Anyone who thinks Edinburgh amounts to the Fringe festival, a castle and a zoo with two Chinese pandas clearly hasn’t discovered its gruesome history: while Jack the Ripper was killing five women in London, Burke & Hare slaughtered over 60 people in Edinburgh. Sophia Charalambous met City of Edinburgh Tours founder Davy and tour guide Al, who both prefer to be known as their characters names, William Burke Esquire and the Earl of Drumlanrig, to get the lowdown on what to expect from a ghost tour in the capital city.
I don’t want to see a ghost because it’ll mess with my mind.
So why Edinburgh?
William Burke Esquire: My family has lived on this street [High Street, commonly known as the Royal Mile] for over 200 years. My mum still lives at the top of it now and I was born on Drummond Street just around the corner. I can even remember Aunt Molly who was 101 when she died and stayed in the same house her whole life.
What led you to set up the ghost tours?
William Burke Esquire: I’ve always been into history. My playground growing up was the High Street, and I used to play in parts of the underground because some of them were open as air-raid shelters and nobody knew they were there. Then a certain gentleman in the town started opening up bits of it 25 years ago and I knew that would be ideal for underground ghost tours. I got permission to use a piece of underground but I had no idea how big these tours would be.
Why is the police box on Hunter Square your base?
William Burke Esquire: Here’s the ironic thing, my family lived on the street for over 200 years, they were working class, poor (my dad was a bus driver my mother was a waitress) and I now own the most expensive piece of real estate in Britain, per square foot, because that box cost £102,000. It’s been worked out as even more expensive than Buckingham Palace.
Earl of Drumlanrig: There’s a wee garage down in London that’s quite close, but not quite there.
What is the winning formula for a ghost tour?
William Burke Esquire: I’m actually a published historian and a standup comedian as well. Put the two together and you’ve got a winning formula. I looked at other companies and some of their ideas are quite stale, so what I wanted to do is create a presence on the Royal Mile, making it funny, interactive but giving you the history as well.
The jokes, are they yours?
Earl of Drumlanrig: Ay definitely. You don’t really get a script. We try and give new tour guides a basic history, with a couple of terrible jokes from 1995 that Davy’s written, and then everyone’s encouraged to grow their own tour a little bit. You’ll find that all the tour guides that work in the company do the tour differently, but they’re all infamous characters, horrible creatures from Edinburgh’s past.
Does your comedy get lost on some people?
Earl of Drumlanrig: Depending on who’s on the tour, some jokes will go over people’s heads.
William Burke Esquire: Yeah like when William Burke gets dissected, I make a joke and say, “They even made a book out of my skin and don’t say that was novel”. You see the joke taking wings and flying over their heads. You feel like saying, “Excuse me that’s one of my best one liners!”
Earl of Drumlanrig: But comedy is such a good way to get people relaxed because when you’ve got about 30 or 40 people on a tour, some of them want to be scared or others who don’t believe in ghosts, rubbish jokes immediately puts everyone on the same page and sets the tone for the night.
Do you believe in ghosts?
William Burke Esquire: What I’ll say is I’ll quote Mark from Paranormal Magazine on that one: “Ghosts are not impossible, they’re improbable”. I’ve never seen a ghost, I’ve had one or two things happen in the underground that I cannot explain. I don’t want to see a ghost because it’ll mess with my mind. Mark came down and he said he got more readings in our part of the underground than he got anywhere else.
Earl of Drumlanrig: Davy was standing there going “What a lot of rubbish”. Some tour guides have seen ghosts and have quit the company because of their experience, because if you do see a ghost it is very scary.
Is anything made up?
Earl of Drumlanrig: Well, Mackenzie’s crypt, that’s interesting because…
William Burke Esquire: I invented Bloody Mackenzie.
Earl of Drumlanrig: Don’t get us wrong, George Mackenzie was a real guy, the story is true however what isn’t true is the idea of people getting attacked in the graveyard. That was invented by Davy.
William Burke Esquire: When I started ghost tours I wanted a good name and it was one I came up with, but if I tell everyone it’s a lie that wouldn’t be entertaining.
Earl of Drumlanrig: Oh and Sawney Bean (executed for the mass murder and cannibalism of over 1,000 people) isn’t really buried under McDonald’s.