Halloween in the National Library of Scotland

It was one of those blustery days, Halloween was approaching and the wee man wanted me to accompany him guising. I had my trepidations; when we were kids everyone in our street knew each other, in fact we grew up within a few miles radius – it wasn’t a big deal knocking on doors a few streets away as we all knew everyone’s folks as well as the sweet old dears that would give you enough money to buy the entire sweet shop. But that was quiet and leafy Aboyne, not the urban Dunfermline where we now resided.

It’s mid-morning, I’ve had my second coffee and I’m due to go to the George IV Bridge building to show our new start the library computer servers: Dave Gracie. Dave’s in his early or mid-twenties, short blond hair and clearly takes good care of himself. He’s got an athletic build and I’d be inclined to ask if I could work out with him sometime but I can’t quite wean myself off the new kebab shop that opened recently within shouting distance from the library. Before we go though, I’ve got to introduce Dave to a few staff members and show him the coffee machine for visitors that staff in the library absolutely forbidden to use.

After hearing of Dave’s escapades temping around the Central Belt in our coffee-free environment, we throw the disposable cups in the bin and wave goodbye to the lovely young man the Lawnmarket reception area.

We make our way to grand old library, it’s a building with fair character but you would think it’s older than the 1950’s. Dave follows me to through the various nooks and the crannies of the innards of the building, remarking how the setting looks like some survival horror computer game. I tell him that there was no need to fear the un-dead around here; Conservation and Estate teams would have none of it.

There are seventeen floors in this building; it’s situated on a bridge the typical visitor enters on the eleventh floor. The computer servers reside on the same floor as the General Reading Room and opposite the collection and returns desk where readers ask for their materials, shuffling back towards their desk and spend the rest of their day consulting some old periodicals or textbook. Walking into the server room, we pass the area where the material reserved for readers is kept and at a far wall, a particularly large consignment of reading material has been set aside for a Mr. MacKenzie. Dave takes interest in this batch, he’s almost eerily familiar with the archive newspapers and the enormous multi coloured leather-bound book, the likes of which I had never seen before in all my decades in the library. I ask Dave to hurry to the computer room; I’m unwilling to be side-tracked as the resetting of the library servers must be done within a specific time frame. I show Dave the intricacies of the server and once he’s learned all he needs to know he immediately goes back to Mr. MacKenzie’s batch of various assembled papers and book as if possessed. Giving the server a quick once over, I’m interrupted by a toe-curling scream.  I drop my keys and run towards the collections area, I see Dave, pale as uncooked pita bread laying face up and gasping for breath. He’s sweating profusely, in a panicked state.  He tells me he’s seen a ghost.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard of strange goings on in the National Library. Some book-fetchers had to obtain items from the dimly lit cells in the Supreme Court building that was once physically linked to ours – they claimed they could hear screams of prisoners and a few said they had seen ghostly figures. Then there was Burke’s former cell, one half of the infamous body snatching pair Burke and Hare. Pretty much every book-fetcher I knew would avoid going down to the cells at the Supreme Court but they were too proud to ever be honest about it. And here was Davie, a tall well-built young man nearly in tears telling me about the middle aged, opaque figure dressed in long elaborate old fashioned garb, he looked right into its grey eyes, screamed and for a split second looked away. Upon the second glance the figure would vanish. I’d have said that he had had too much coffee and he must have imagined it, he’s probably just not used to the library environment or he could have seen a strange reflection of himself. I initially tried to rationalise what he saw but I believed him. Why? Davie had changed.

Sir George MacKenzie was once the head of this organisation. He was the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates in 1689 – back before the National Library of Scotland existed. Effectively, he ran the show as far as the national collection was concerned. He was also a very blood thirsty man. He was later known as ‘Bluidy MacKenzie’ due to his massacre of thousands of Scottish Presbyterians. He was the King’s Advocate during the reign of Charles II and it was under his watch that these killings occurred. Bluidy MacKenzie was known to enjoy and savour every abuse he inflicted upon his victims.

Davie, petrified, was so panic-stricken that he ran down the stairs, through the Visitor Centre, down stairs leading to the foyer and bolted out of the library. I never saw him again that day. The following day Davie is at his desk, acting as though nothing odd happened yesterday. All goes well, after our forbidden coffees I ask him if he’s ready to go to the server room. It was then that he went pita bread pale and he said that there was no way he was going to go back there; he never got a wink of sleep last night as his mind was racing, thinking about the figure he saw. What could I do? I shrugged my shoulders and carried on with my routine.

Towards the server room, I have a glance at the collection and return area; Mr MacKenzie’s items have gone. I wander off to the server and restart it. Upon exit, I ask Lorna at the Issue Desk where the bright multi coloured book on Mr MacKenzie’s shelf went. She looks at me confusingly. I clarify that I’m referring to a very distinctive, large book that a Mr. MacKenzie had on reserve. She turns her back and looks at a back log of readers slips explaining that there haven’t been any items reserved by a MacKenzie in the last few weeks. My heart sinks. I tell the young lady that both Dave and I were looking through Mr. MacKenzie’s items, she chastises me for looking through items that are meant for the readers and they are only for the readers to consult. She also explains that this book would only be available in the Special Collections Reading Room on the upper level and not here.

What were Dave and I looking through? I remember, clear as day, the bright multi-coloured old book, written in some old-timey language, maybe Latin along with some newspaper archives. Did they even belong to our library? Who was Mr. MacKenzie? Was he the figure that our lad Dave had seen? These questions remain unanswered.

Some years ago news reports of the sole grave robbing in Scotland from the past hundred years; Greyfriars Kirkyard a mere stone’s throw away from the library. Two teenage boys charged with desecrating a grave and violating its mummified remains whilst under the influence. This was thought to be the grave of Bluidy MacKenzie. Was this the ghost that Davie had saw I wondered.

I mention to Davie that the items were no longer in the reserve area, he obviously doesn’t want to talk about it – I leave him to it.

I never did take the wee man guising, after that experience with Dave, I felt cautious and too on edge to ever really let my guard down. A few days passed and I received the news that Dave was leaving; he found a new job and never entered library again.