Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Ghosts of Greyfriars - Bluidy Mackenzie and the Covenanters

Entrance to the Covenanters Prison
Greyfriars Kirk in the heart of Edinburgh's picturesque Old Town is the final resting place of many famous names from the city's history, including the father of Sir Walter Scott; George Heriot, whose bequest founded the famous school which stands next to the churchyard; William McGonnegal, famed as Scotland's worst poet; and James Adam, designer of the New Town, but is perhaps best known to many for its association with the little Skye Terrier, whose loyalty to his master has become famous around the world. Several movies have told his story and Greyfriars Bobby, who has a statue and a gravestone in his honour, where tourists queue to have their photograph taken, has become one of the best known dogs in history. However, tucked away in a quiet shaded corner of the graveyard stands a double-barred gate upon which hangs a simple sign stating that this was the 'Covenanters Prison'.
The Covenanters' Prison

Those who gaze through the iron bars will see a narrow corridor of worn grass and well tramped earth bordered on either side by several open tombs, and would be forgiven for thinking these were the cells where the prisoners were held. 

It is a spot largely overlooked during the day by most tourists but which comes alive after sunset as the infamous ghost tours lead parties of the curious around the dark closes and wynds of Edinburgh in search of the paranormal. 

The guides take great delight in revealing blood curdling tales of people being pushed and scratched by an unseen entity said to be Mackenzie's Poltergeist, once they enter a small tomb behind the locked gate leading to the prison. The hairs on the back of their necks may well rise and  shivers run down their spine as they imagine they feel the presence of evil creeping in their midst. 

Sir George Mackenzie
That is the paranormal version of events but what is the true story of Mackenzie and the Covenanters?
Sir George Mackenzie, the man whose unquiet spirit is said to be source of the paranormal activity, was born in Dundee in 1636. He was born into a life of privilege, being the grandson of the first Lord Mackenzie of Kintail and attended universities in Aberdeen, St Andrews and Bourges in France.  He was elected to the  Faculty of Advocates in 1659, and spoke in defence at the trial of  Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyll, in 1661. He acted as justice-depute from 1661 to 1663, a post that involved him in overseeing the extensive witch trials which afflicted Scotland with a form of mass hysteria at the time.

Mackenzie was knighted, and became a member of the Scottish Parliament for Ross from 1669. In 1677 he became Lord Advocate, and a member of the Privy Council of Scotland.

As Lord Advocate he was the minister responsible for the persecuting policy of Charles II in Scotland against the Presbyterian Covenanters. 

The Covenanters of 1679 who were to feel the full weight of Mackenzie's displeasure were mainly the descendants of the original men and women who had signed the National Covenant in 1638 which declared they would defend reformed religion and denounce any attempts to introduce Catholic teachings or traditions onto the people of Scotland. While the Covenant stated that they were loyal to the king, Charles I at the time of the signing, it was clear that in reality the Covenanters saw only God Himself as having any authority over them.

Following the restoration of the monarchy following the War of the Three Kingdoms, Charles II sought to establish his will over his northern kingdom. He declared the Covenanters, who had fought both for and against his father at various stages of the English Civil War, to be outlaws and their oaths illegal. These oaths must be renounced in order to avoid punishment. 

This measure lead to armed rebellion and only ended when 6,000 armed men from the Highlands were ordered south to crush the Covenanters with unbridled savagery towards the families of those believed to involved. Ministers were expelled from their pulpits for refusing to accept Charless II as head of the church and forced to preach God's word at field conventicles where even attending was viewed as a capital crime.

A further rebellion broke out in 1679 which saw the Covenanters achieve a notable victory over the Royalist forces of John Graham of Claverhouse at the Battle of Drumclog. Unfortunately internal divisions between the Covenanters meant that in the following weeks they argued between themselves rather than prepare for the inevitable response from the king.
The Battle of Bothwell Brig
They were defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Brig on the 22nd of June 1679, and it is now that events move back to Greyfriar's Kirkyard.

1,200 men who had been captured at Bothwell Brig were dragged back to Edinburgh and imprisoned within a narrow walled meadow by Greyfriar's in the area now known as the Covenanters Prison.  They were held in this cramped space without shelter from the elements and exposed to all the vagaries of the Scottish weather under the eyes and guns of men who itched for an excuse to kill them. Initially the prisoners were fed only four ounces of bread a day although at times concerned locals were permitted to feed the prisoners a little extra.

Sir George Mackenzie oversaw the show trials these men faced. Without any access to an effective defence they were doomed from the first as King Charles II was determined to stamp his authority on any who dared oppose him. Groups of Covenanters were taken for trial, found guilty and marched down to the Grassmarket where they were hanged en-masse.
Covenanters Memorial in Edinburgh's Grassmarket which marks the location of the public gallows

For those who remained by Greyfriar's conditions did not improve as the weeks and months passed. Those not chosen for the noose suffered due to exposure and many died from disease and neglect until only 257 remained alive by November. These men were given a mockery of a trial and sentenced to transportation to the American Colonies to suffer as slaves. 

On legs which could barely carry them they were forced to march down to the port of Leith on the shore of the Forth where they were chained into the belly of a ship to cross the wide Atlantic. Tragically the ship foundered as it passed the Orkney Islands and all but 48 men were drowned

There followed what became infamous as the Killing Time in Scotland when even suspicion was enough to have men, women and even children murdered in the name of the king in a desperate attempt to finally crush out the last embers of Presbyterianism in Scotland. The actions of Mackenzie, and others like him, only strengthened the faith of those who suffered but it was only the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and William of Orange seizing the throne which finally ended the persecution. Even then some Covenanters did not welcome William as he was viewed as an uncovenanted king as he was head of the Church of England and followed Episcopalian teachings. In Scotland however Presbyterian religion was restored and all those who had suffered for their faith could finally be remembered and their sacrifice rewarded by the overthrowing of the hated episcopal traditions.

As for Sir George Mackenzie, he continued in office until the coming of William and Mary who he opposed. To escape any measures being taken against him he retired from public life and settled in Oxford. He died in 1691 in London and his body was transported back to Edinburgh where he was interred in a grand mausoleum not far from the site where so many had suffered and died under his orders.

As for his soubriquet of Bluidy (Bloody) Mackenzie it is unclear when exactly he was bestowed the title. Sir Walter Scott certainly uses it in his novel The Heart of Midlothian and the association between his name and blood prevails in the published testimony of Marion Harvey, hanged in 1681, who calls her blood onto Mackenzie, "that excommunicate tyrant, George Mackenzie, the advocate".

That then is the tale of Bluidy Mackenzie. A man seen by many as a monster who delighted in inflicting suffering on others while some may see him as man merely following the letter of the law at another troubled time in Scottish history, which once again saw Scots wage war on their oldest enemy – other Scots!

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Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.
 His blog can be followed at 


  1. It never ceases a to amaze me how much blood has been and still is being shed in the name of religion. Great post!

  2. Another great post Stuart. It's a sad testimony to man's inhumanity to man. It always astounds me (and i use this as just one example) that if men can do this sort of thing to other men, Scots can do this to other Scots, Christians can do this to other Christians, then what hope is there for the world. Thank you for enlightening me more on another piece of fascinating history from Edinburgh, that great city

  3. Nice post - but Campbell was not the Marquis of Montrose, he was the Earl of Argyll (Montrose = James Graham and died in 1650) And it may be important to point out that the W&M made life easier for the Presbyterians, but not for the Catholic Highlanders.

    1. Thanks Anna, my mistake which I shall correct and you are quite right to point out that William did nothing to help the Catholic Highlands. The massacre of Glencoe, carried out by Scots on his order is an example of that.

  4. I'm in the middle of studying Scottish history of this time and the preceding 200 years, for my book. I look forward to your blogs on Scottish history in particular Edinburgh. As Paula says... so much killing in the name of religion then as now sadly. Great post Stuart...Great post!

  5. Those of us in the US who cannot visit Greyfriars to get a feeling of the utter horrors the Covenanters who were imprisoned there endured should visit Yuma Territorial Prison,where 200 years later the conditions were equally inhumane for prisoners who were not compliant with the rules.. When I visited there, it was as if I could hear their ghosts. Imagine the same conditions Stuart described and 110+ degree heat in Summer, with temperatures dropping dramatically on many nights. There are apologists for the prison, which was regarded as a model penal institution during its heyday because it had running water and electricity to some areas. According to records, there were Scots there. And Russians.--1880-1909.