Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The ghost of Greyfriars

I've been asked a number of times why I disbelieve in such phenomena as ghosts, and my answer is always the same: I don't.  I have no strong evidence that they exist, which is not the same thing.  Presented with scientifically admissible evidence, I'd have no choice but to admit that, in fact, I do believe in spooks.

So on this count -- like with most other fringe-y beliefs -- I'm able to have my mind changed.  But -- to borrow a phrase from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson -- "I need more than 'you saw it.'"

And that's the difficulty I have with just about every ghost story I've ever heard.  Take, for example, the spot that is often called "the most haunted place in Scotland" -- Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.

Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Carlos Delgado, Greyfriars Kirkyard - 03, CC BY-SA 3.0]

It's unsurprising that the place is claimed to have ghosts; it's been used as a cemetery since the time of Mary Queen of Scots.  But it didn't really get an evil reputation until the horrible "Killing Time," when beginning in 1679 and lasting nine years, the Scottish Covenanters got into a dispute with King Charles II over whether the Presbyterian Church would be the sole form of religion in Scotland.  (It's always been astonishing to me how often people were killed in Europe, and in the places the Europeans colonized, over disputes that boil down to "my Jesus is better than your Jesus.")  In the end, of course, Charles's side won, and hundreds of Covenanters were transported, imprisoned, or even executed as traitors to the crown.  And things only got worse when Charles's brother James II succeeded to the throne -- James was (to put not too fine a point on it) a narrow-minded, humorless religious fanatic, who (as a Roman Catholic) was even more against the Covenanters than his brother was.

However, the name most often associated with the Killing Time is one George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, nicknamed "Bluidy Mackenzie" by the Covenanters, who despised him because of his siding with the King and for his role in the persecutions that followed.  It's likely Mackenzie saw himself as having no choice, and that he was simply doing what the King ordered him to do -- but, from the Covenanters' perspective, that was a mighty fine excuse for the horrors that followed, which included people being crowded into unheated, stone-floored jails in midwinter with only four ounces of food a day to sustain them.  The worst spot was the official Covenanters' Prison, conveniently (considering how many of them died) located right next to Greyfriars Kirkyard.

In any case, the persecutions eventually ended with the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, when James II was deposed and his daughter, Mary II, and her Dutch husband William of Orange, were put on the throne.  The Presbyterians were given their religious freedom, the surviving Covenanters (there weren't many) freed, and everything more or less went back to normal.  Mackenzie only lived three more years, dying in 1691 at the age of 55, and was buried with honors...

... in Greyfriars Kirkyard, within a stone's throw of the old Covenanters' Prison.

Which these days is called rubbing salt in a wound.

It wasn't long before the horrors that had happened gave rise to claims that Mackenzie's spirit was haunting the place.  By the nineteenth century, it was so established as a haunted spot that Robert Louis Stevenson commented upon it (and Mackenzie), "When a man’s soul is certainly in hell, his body will scarce lie quiet in a tomb however costly, sometime or other the door must open, and the reprobate come forth in the abhorred garments of the grave...  Foolhardy urchins [thought it] a high piece of prowess to knock at the Lord Advocate’s Mausoleum and challenge him to appear. 'Bluidy Mackenzie, come oot if ye dar!'"

This legend has persisted to today, where Greyfriars figures prominently on Edinburgh ghost tours.  But here's where the problem comes up.  It's haunted by an evil presence, they claim, which one site says "is attracted to and feeds on fear;" another says the vengeful spirit has "knocked more than fifty people [on ghost tours] unconscious" and has scratched or bruised others, including an eleven-year-old boy who was given a black eye.

And my question is: if there's such an embarrassment of riches in the way of evidence that the ghost of Greyfriars is real, how has this not been verified scientifically?

If people are being beaten up right and left by a ghost, it seems like it'd be simple to set things up so that there'd be some kind of evidence other than saying after the fact, "I'm sure I didn't have these scratches when I came in here."  Now, mind you, I'm not accusing anyone of lying.  But it certainly does seems suspicious that if so many people are having these experiences, no one has conducted a scientifically-admissible investigation of the place.

If they have, I haven't found anything about it.  Plenty of anecdotes, nothing in the way of proof of the claims.

So, to return to my original point -- I'm convincible.  But don't @ me with more "my grandma's Cousin Ethel went there and an invisible hand touched the back of her neck!"  I'm very sorry grandma's Cousin Ethel got scared, but that's hardly to the point as far as science goes.

In any case, you can bet that the next time I'm in Scotland, Greyfriars Kirkyard will be high on the list of must-sees.  And I hereby invite the ghost himself to change my mind.  I would consider a black eye from a poltergeist a badge of honor, and after all, as a skeptic it's no more than I deserve.

Bluidy Mackenzie, do your worst.


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