Nicola Kirk: Author and Collector of Paranormal Stories and Other Strange Encounters

Posts tagged ‘Scotland’


We Mean Business – A Giant Mortsafe  Designed To Protect The Dead

Having written a bit about body snatchers, or ‘Resurrection Men’ as they were also known back in the 19th Century, I began looking into all the different lengths people went to in order to prevent their deceased nearest and dearest ending up sliced and diced on the anatomist’s slab.

A few years ago, my husband treated me to a trip to Edinburgh (sometimes referred to as my ‘mega ghost busting weekend’… oh, the Edinburgh Vaults – happy days…).  On one of the ghost tours I dragged him on, we ended up in Greyfriars Churchyard.  Our tour guide, a giant Valkyrie of a woman in Doc Martens and with a magnificent booming voice, pointed some curious coffin-shaped iron cages out to us.

Disused Mortsafes

“These are called mortsafes!” she bellowed at us while we huddled together in the dark graveyard, shivering with cold but intrigued by the strange items highlighted by a dozen quivering torch beams.  “When your loved one died, these cages would be placed over the coffin to prevent body snatchers from stealing the corpse and selling it to anatomists!”  A little shudder ran through the crowd accompanied by a few nervous smiles.  Apparently, in Scotland, mortsafes have been commonly found in areas where there are medical schools nearby… funny that.

Mortsafes came in various designs, some made of stone, others made of iron comprising iron rods, padlocks and iron plates, all of which went towards making stealing bodies a very arduous task indeed.  Mortsafes were usually removed once the body was sufficiently decomposed.

Of course, if your pockets weren’t deep enough to afford a cage to lock up your dead, there were other options open to you.  It wasn’t unusual for fresh graves to be guarded day and night by friends and family members until enough time had passed for the corpse to go off and be of no use to grave robbers or anatomists.

The rich went in for huge slab grave stones which covered the graves over entirely, vaults and mausoleums, making life rather difficult for grave robbers.  Highgate Cemetery has a vast array of such Victorian monstrosities and Friends of Highgate Cemetery offer guided tours of the older cemetery, if, like myself, you’re morbidly curious and want to see what it’s like to be dead rich.

Victorian Monstrosities – Vaults at Highgate Cemetery

If you didn’t fancy spending money on a mega mausoleum or a vast granite slab, but you were too posh to spend time lurking around your relative’s grave waiting for them to go off, you could always hire someone to do it for you!  However, there was no guarantee that the man you hired wouldn’t be bribed by a body snatcher to look the other way while they excavated a big hole close by…

Some families tried mixing various items such as branches into the grave dirt to make the grave robber’s life more difficult, or they would cover the grave with stones so they could see if it had been disturbed.  Unfortunately, by the time they realised the grave had been disturbed it was probably empty too.

If you want to see how the professionals went about their business, I Sell The Dead is the film for you.  It’s a darkly humorous movie and involves undead things too – perfect.


©Nicola Kirk and 2010


Wikipedia – Mort Safes


What lurks behind closed doors?

Urban legends are great fun, but it’s a shame that many of them are just that – legends.  A friend told me about a tale he’d heard regarding a mental hospital in Portreath, Cornwall.  He said that during renovations of the property a hidden room had been discovered.  Creepy.   As the builders peered into the hole in the wall they’d made, they discovered a group of skeletons sitting on chairs (what, really?).  The rumour was that they were victims of the plague that had been bricked up.  I couldn’t find any further information on this so I’m pretty sure it’s just a myth, but it’s an interesting one all the same and it got me thinking about other stories I’d heard about people being walled up alive and hidden rooms.

A hidden room with a view – Glamis Castle

Perhaps one of the most famous hidden rooms is the one in Glamis Castle, Scotland.  Apparently towels were once hung from every window in the castle but one window remained without, suggesting that there was a secret room.  So what did the room contain?  There are various stories, one being of a horrifically malformed child born to the eleventh Earl who was hidden away in the room to prevent people finding out about the tragedy.  Another story is that the family walled their enemies up in the room.  At least you would always know where to find them.

There’s more than a chill in the air at Chillingham Castle

Chillingham Castle has more than its fair share of ghosts, including the spirit of a little boy who was walled up in the castle’s ‘Pink Room’ during the time of the Spanish Armada.  The little lad is alleged to have suffered immurement along with some important documents he had been given to deliver to the Spanish.  His remains were discovered in the 1920s.  Some of the documents sealed up with the child can still be seen on display at the castle.

Borley Rectory – Home of the wandering nun

Nuns always seemed to cop the worst punishments in days gone by.  So much as wink at Brother Bob and you’re being whipped with stinging nettles and threatened with more Hail Marys than you can shake a stick at.  Borley Rectory, perhaps one of the most famous haunted houses ever, boasts the ghost of a young novice nun who was discovered having an affair with a Borley monk (I’m afraid I can’t confirm or deny if his name actually was Bob, sorry).  The monk was put to death and the nun was walled up alive in the vaults below her priory.  It would seem that her ghost managed to escape the vaults and has been seen wandering around the Rectory, as has the ghost of the monk.  I wonder if they ever manage to meet up to carry on where they left off.

Being virginal and virtuous used to be a pretty hazardous way of life.  In Rome, if a Vestal Virgin was found guilty of breaking her vow of celibacy, she could be buried alive in a small cave with nothing but a small piece of bread and a drop of water to live on.  Hey, come on, it takes two to tango.  Why not bury the man, too?  At least they can go out with a bang.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote an interesting short story about a nobleman called Montresor who, offended by a fellow nobleman, Fortunato, plots the man’s death by promising him Amontillado (sherry wine) but instead leads him into some catacombs where he walls the unfortunate man up alive.  Yes, a truly eerie tale, but for those of you who aren’t into reading the classics, I have found the following short film on YouTube for you to enjoy instead.  No giggling please, this is serious stuff:


©Nicola Kirk an 2010

Update received 11.08.2016

I have received the following message from a resident of Portreath:

“The Portreath hidden room skeleton story is true, though not as stated.  It is a house on the beach (name of property withheld), not a mental home. During the 1950’s there was some building work carried out and they found a hidden room, there was one skeleton inside! The original house was some years later demolished and a new one built in its place.”
Many thanks for that update!


Mysterious Britain – Glamis Castle

Hoosier Haunts – Chillingham Castle


Wikipedia – Premature Burial

Wikipedia – A Cask Of Amontillado

Bring Out Your Dead – Plague Pits And Nasty Discoveries

We all love a bit of morbidity, don’t we?  Well, I’m pretty sure it’s not just me anyway.  A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip to Edinburgh.  Just off the Royal Mile there is a well known street that goes by the name of Mary King’s Close.  Everyone who’s remotely interested in ghosts has usually heard of this mysterious Close due to the myth that in 1645 the tenants became infected by the plague and were bricked up inside and left to die.  Their terrible plague ridden ghosts are said to haunt the close with great abandon… In reality it would seem that this horrific event didn’t actually happen, but paranormal tours don’t try too hard to enlighten their customers.  Well, where’s the fun in that?  Anyway, it got me thinking – what happened to all the plague victims in London?

According to Daniel Defoe’s, A Journal of the Plague Year:

”Tis certain they died by heaps and were buried by heaps; that is to say, without account.’

The Bills of Mortality list 68,576 plague victims in the capital but it would appear that the true figure is probably nearer 100,000.  That’s an awful lot of people.  So where did these poor souls end up?  There certainly aren’t enough individual graves littered around to account for them.

Well, the answer is that most of them were unceremoniously dumped into huge plague pits sprinkled in and around London.  One of the earliest plague pits was dug in 1348 at Charterhouse Square for victims of the Black Death.  The Black Death gained its nickname because the skin of victims turned black. Lovely.  Tens of thousands of bodies were buried at Charterhouse Square.  There was another great pit at Aldgate and also one at Finsbury Fields.

Whilst listing these pits of despair, we mustn’t forget the plague pit from the 17th century at Green Park which proved quite troublesome when the Underground network was being constructed in 1960 and construction workers managed to bore straight through the middle of it.  What a shock that must have been.  Another plague pit received unwanted attention when it was discovered in the London Depot on the Bakerloo Line.  Although no paranormal activity as such has been reported, few staff are willing to go down to the tunnels, especially at night.  Some people have no sense of adventure.

If you happen to be loitering around Bishopsgate during your lunch hour, you may notice that some office blocks do not occupy the full building plots, leaving some small areas empty.  This is because these innocent little parcels of land are plague pit sites.  Still hungry?

Recently, under the Surrey side of London Bridge, workers were horrified to discover the 17th century remains of suspected plague victims – although some skulls were found to have rather suspicious holes in them leading some to believe that their owners’ endings may have been rather more questionable.    Builders working in the vaults aren’t best pleased about working there anymore because of the unexplained noises they hear and the mysterious figures glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

Of course, there will always be someone who actively seeks out encounters with the plague ridden dead.  And no, it’s not always me.  Here we see a group of people called the Londonists doing what they do best – creeping around in the plague pit found under London Bridge:

Some people have all the fun.


©Nicola Kirk and 2010

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