Caroline Lindsay heads to the Edinburgh Dungeon to sample the famous
underground tour, including a special Mary Queen of Scots experience.
It’s not every day you stand accused of being drunk and disorderly and forced to dance a jig in a courtroom as penance. But that’s exactly what I found myself doing on a recent visit to the Edinburgh Dungeon.
I’d headed over to the capital on a cold January day to sample the award-winning underground attraction’s new 70-minute tour Mary Queen of Scots: The Cursed Crown. Featuring 11 live actor shows, the experience coincides with the release of the hit movie about the doomed Scottish monarch.
Having been thrown into a dark, dank gaol to wait with other “prisoners” for the start of the tour, my eyes soon became accustomed to the dark and before long we were led into the first show of the tour – a 17th Century courtroom. Audience participation is an integral part of the experience and any ice was soon broken once a few of us had been picked on to do daft things.
Don’t expect the Mary Queen of Scots experience until later in the tour – there are plenty of other chills and thrills first to get you in a thoroughly creeped-out mood.
Next up was the trial of Agnes Finnie, an Edinburgh shopkeeper and moneylender who was executed for witchcraft in 1645. Standing with our backs against the wall of the circular chamber as the witch shrieked her curses, the floor beneath us began to shudder and spin and it was a relief when the door to the next tableau opened.
After a tongue-in -cheek description of some commonly-used tools of the torturer’s trade it was time to meet notorious Galloway-based cannibal Sawney Bean. Piling onto the Galloway Boat Ride, one of the Dungeon’s two underground rides, we learned that legend has it that Sawney Bean and his family live in the caves of Galloway preying on travellers. As the boat glided through the Bean clan’s foul-smelling (yes, there are authentic whiffs as well) lair we discovered the leftovers of lost travellers and prayed we wouldn’t be next…
Legs still a-tremble, we were offered a brief “respite” in the anatomy theatre, learning more of the ill doings of Auld Reekie’s nefarious grave robbers Burke and Hare, before finding ourselves in Mary King’s Close, listening to graphic descriptions of the effects of the Plague and the Foul Clenger (Plague Cleaner), while dodging the contents of chamber pots being emptied from the windows above.
Next it was time for the piece de resistance – Mary Queen of Scots: The Cursed Crown. Bosses at the Dungeon have rated it with a “scary score” of five skulls, which warns visitors it is not for the faint-hearted, so it was with some trepidation we filed into a small spooky room to await our fate.
Mary was imprisoned for 19 years before being executed for treason in 1587. Set in Courier Country’s Loch Leven Castle, one of many places Mary was imprisoned, we discovered how she was a pawn at the mercy of Machiavellian plots hatched by her closest aides, including third husband, Lord Bothwell.
Bothwell is said to have conspired in the brutal slaying of Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley.
Beheaded after colluding in an assassination attempt on her cousin Queen Elizabeth, even in death she was to suffer, with the executioner’s axe initially failing to make a clean cut.
After a second blow and some vigorous sinew-sawing, Mary’s head was finally chopped off.
We stood quaking in the darkness as her restless ghost, trapped for all eternity in Loch Leven Castle, snuffed the candles and shook the room – it was a genuinely eerie moment.
Nearing the end of the tour, we were treated to the second underground ride – the Drop Dead Ride, named after the famous public hanging square in Edinburgh, used from 1660-1784, and mimicking the vertiginous feeling of a nine-metre hangman’s drop.
Miraculously still in one piece, it was time to face one last challenge in the Mirror Maze. Here, we felt as if we were going round in circles (we were) as we came up against our own reflections time after time (at least we knew we weren’t vampires). Eventually, though, by staying as far away from the screams as possible we finally found our way out. An imaginative and nerve-wracking way to end a tip-top spine-tingling tour.
With four tours an hour, Mary Queen of Scots: The Cursed Crown will be told no less than 32 times each day until March 31. The ill-fated royal is played by 15 different actors and the show is the result of three months of historical research, costume and set design and scripting.
Lyndsay Hebert, performance manager at the Edinburgh Dungeon explains: “As with every show here, we like to look in depth at a chapter of Scottish history and put our own angle on it and we are excited to bring her story to life in our unique, scary fun Dungeon way.”
General manager Stuart Jarman adds: “More than 400 years after Mary’s death, she remains a fascinating figure. Here at the Dungeon we specialise in creating strongly researched, novel, scary, fun and engaging historical experiences with amazing actors, scenes – and even smells.
“We wanted to tell Mary’s story afresh in our Dungeon-like way, capturing the imagination of old and young alike.”
A word of warning though – while the tour is great fun for the most part, some youngsters (Dungeon recommendation is eight-plus; under-fours aren’t admitted) or those of a nervous disposition may find it pretty scary, while some of the special effects aren’t suitable for anyone who is light-sensitive, claustrophobic, pregnant or suffers from a bad back.
The Edinburgh Dungeon was founded in 2000. A Merlin Entertainments attraction, it’s one of eight Dungeons in Europe
The characters are all brought to life by professional actors
Mary Queen of Scots: The Cursed Crown runs until March 31.
Adult from £14; child from £
For opening and tour times visit www.thedungeons.com