Mercat Tours is known far and wide as a provider of great ghost tours and fascinating underground tours of the Blair Street Vaults in Edinburgh. However, rather like the graves that the city's infamous bodysnatchers stole from, if you dig a little deeper, there’s much more to be found. So, we asked our friends at Mercat for some insights into Edinburgh's dark and gruesome history.
As Scotland’s capital and home to the highest courts in the land, Edinburgh had perhaps more than its fair share of public punishments, executions and political intrigues. In the Gallows to Graveyard tour, you can find out about the very worst of them.
We had a vivid imagination for punishments in Edinburgh. For example, if you were declared bankrupt, you had to sit at the Mercat Cross in a yellow hat all day. Not much of a punishment? Well, you had to pay for your own hat too. If your luck did not improve and you found yourself begging on the streets as a result, beware! You were not allowed to beg in Edinburgh if you were able-bodied and aged between 14 and 70. If caught, your ear would be nailed to the door of the Tron Kirk, while you were still attached. After a few hours, we would slice off your ear and leave it sticking to the door a while longer. Ironically, the injuries received through this punishment would make you eligible for beggar status.
At no time were punishments more cruel than in the 16th and 17th centuries, when fear of witchcraft and sorcery whipped folk up into a frenzy of bloodlust. In their quest to seek out Auld Clootie’s (that’s a good Scots name for the Devil) servants, anyone who was different was singled out and tried. Red hair? A mole? A birthmark? Sure signs you were in league with Beelzebub. Most suspects were also female.
Trial by torture – thumbscrews were a favourite – and trial by water down at the shores of the Nor’ Loch soon identified the guilty, who were then whisked away to Castlehill for burning at the stake. Being found innocent was little comfort as you were normally (a) dead or (b) mortally wounded from your trials, which means you would be (a) dead no matter what happened.
However, on the journey from Gallows to Graveyard, you may discover that Auld Clootie was not who he was assumed to be. An Edinburgh man called William Barton had the misfortune to find out the true identity of Auld Clootie and as a result ended his days swinging from the gallows. But I’m not going to tell you what he found out ... you’ll have to come on a tour and find out for yourselves.
Visit the Mercat Tours website to book a tour or find out more.