Last Saturday evening my family and I stood outside the Tron Kirk on Edinburgh's Royal Mile with a group of strangers, waiting for our Ghost Tour to begin. As the church bells chimed eight, our guide bounded on to the stone steps of the Kirk. 'Hands up those who believe in ghosts!' My hand stayed firmly down by my side but as I looked around our small group I was surprised to see my son's hand in the air.
Filled with excitement, we followed our guide, Darren, through the narrow streets of the Old Town and listened carefully as he explained the difference between a close and a wynd, and told us how, in the past, poorer residents never left the confines of the city walls because they couldn't afford to pay to re-enter. Thereby the area inside the Netherbow Gate became known as World's End to these residents, which explains the name for the well known pub.
So far, our evening was proving interesting but what about the fear factor? I'd promised my kids some terror.
Darren led us down on to the Cowgate and showed us the one visible arch of the South Bridge (completed in 1788 and built to link the Old Town to the Southside). The remaining eighteen arches are enclosed behind tenement buildings and contain 120 vaults. Originally intended as storerooms for the shops above, these dark, stone rooms proved too damp for storing valuable tobacco or cloth and merchants soon left, allowing the brothels and criminals to move in until the vaults were finally sealed in the early 19th Century.
The description of this dark, underground world was told by dim torchlight inside one of the damp vaults but apart from raising a couple of hairs on the back of my neck I was still feeling okay, and I laughed along bravely with the rest of the group at Darren's ghost stories.
He then showed us a locked vault with elaborate costumes hanging on the stone walls and a circle of wooden stools with embroidered cushions placed around a large pentagon drawn on the floor. It looked like a set from a horror film.
Darren explained that the Wiccan temple was used by the 'Source Coven of the Blue Dragon' and although we could view it, we weren't allowed inside.
We then followed him along a narrow corridor, up a small set of steps and into another vaulted room. This room immediately felt much colder than any of the others and the sound of water dripping from the ceiling could be heard above our hushed whispers. Our small group lined the edge of the room, facing inwards, towards a large circle of stones. This was the room where the Wiccan coven worshipped when they first moved into the vaults but they left after a few weeks. The reason for their move? They felt a malevolent presence in the room. The high priest did his own research and discovered a dark and bloody past.
This was more like it!
We listened carefully to tales of the horrific murders which took place on this spot several hundred years before. The High Priest stayed in the room overnight, intending to perform healing rituals but as the night progressed he discovered the entity was beyond his capabilities and he fled the room, vowing never to enter again. Upon leaving, he insisted that the stones be left in place and warned that no-one should ever set foot inside the circle or grave harm may come to them.
"So is anyone feeling brave enough?"
Is he serious?
"Come on. There's always someone who wants to have a go."
I stare at the circle of stones and realise I'm genuinely scared.
My son (that's right, the same one who professed to believe in ghosts!) jumps inside the circle.
Damn it. Now I'm going to have to do it.
I lift my right foot and it hovers over the stones.
"It's got to be both feet or it doesn't count," shouts my son.
My two feet barely touch the damp earth before I jump back out again.
Am I disappointed that nothing happened to me inside the circle? I'm still not sure, but I'd love to hear if any readers have ever been brave enough to step inside. And, if so, did anything happen to you?
I'd like to thank Darren from Auld Reekie Tours for our guided tour!
Emma Mooney is a writer of Scottish contemporary fiction and is the author of A Beautiful Game. and Wings to Fly.