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Holyrood Palace

Holyrood Palace: Royal Residence and Haunted House

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Holyrood palace is a 12th century haunted palace that remains one of the most important residences of the British Royal Family. It fascinates visitors with its beauty and sometimes overwhelms them with the energy of spirits that cannot find peace.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, as it is also known, is located in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is immersed in stories and legends of crimes committed, and the victims that remain restless souls within the palace walls. One such soul is a witch named Agnes Sampson, whose tearful company has been known to scare visitors who visit the ancient residence.

An Unsettling Sign from when Mary, Queen of Scots was at Holyrood Palace

Despite being centuries old, wooden planks in one corner of a room still contain a blood stain from when the Private Secretary of Queen Mary of Scotland was brutally murdered. According to accounts of visitors, the long, dark halls of Holyrood Palace are sometimes swept with unexpected winds, and the sound of crying can be heard emanating from the basement.

The bloodstain in the wood from the murder of David Rizzio, Private Secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots

The bloodstain in the wood from the murder of David Rizzio, Private Secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots.

The origins of Holyrood Palace lie in the old foundations of the Augustinian Holyrood Abbey that was built in 1128 by the order of King David I of Scotland. It was not until the 1320s, or a bit earlier, that the building was expanded and turned into a residence. In the 15th century, it became a palace fit for the kings and queens of Scotland and England. However, it was made most famous by the occupation of Mary, Queen of Scots, who went to live at Holyrood Palace in 1561.

Ruin of the roofless gothic Holyrood Abbey near Holyrood Palace. (LASZLO ILYES/ CC BY 2.0)

The Witch from the Scottish Forest

Although Mary Stuart’s stay at Holyrood Palace is well-known, the life of Agnes, the supposed ghost that haunts the palace, isn't as well documented. She was known as ''Bald Agnes'' or ''The wise wife of Keith''. As usual in cases of witch trials, most of the documentation about her is in relation to her trial and death. However, it is known that Agnes lived in Scotland, in the beautiful green Nether Keith that is placed among the wuthering hills of the Barony of Keith, east Lothian.

Her problems started in spring 1590 when king James VI came back from Oslo after marrying Anne, the princess from Oslo. Anne was a daughter of the King of Denmark and Norway and had grown up in the royal court, where in 1590 the massive hunt for witches began. The first victim was Anna Klodings, who was killed as a warning to many women branded as witches who lived in the kingdom in those times. For political reasons, King James followed the example of Oslo and started his own witch hunt.

Agnes was an Innocent Woman

Agnes was arrested during one of the autumn days of 1590. It was a time when the witch hunters were active, hunting down women based on suspicions and false accusations. The trials were in the hands of the king of Scotland, who even participated and asked questions of his own.

The person who accused Agnes was Gillis Duncan, who had already made accusations against several other women. Agnes was imprisoned in Holyrood palace, where she was tortured. At the beginning of the trial she was strong and didn't allow her morals to be broken, but with time things changed. According to the relation from the trial :

“This aforeaside Agnis Sampson which was the elder Witch, was taken and brought to Haliruid house (Holyrood Palace) before the Kings Maiestie and sundry other of the nobility of Scotland, where she was straitly examined, but all the perswasions which the Kings maiestie vsed to her with ye rest of his counsell, might not prouoke or induce her to confesse any thing, but stood stiffely in the deniall of all that was laide to her charge: whervpon they caused her to be conueied awaye to prison, there to receiue such torture as hath been lately prouided for witches in that country: and forasmuch as by due examination of witchcraft and witches in Scotland, it hath latelye beene found that the Deuill dooth generallye marke them with a priuie marke, by reason the Witches haue confessed themselues, that the Diuell dooth lick them with his tung in some priuy part of their bodie, before hee dooth receiue them to be his seruants, which marke commonly is giuen them vnder the haire in some part of their bodye, wherby it may not easily be found out or seene, although they be searched: and generally so long as the marke is not seene to those which search them, so long the parties that hath the marke will neuer confesse any thing. Therfore by special commaundement this Agnis Sampson had all her haire shauen of, in each parte of her bodie, and her head thrawen with a rope according to the custome of that Countrye, beeing a paine most greeuous, which she continued almost an hower, during which time she would not confesse any thing vntill the Diuels marke was found vpon her priuities, then she immediatlye confessed whatsoeuer was demaunded of her, and iustifying those persons aforesaid to be notorious witches.”

Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson (

Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson (Public Domain)

When she finally said that she was guilty, under the pain of torture, not even the king wanted to believe her confession. Nevertheless, he accepted her words and sentenced her to death. She died on January 28, 1591, with a curse on her lips, whispering until her last breath.

This image, from the Agnes Sampson trial in 1591, depicts The Devil giving witches magic dolls.

This image, from the Agnes Sampson trial in 1591, depicts The Devil giving witches magic dolls. (Public Domain)

The Ghosts the Haunt Holyrood Palace

If the stories are true, Holyrood Palace now pays a price for the crimes of its residents from the past. Dating all the way back to 1591, witnesses have reported seeing Agnes naked and with the visible signs of torture on her body as she passed through the chambers and corridors of Holyrood Palace. Over the centuries, the story became so well-known that Agnes has been named one of the most famous British ghosts in modern culture.

Apart from Agnes, several other ghosts are said to reside in Holyrood Palace, including David Rizzio, private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots. He was murdered in 1566 by Mary's husband, who was jealous of her friendship with Rizzio. Although the queen protested, Rizzio was stabbed 56 times and his body was thrown down the staircase. Moreover, Queen Mary herself is believed to haunt the halls of Holyrood.

The Murder of David Rizzio, painted in 1833 by William Allan.

The Murder of David Rizzio, painted in 1833 by William Allan. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Holyrood Palace. Source: Graeme Pow/CC BY NC SA 2.0

By Natalia Klimczak

Updated on July 7, 2020.


Newes from Scotland, available at:

The Witch Trials - North Berwick Witch Trials (Scotland, 1590 – 1592), available at:

Holyrood Palace, available at:

The Ghosts and Hauntings of Holyrood Palace by Ben H Wright, available at:



Moonsong's picture

I visited Holyrood Palace last year. Although I didn’t see any ghosts, it is truly a beautiful monument.

- Moonsong
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world ~ Oscar Wilde

The floor boards were replaced by Charles 2nd a century after Rizzio's demise and those "unexpected winds" are the usual winds that occur anywhere near the Scottish coastline. Also it wasn't till the 16th century that the first part of the Palace was constructed.

Cousin_Jack's picture

Anywhere that old has to have some sort of history to it, sounds like this place has its history well documented, some interesting tales behind it. Best place for a haunting if the Queen stays there, if I could haunt anywhere it’d have to be a residence of a monarch.

In Anglia et Cornubia.

It's so sad, even now centuries later, that so many people were tortured and killed for something that didn't exist to begin with.


Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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