord and Lady of Glamis, but sadly died at birth. Soon after, rumours began circulating around town that the child had not died and was instead born deformed so had been hidden away in the castle, never to be seen by the public. But if you visit the castle today, you might spot his ghost still haunting the castle’s hidden chambers.
Smell that? Not the stench of decay or of dank, dark hallways. That sweet, yet smokey scent you’re picking up on the wind is lavender. Nothing threatening or harmful about that, is there? Unless you’re in Stirling Castle, in which case you might want to check around you for the Green Lady.
The origin of these hauntings can never be fully confirmed, but one story goes she was a servant wrongfully accused of murder and then executed. Her ghostly presence haunts the halls of Stirling Castle with a hint of lavender being a warning she is close.
She’s not the only lady of note still haunting the castle. We think the Green Lady sounds harmless in comparison to the Black Lady of the Back Walk. Prowling the pathway surrounding the graveyard of Holy Rude church, this ghostly nun is still seeking to be reunited with her secret lover – a Priest, supposedly. Soaked in sin, those who gaze on her before dawn will suffer a painful death.
On 16 April 1746, the final and most famous Jacobite Rising came to a devastating end on the moors of Culloden. Jacobite supporters went head-to-head with British soldiers, a battle which resulted in the death of nearly 1,500 Jacobite soldiers.
This tragedy has inspired works of art and literature ever since, from ‘The Skye Boat Song’ to Outlander. Today, visitors can walk the moorlands and learn about the battle and those who died there. Needless to say, many leave the moor feeling a little blue. And some leave with a chill under the skin. Many visitors have reported hearing the phantom song of bagpipes whispering on the air on the anniversary of the battle.
From the early twelfth century, the town of St Andrews was used as a holy pilgrimage site that many would flock to for a glimpse of the relics of Saint Andrew himself. Saint Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland for over 1000 years. You can see him on our national flag to this very day in the diagonal cross - the Saltire - which represents his death by crucifixion.
Once a magnificent structure, it’s now an incredible ruin looming over the town with an enviable view of the sea. In 1559 it was ransacked by a Protestant mob and before long it fell into ruin. But it’s not as empty as it might appear. Nothing says haunted like a ruined cathedral accompanied by the crashing song of the sea on rock.
That mysterious figure you may have seen floating around the ruins? That’s The White Lady, her long white dress and white gloves are as pristine as they were when she was alive. Who was she? How did she die? Those mysteries continue. What we do know is that, if you’re afraid of ghosts, it’s best not to wander too close to the ruins once the sun goes down.
What is it about caves beneath a castle that promises legends and hauntings? It’s almost inevitable. The cliff-top masterpiece that is Culzean Castle is perched on the Ayrshire cliffs, and the estate was a playground for the Earl.
But below the 280-ha estate were the caves that many believed were dangerous and haunted. In order to disprove this fear, a piper was sent into the caves to walk until he made it to the exit, proving there was nothing to worry about. Followed by his loyal canine, the piper began a tune on his instrument at the foot of the cliffs before entering the cave. The piper's tune could be heard for some time from inside the caves, which began to fade as he made his way along the path... until it suddenly stopped.
Even his dog stopped barking.
With the assumption that the piper was trapped or stuck, a search party was sent to recover him. But the piper and his dog were never seen or heard from again... that is, unless a wedding is taking place in the castle. To this day, people claim that on the eve of a wedding, the sound of pipes can be heard emanating from the caves.
It's easy to believe a place of such sweeping beauty is haunted. Don't they so often go hand-in-hand? Like walking the canals of Venice at night and letting the chill take hold of you. Like passing by an alleyway on the Royal Mile of Edinburgh's Old Town, its one remaining light flickering in a desperate attempt to stay alive.
Glencoe is no different. Your gaze locks on its unending stretch of mist-shrouded valleys. You might even permit a small smile and a whispered 'wow' to yourself. But deep down you know this is the kind of place you'd only want to be in during the day with other people around you. What might it be like at night? Or alone?
A low-lying sun and chilling bite in the air might just remind you that this was once a place of great devastation. The Massacre of Glencoe. Some say that on the anniversary, a melancholy presence suffocates the landscape. Many have claimed to have glimpsed shadows crouching among the crags. Screams and pleas of dying men echo in the air, like the far-off pulsating of music you can only just hear, as if the ghosts themselves are reenacting the battle that killed them.
So, next time you're in Glencoe, maybe you'll look a little deeper. Or maybe this is the very reason you won't.
We know there’s a risk to seeking out hauntings. What if they see you as clearly as you see them? But a little risk is good for the soul. And Scotland is exactly the kind of place you should come to if you’re craving something a little bit sinister. It is, after all, a land of stories. Some good, and some very, very evil.