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Dougal Barr in action in Edinburgh: 'The job interview was weird – screaming was the main test'

When you’re trying to get a scare, the trick is to lull the group into a false sense of security. The tour guide brings them into an alleyway while I hide out of sight around a corner or behind a board. For a while nothing will happen, then suddenly I have to jump out, get as close to them as possible and scream in their faces as loud as I can.

The tours are conducted by a character called Adam Lyal, a highwayman who was executed in 1811. He leads the group around the Old Town of Edinburgh and tells them about its dark past; my job is to jump out and scare people en route. Then I run ahead, change costumes and do it again and again.

On the main tour I jump out as four characters – the Foule Clenger, a man who collected plague victims; a woman called Agnes Finnie who was executed as a witch in 1645; the skeleton of bodysnatcher William Burke and the Mad Monk of the Cowgate.

The skeleton and the witch are meant to scare the tour group, whereas I can be quite silly as the Monk – you’re given free rein and I can do cartwheels and mess around a bit. In the summer I also appear as a bloody Jacobite soldier killed at Culloden and as a beggar; on that tour I talk about life as a beggar and answer questions.

You get mixed reactions. A kid’s birthday is easy; they almost always scream and run away. A work night out can be a bit different – they often just stare at you and ask what you’re doing. But then that’s the nice thing, it’s varied work.

You have to tailor your performance according to different groups. If you have a primary school it wouldn’t do to have the children crying, so we tone it down a bit. On the other hand, with a hen party you have to be prepared to be groped or shouted at. People often lash out when they’re scared, so you have to be ready to dodge the odd punch, although fortunately I have only ever been swiped with a guidebook or pushed away.

People in the street often take a lot of interest – especially down on the Cowgate on a Friday or Saturday night, where there are a lot of pubs and clubs. I’ve occasionally jumped out on the wrong people, which must have been confusing.

My family find my job hilarious, but my favourite thing is that it doesn’t feel like work, even though I do it full-time. I started in January 2011 – I was still at university studying Scottish history, so it seemed to make sense. I had put my CV out 36 times for bar jobs but I didn’t have any experience. Then I saw the Cadies & Witchery Tours ad for a “jumper-ooter” – I didn’t even know that was a phrase but I applied. The interview was weird – screaming was the main test.

I had one training session, where they showed me the “jump-oot” spots, then I shadowed another jumper-ooter, who pushed me out in front of the group when it was my turn. Considering how silly a job it is I was really nervous about my first scare, but suddenly the group was there and I knew they were going to see me either way, so I just had to go for it.

My biggest concern is not getting any scares. It can be a little depressing if you jump out and scream and then get no reaction – it feels like you’re not doing your job properly.

Once a group of us was hired to appear at a five-star restaurant for a party of very wealthy Russians. We were told to mingle while they had dinner. I had to approach them at their table and ask, “Would you like to try these thumbscrews?” They just stared at me; nobody said anything.

Ghost-hunters and mediums don’t really understand us. You sometimes get someone telling you that they can sense a spiritual presence. I feel like telling them I’ve been up and down this alley three or four times a night for a few years and I’ve never seen a ghost, but I don’t.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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