The Poltergeist, the Body-Snatchers and the Severed Head of George Mackenzie

In the heart of Edinburgh there exists a statue of a small, black dog. Children may know him from the film, Greyfriars Bobby, a cute ‘true’ story about a faithful Skye Terrier. The truth of the matter, according to tour guides, is more likely that the little dog hovered in Greyfriars churchyard to look for and nibble at the bones that occasionally come to the surface here.

Greyfriars is a place where the dead and living unite. The chapel stands in the centre and elaborate monuments adorn the walls. Severe Scottish statues stand guard, and it is likely you’ll feel you’re being watched, for this is the graveyard famous for one of Scotland’s most notorious hauntings, that of the infamous Mackenzie poltergeist.

The eyes watching you, however, are those of the locals who sometimes hang around in the nooks and crannies of this eerie place of the dead, often with a tinnie or two for company; it’s a common sight as the local substance misuse centre is situated just outside the ornate gates. The place’s history doesn’t bother them, and this odd coupling of life and death came to a head in 2003 in a modern case of body snatching that itself started with a supposed haunting.

Covenanter's Prison, Greyfriars.

Uneasy Lie the Dead

The so-called haunting started as a result of a real, if minor, crime. A homeless person had skirted the graveyard in the hopes of finding somewhere to hide from the typically Biblical Edinburgh rain. The east gate had been dislodged and the vagrant ambled in presumably to see if any of the covered tombs would offer any level of warmth or just dryness for the evening. This is quite a common occurrence in the churchyard.

This gentleman, however, noticed a hole in a particularly foreboding mausoleum. Pushing his luck, he forced his way through the gap and found a series of coffins. As dead men cannot kill, and yet for reasons known only to himself, he resolved to open one of the coffin lids only to be hurled to a lower level… because his feet had found an hidden hole in the floor. He was on an uneven surface. Flicking his lighter, he realised he was surrounded by the uncovered bones of rotting corpses, and naturally fled for his sanity.

The mausoleum that the unfortunate man had violated is that named for one of its inhabitants, George Mackenzie. Known as “Bluidy” Mackenzie, the gentleman was appointed as Lord Advocate by King Charles II. Mackenzie’s role was to persecute the Christian Presbyterians (known as Covenanters) for their faith. It is thought that Mackenzie was responsible for ordering the deaths of 18,000 of these people, a number of whom are both buried and commemorated in the Greyfriars graveyard mere feet away from his own body.

According to Jan-Andrew Henderson, the guide who leads tours to the Covenanters’ plot, the Mackenzie poltergeist ‘hauntings’ started after this fearsome man’s grave was disturbed by the unfortunate vagrant, perhaps setting his spirit to torment the Covenanters in death as he did in life. Those visiting the Covenanters’ Prison are apt to experience everything from visions to ghostly physical abuse that have passed into legend the world over.

George Mackenzie Mausoleum, Greyfriars.
George Mackenzie Mausoleum, Greyfriars.

The ‘Bluidy’ Body-Snatchers

To add injury to insult, on 30 June 2003, tour guide Henderson heard a commotion from his house beside the graveyard. He happened upon a boy (17 year old Sonny Devlin), an unnamed younger youth and a few of their friends running with what he assumed was a football under Devlin’s arm. Henderson called the police. In a perversion of gothic romance and more than slightly under the influence of ‘Bucky’ wine, Devlin and the younger person had stolen into Mackenzie’s mausoleum to impress some local Goths. Once there, they cracked open one of the tombs within its walls.

One of the boys then chopped the mummified head off with a penknife (having failed to simply pull it) and proceeded to play with it. According to The Daily Mirror’s coverage of the trial, ‘When they joined the other teenagers the boys threw the head to each other. One girl recalled: “At first it looked like a stone but then you could see its face. Sonny chased people around with it.’”

That was not all he did, as The Sun reported, ‘”He tried to make it perform sex acts on him. He pretended it was licking his bum and giving him a blowjob.”’

This was in addition to him placing the object on his hand to use as a particularly gory glove puppet.

Tiring of tearing around, the boys initially hid the head behind a nearby gravestone. Their crime was discovered when they went back to move it and were found sitting at the back of the graveyard by the police. Devlin and his unnamed accomplice were found guilty of the particularly Scottish crime of “violating a sepulchre” or breaking into a tomb, and were the first people in more than 100 years to be convicted of this crime. Devlin was handed a 200 hour community service order and his partner in crime was given two years probation.

The severed head of George Mackenzie
The severed head of George Mackenzie

Greyfriars After Midnight

The identity of the corpse from whom the head was taken was never released to the public at the time, nor in subsequent news reports. However, Stuart Fagan, Edinburgh’s Cemeteries Team Leader has confirmed to Real Crime that it was George Mackenzie’s coffin that was violated and his head is displayed above. Mr Fagan himself was responsible for placing the head back in the tomb after a short Christian service after the trial had ended.

The macabre machinations of the Mackenzie tomb do not end there, however.

Two years after Devlin and his friend invaded the tomb it was violated again. Unknown intruders gained access despite increased security at the churchyard, removed a head and posed it on one of the spikes that top the cemetery’s gates. They left behind a note with the message “The Vampire Lark”.

They have not been traced.

Reported paranormal activity in the churchyard has allegedly escalated to the extent that tourguide Jan-Andrew Henderson states he no longer keeps records. The deal with death is that our reactions to it, from fear through to the odd comfort of fending off the threat in dire circumstances, is that it overrules normal behaviour. Death is as much a mirror of ourselves as it is an image of decay. We want to touch and understand it even as we may be terrified by it and this may manifest through tours of supposed hauntings to the more morbid pursuits of such as Sonny Devlin, who said he was scared of the supposed ghost.

The many eyes of Greyfriars – in stone, in skin and those poking up through earth on frostier mornings, continue to return their visitors’ stare… just beyond children posing for photographs with the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the Disney film dog…and scavenger.

For more gruesome tales of true crime, pick up the latest issue of Real Crime or try our special subscription offer and get 3 issues for £1

Notes and special thanks:

  • Jan-Andrew Henderson is the manager of City of the Dead Tours. Henderson is the author of a number of books on the case and his tours access the Covenanters’ Prison.
  • Stuart Fagan is the Cemeteries Team Leader for Greyfriars Kirkyard. He reinterred Mackenzie’s severed head into its coffin.
  • The Media Department of Edinburgh Police Department.