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The Burning Lady of the Canongate

A curious tale from 18th century Edinburgh still lingers on in the minds of some, foretelling a future incident that all residents should fear.

The story begins with a highly ranked priest based in the city, one evening when he received a request to visit a young lady who was seriously ill. He was told that she was close to death, and the family had requested a priest to comfort her and pray for her as she passed over. Although not unusual in these deeply religious times, it was rare for a request to come directly to a priest of such standing. Fearful that if he tried to arrange for someone else to attend to the request it might be too late, the priest agreed and he was told that transportation awaited him outside.


As he exited his home, he was confronted not with the horse-drawn carriage he had expected, but instead a sedan chair. Somewhat bemused, he was ushered inside, and the surrounding curtains were drawn, before he felt the chair be lifted up from the ground and he was carried a short distance where the chair was once again placed on the ground.

The curtain opened and he was confronted by a man who told him he was to be blindfolded for the remainder of the journey to prevent him from knowing where he was being taken. His protests that he could not see anyway due to the curtains were met by the man pointing a pistol towards him. Faced with no option, the priest agreed. He had noticed from what he could glimpse out of the open curtain during the confrontation that they were in a particularly quiet area of the city where there would be few, if anyone, out at that time of night. He also noted that the man blindfolding him and those carrying the sedan chair were well dressed and appeared to be more likely to be the servants of a very influential family rather than common criminals. This gave him some comfort in that the family may simply wish their address kept secret.

After an uncomfortable and worrying journey, the priest noticed the pace was slowing and the sedan chair was suddenly tilted upwards at the front. As it levelled again and was placed down, he heard a door close and with the change in the environment around him, he suspected he was inside a property. He felt a hand take a firm but not overly tight grip around his arm as he was led out of the chair before being informed that he was about to climb stairs. Although difficult to negotiate with the blindfold still on, with the aid of the supporting hand which still gripped his arm, he was able to ascend before he was led across what he assumed was a landing. Finally, the blindfold was removed, and he saw he was in a bedroom in what appeared to be a grand home.

Before him was a four-poster bed on which a young lady lay. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he looked around and again at the woman and saw enough evidence to suggest she had recently given birth, however, she did not appear to be as sick as he had been told. Although he was not a doctor, he had seen enough people at the final stages of life for him to make this judgment. When raising his thoughts that the woman was in fact not facing death, he was told in no uncertain terms to proceed with saying his prayers, which reluctantly he did.

He was then blindfolded again and led back to the Sedan Chair, as he became aware of the smell of smoke. He was once again carried through the streets of Edinburgh before his journey suddenly ended. He was ushered out and his blindfold removed and he realised he was once again outside his home. He was handed a bag of coins and as the men left, he was delivered a warning to never talk of what had happened, otherwise there would be repercussions not just for him, but for his whole family.


Exhausted by his ordeal, he retired for the night but could not sleep as the night's events continued to play through his mind. Nothing made sense.

A knock at his bedroom door disturbed his thoughts. It was his housekeeper who apologised for disturbing him at such an hour but thought he should know that there was a fire at a grand manor house, situated at the bottom of the Canongate. All had escaped except the owner's daughter, who was believed to have died. As she described the daughter, a horrific realisation hit the priest. Working out roughly how long it would take to walk from his house to where the fire was, he judged it to be around the same time as when he was being carried and the description of the lady who had perished sounded very similar to the lady he had prayed for earlier that evening. The secrecy, the apparent health of the young woman, administering prayers for a woman who did not seem to be at risk of imminent death, the smell of smoke, and the warning issued to him all started to fall into place. He feared that he had played a part in a murder, perhaps connected to the recent birth.

Fearful of reprisals, he dared not speak up about his concerns. The house had been completely destroyed in the fire, and it was reported that the family had moved away. After a period of time, a new property was built on the site, and thoughts of the fire slipped from the local residents' minds. The priest, however, remembered that night in vivid detail and, as he aged and approached the end of his own life, he realised he must make peace with God to have any hope for forgiveness and his place in Heaven. Sitting down with a colleague, he explained the events of the night along with his thoughts for what had in fact happened. Assured that he had done everything he could in the circumstances and that he could not have saved the young woman, he finally felt unburdened from his guilt and passed away at peace not long after.

Paranormal Activity

Had the story ended there, then it would have inevitably been forgotten, however, late one evening, an alarm was raised that there was a fire in the city. The house that had been built on the site at the foot of the Canongate was ablaze. As a crowd gathered outside, the terrifying vision of a young lady engulfed in flames appeared in front of the house. She shouted a warning to those watching:

‘Once Burned,

Twice Burned,

The third time I’ll scare you all!’

With that, she vanished once again.

The residents of Edinburgh feared another fire in the area. The sight of the phantom woman in flames terrified all who witnessed the events of that night. None wanted to envisage the consequences should the spirit fulfil her threat to scare everyone on her third appearance.

As time passed, the area was redeveloped. Several prestigious properties, including the Scottish Parliament buildings, now stand in the area and although the tale has been forgotten by most, some residents continue to dread the return of the Burning Lady of the Canongate.

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