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The Ghosts and Hauntings of Holyrood Palace

A murderous nobleman, an executed queen, and a naked witch are believed to be some of the restless spirits said to walk the venerable halls of Holyrood Palace. Situated at one end of Edinburgh’s prestigious Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace has played a central role in the eventful history of Scotland’s capital. Officially called the Palace of Holyroodhouse, it was the favoured palace of several of Scotland’s rulers, and is currently the UK monarch’s Royal Scottish residence. However in its past, the palace also provided the backdrop for a number of notably gruesome incidents.

When James VI of Scotland was returning from Denmark with his new queen, their ship was almost sunk in a fearsome storm. James had a profound belief in sorcery at the time and was convinced that the storm had been caused by witchcraft. His theories led on to an event in 1590 which came to be known as the North Berwick witch trials, a notorious episode in the country’s history which saw numerous people, of varying rank, rounded up on suspicion of using sorcery against the king. Many of these unfortunates were subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed. The North Berwick trials were the first major outbreak of witchcraft persecution in Scotland.

Agnes Sampson was one of the accused in the Berwick trials. Known as the ‘Wise Wife of Keith’, she was brought to Holyrood Palace on specific orders by King James where she was stripped bare and her body shaved. She was then interrogated in the monarch’s presence before being affixed to a wall through the aid of a “Witch’s Bridle”. King James wavered for a while before declaring Agnes guilty of sorcery. She was then taken to Castle Hill, an infamous spot for the execution of convicted witches, where she was strangled and burned at the stake. However some say that this wasn’t the last of Agnes Sampson, and her vengeful ghost, known as ‘Bald Agnes’, is still rumoured to roam nude around Holyrood Palace, the place of her terrible captivity.

In the realms of the supernatural, the ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots is arguably one of the most ubiquitous of phantoms. There have been reports of her apparition at several locations in Scotland, including Stirling Castle and Craignethan Castle, as well as in England, where she was ultimately beheaded; a particularly messy execution that took place in Fotheringhay Castle on February 8, 1587. She lived at Holyrood Palace between 1561 and 1567 and her much-travelled spirit is still reputed to visit the place. The ghost of Mary’s second husband, Henry Stewart, more commonly known as Lord Darnley, is also said to haunt Holyrood. His spectre has apparently been sighted on numerous occasions roaming the palace grounds with a guilt-ridden countenance.

In 1566, the palace was the setting for a frightful murder when David Rizzio, a young Italian courtier and private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally done to death by Lord Darnley and his cohorts. The hot-headed Darnley had grown terribly jealous of Rizzio’s close relationship with his wife. The Italian had been playing cards with Mary when Darnley, accompanied by several noblemen, burst into the queen’s private chambers via means of a hidden staircase. Rizzio’s body was thrown down the main staircase at Holyrood after being stabbed 56 times. The young Italian’s ghost is said to still haunt the palace and there is also an indelible bloodstain on the spot where he perished, apparently still visible to this day.

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