Ghost tours are a different way of seeing Edinburgh and Dublin

Ghost tours in Edinburgh and Dublin offer novel ways for visitors to experience these cities

Travellers seeking a different, darker experience of Edinburgh or Dublin can try a ghost tour.

Playing on the dark histories of these cities, such tours - by bus or on foot - let visitors experience famous sites in a new way.

In eerily quiet graveyards or candle-lit vaults, be regaled with tales of each location's past - from grisly murders to unfortunate deaths to spooky tales of strange sightings.

Some tours are purely historical, while others verge on the theatrical, with scary actors on hand. One even serves a ghoulish cocktail.

On a seven-day trip to both cities in May this year, I went on six such tours and had a spine-chilling - but utterly delightful - experience.

Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is said to be the most haunted city in Europe. This reputation stems mostly from its history, which is riddled with civil wars, political upheavals and blood- thirsty monarchs.

  • GETTING THERE

    Several airlines fly to Edinburgh and Dublin from Singapore.

    For example, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has a 17-hour flight from Singapore to Edinburgh, which includes a twohour layover in Amsterdam.

    British Airwayshas a 17-hour flight from Singapore to Dublin, which includes a two- hour layover in London.

    Edinburgh and Dublin are a 70-minute flight from each other and several airlines fly between them.

    During my trip, I take a Ryanair flight from Edinburgh to Dublin, which cost £41 (S$70).

The Great Plague of 1645 also left tens of thousands dead.

No surprise, then, that it is the birthplace of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote the horror classic, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.

On the tours, tales are often told of William Burke and William Hare, a pair of serial killers from Ireland.

The story goes that the medical community in the 19th century was short of cadavers to be used for dissection and medical research. This scarcity prompted a wave of grave-robbing, in which bodies were removed from graveyards to be peddled for profit.

Burke and Hare went one step further. They killed 16 people in Edinburgh in 1828 to sell their cadavers to the medical community. Both were caught that same year.

Neighbouring city Dublin, the capital of Ireland, is also known for its tortured past.

It is rife with creepy stories, especially those surrounding its churches and Kilmainham Gaol, which famously housed many of the city's political figures as well as prisoners from the Irish War Of Independence.

It is not known exactly when these tours began, but Mercat Tours, which conducts ghost tours and history walks, is believed to have written and conducted the first such excursion in Edinburgh, titled Ghosts And Ghouls, in 1985.

This tour still runs today. Mercat Tours regularly hosts at least five other ghost tours.

An Internet search also reveals that at least five other companies in Edinburgh and three in Dublin are operating similar tours.

In 2003, Continuum Attractions started operating The Real Mary King's Close, an underground guided tour hidden deep beneath Edinburgh's Royal Mile. More than two million visitors have visited the attraction since.

While the tours run regularly throughout the year - by day and night - they are more frequent during the Halloween season.

Each tour is different, but every group generally has 10 to 20 people. The tours last one to 21/2 hours and cost between €13 (S$20) and €25. Bus tours tend to cost more, but they transport guests to the locations, leaving them with more energy to scream.

Places with a bleak past such as graveyards, jails and some churches are often on the itinerary.

Expect a dark sense of humour. If your guide says the bloody handprints on the walls were left by the previous tour group, just laugh along.

Whether you are a believer or cynic, these tours certainly are a fun night out.


GRAVEDIGGERS GHOST BUS TOUR

The most theatrical and entertaining of the lot, this bus tour in Dublin involves scare actors, lots of special effects and even ends with a free "ghoulish drink".

Inside, our double-decker bus is decorated with skeletons. There are black-out curtains, so we are in a nightmarish capsule and cannot look outside, while the seats have bone-shaped grab bars.

The guide wears rags and ghoulish make-up and another hidden scare actor is on board.

This tour, which lasts more than two hours, has lots of campy humour and almost no history.

At St Audeon's Church, the guide tells the story of a "demon pig". First seen in the local jail, it terrorised the city, attacking and mutilating women who walked alone after dark.

At this point, the scare actor - with a pig's mask over his head - runs out from a corner. It charges towards our group, who react with howls of surprise and laughter.

Outside the Kilmainham Gaol Museum, our guide describes how executions were conducted in the past and the storytelling, of course, is enlivened with a demonstration from a volunteer.

We are told that victims were hung by the neck, but kept alive. Then, they were disembowelled, with their internal organs thrown into a fire. Finally, they would be decapitated.

At Glasnevin Cemetery (pictured), the performers demonstrated how to dig up a corpse from a grave.

Over-the-top and exaggerated, this tour is, happily, hard for me to take seriously.

Most of the time, I was too busy laughing.

When: 7.45pm daily, additional tours during Halloween

Admission: €25 (S$38) a person

Info: www.thegravedigger.ie


EDINBURGH GHOST BUS TOUR

Our bus tour is so campy that it is practically a comedy show on wheels.

We hop on a double-decker Routemaster bus, used in the 1960s to transport dead bodies from London to their final resting places outside the city.

Now, it is decked out in heavy curtains, lamps that can go out at any time and a "ghost-camera" that captures the undead on screen.

As the bus passes Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace (official residence of the British monarch in Scotland) and the Royal Mile (main thoroughfare of the Old Town), a conductor tells creepy stories about these locations.

Everything on this 75-minute tour seems calculated to thrill. So, at one point, the conductor recounts how a woman was buried alive by her family, who did not hear her scratching from inside her coffin.

Her vengeful ghost became associated with scratching noises from no discernible source.

Right on cue, the bus brushes against a low-hanging tree branch, prompting passengers to giggle when they hear loud scratching sounds.The bus also makes a stop at St Cuthbert's burial ground, said to be haunted by a four-year-old girl-ghost with two gaping holes for eyes.

People who see her will drop dead three days later, the conductor informs us, and she is apparently most powerful when the church bells are ringing.

Lo and behold, the bells start ringing when we are at the burial ground.

Harry Potter fans are also in for a treat.

We glimpse Balmoral Hotel, where British novelist J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. The tour also passes Greyfriars Kirkyard, where two gravestones bear the names of  Tom Riddle (original name of Lord Voldemort, principal antagonist in the Harry Potter books) and Professor McGonagall, headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

When: 7.30 and 9pm daily, additional tour at 6pm (Fridays and Saturdays)

Admission: £16 (S$27) an adult, £12 a child

Info: www.theghostbustours.com


EXTREME PARANORMAL GHOST TOUR

Despite its provocative name, this tour is surprisingly informative and based on history and fact.

A costumed guide takes us along the Royal Mile - the main thoroughfare of Edinburgh's Old Town - while describing what life was like a few hundred years ago.

One highlight is the Heart of Midlothian (pictured), a heart-shaped mosaic on a pavement near St Giles' Cathedral.

This stone mosaic takes its name from the 1818 novel of the same name by Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and marks the site of an administrative centre and jail where torture and public executions were conducted.

In those days, the Edinburgh police force was sometimes seen as corrupt and tyrannical. People were unjustly hanged and riots broke out frequently.

According to our tour guide, a tradition - which is still observed today - is to spit on the mosaic, to show disapproval of those past injustices.

"Don't spit anywhere else. But if you do it here, people will give you the thumbs up," he says.

He even gives us two minutes to spit on the mosaic. I do not, as spitting is unhygienic.

Another highlight is exploring an underground street beneath South Bridge, which has not seen the light of day since the late 18th century.

The bridge was apparently built over the street and there is a skylight through which visitors can peer at the pavement above. Talk about exploring a city's underbelly.

For me, the best part of this 100-minute tour is our animated guide. Although he tells me that some details are probably exaggerated, I hang onto every word.

When: 10.15pm daily

Admission: £15 (S$26)

Info: cityofedinburghtours.com


MOST HIDDEN AND HAUNTED TOUR

On this most suspenseful tour in Edinburgh, I enter the Old Town - a labyrinth of cobbled streets and hidden courtyards - all amazingly preserved and steeped in history.

The focus is on old stories about the area, tales so blood-curdling that only those aged above 18 are allowed on the tour, which lasts 75 minutes.

Our guide, draped in a black cape, with a candle in hand, says repeatedly of the stories: "It's all true."

Once, she mentions Thomas Weir, a 17th-century Scottish soldier who was burned at the stake after confessing to a secret life of crime and vice. Apparently, his ghost is sometimes seen in the city.

A large portion of the tour takes place in the Blair Street Underground Vaults (pictured), built beneath the South Bridge in the 18th century.

Squatters and criminals were said to have taken refuge in these dark and damp vaults and it was a place of gambling, prostitution and murder.

One ghost, said to have been spotted on some tours, takes the form of a naked crouching man, huddled in a corner. He is said to have died in the vaults from illness, cold or both.

As ours is the last tour of the night, we are asked to blow out the candles in the vaults before we exit. As candle after candle is extinguished, the darkness creeps around us and, many times, I have the chilling sensation that someone is behind me.

I huddle closer to the group and am relieved when I finally get out unscathed. Creepy.

When: 10pm daily from April to October, on Fridays and Saturdays from November to March

Admission: £15 (S$26) an adult

Info: www.mercattours.com


THE REAL MARY KING'S CLOSE

This attraction in Edinburgh is essentially a warren of underground streets that have remained frozen in time since the 17th century.

The close - named after a businesswoman, Mary King, who was prominent in the 1630s - and its neighbouring lanes and alleyways were at the heart of the city's busiest and most vibrant streets.

During the hour-long tour, a costumed guide takes on the persona of a past resident such as a maid, poet or wine and timber merchant and leads us through various rooms, some once inhabited by the poor.

The horror comes from imagining their squalid living conditions.

For example, there were no modern toilets in mediaeval Edinburgh. Instead, people used a bucket.

Twice a day, the youngest member of each family would empty the bucket's contents from his home onto the streets, yelling a customary warning cry "gardyloo", which sounds like a French phrase that means "mind the water".

The filth and pests led to diseases such as cholera and typhus, as well as the Great Plague of 1645, which killed tens of thousands in the city.

One gravedigger was said to have contracted the disease from a corpse and spread it to his family. Antibiotics had not yet been invented, so the best people could hope for was answered prayer.

Plague victims were also reportedly quarantined and left to die.

The chilling element of this tour is that it all sounds real.

When: Every 15 minutes from 10am to 9pm (April to October) and 10am to 5pm (November to March)

Admission: £14.50 (S$25) an adult, £8.75 a child

Info: www.realmarykingsclose.com


HAUNTED HISTORY WALKING TOUR


Haunted History Walking Tour. ST PHOTO: BENSON ANG

This guided tour in Dublin takes us through the city, with our guide sharing dark tales about various sites.

Among the most memorable places is Darkey Kelly's Bar & Restaurant in Fishamble Street, known for its traditional Irish music performances.

Darkey Kelly was an 18th-century Irish brothel-keeper who was burned at the stake after being framed for being a witch, explains the guide.

She is one of Dublin's most enduring legends and her ghost is known as The Green Lady, dressed all in green - a colour often associated with death in Irish myth.

Kelly's ghost is said to have been seen on the grounds of the nearby St Audoen's Church (pictured). According to our guide, visitors at the church have reported feeling disoriented or light-headed.

Out of the corner of their eye, some visitors have seen figures who disappear on closer inspection.

Thankfully, I feel and see nothing. But the place does feel spooky with its imposing walls and tall trees.

If you ask me, the scariest part is the sight of groups of people huddled in a corner of the church grounds, acting suspiciously.

The place is not just a haunt for ghosts, but also for drug abusers.

When: 8pm (Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays), additional tours during Halloween

Admission: €13 (S$20) a person, free with a ticket to The Gravediggers Ghost Bus Tour

Info: tinyurl.com/zcuafrl

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 23, 2016, with the headline 'Take a walk on the dark side'. Print Edition | Subscribe