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Issue 13 - Edinburgh's dark and sinister side

Scotland Magazine Issue 13
March 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Edinburgh's dark and sinister side

The vaults give a glimpse into Edinburgh's murky past - and reports suggest they're haunted too. Frances Anderson visited them.

For years, tourists flocking to the capital for the world famous festival have been unaware of the ancient stories hidden beneath their feet. While the festival attracts record-breaking numbers of visitors annually, the city has another booming tourist industry.

It is the public’s fascination with all things supernatural and macabre that has given rise to this expanding area of tourism in ghostly tours of the cities past.

Thousands are drawn to Edinburgh each year by the supposed spirits that haunt these underground caves forming a strange city beneath a city.

One of the most recent discoveries is the vaults located under the South Bridge. Discovered four years ago by property developer Norrie Rowan, and only recently made operational for tourists, there exists a perfectly preserved street, five high vaulted caverns, wine cellars and a multitude of ancient artefacts.

Rowan, a former Scottish international rugby player, excavated the vaults himself over a period of two years, uncovering a dark forgotten place which had been undisturbed for more than 200 years.

Since it opened, visitors have reported all manner of strange happenings.

But what do we know of the South Bridge vaults and how did they come about?

Once dark and inhospitable, today they lay bare the often unknown and fascinating social history of Edinburgh and contrary to their gruesome past, serve an important purpose to the city’s past and cultural heritage.

Underneath the bridge’s 19 enormous stone arches lies an extensive honeycomb of vaulted rooms, dark passages and chambers.

These were used as workshops, houses and businesses. Leather cutters, watchmakers and wine merchants were among the many who operated from them.

It was the pressure of an ever-increasing population that resulted in new living quarters being provided for the rich to the North of the town, now the New Town, splitting the rich from the poor.

With this departure of the wealthy, the vaults became, until the early 19th Century, the home and workplace to the city’s poor and rapidly formed an entire underground city.

The Vaults also became the refuge for the poor struck down by the bubonic plague that claimed thousands of lives.

For murderers and body snatchers who would sell their victims to the nearby medical school in order for students to practice on actual bodies, the vaults provided a safe underground passageway.

Once they were abandoned, the vaults remained undisturbed.

Since their discovery they have been the subject of intense scrutiny due to the record number of paranormal activities that have been reported.

One experiment conducted by Prof. Richard Wiseman (a Psychologist at Hertfordshire University) to investigate the truth of apparitions confirmed that the vaults are indeed haunted, with the experiment earning him a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

Indeed, there are countless testimonials from visitors, tour guides, and scientists alike all claiming to have seen and felt things they could not explain.

Edinburgh hosts around a half dozen companies all offering authentic tales of the city’s grim and gruesome past. However, it is Mercat Tours located in South Niddry Street that offers unique access to the forgotten vaults underneath the South Bridge.

Founded in 1985 by Des Brogan, a former history teacher, Mercat now employs some 50 staff and attracts about 100,000 visitors annually. According to Win Brogan, head of development for Mercat, the growth in numbers is due to a rise in interest in history.

“Visitors now want to learn as well as being entertained and the top reasons for people visiting are for Edinburgh’s history and architecture,” says Win.

‘Underground Edinburgh’, a venture recently launched by Mercat, backed by Scottish Enterprise and winner of a Tourism Innovation Award, offers tourists and locals alike spectacular Scottish entertainment set in the newly refurbished vaults and cellars of the historic old town.

Tapestries now hang from the stone walls, rooms are lit solely by candlelight and the atmosphere is authentically medieval.

To take a candlelit tour of the South Bridge vaults with Mercat is to experience the cave-like conditions in which thousands lived below the crowded city above.

It seems a long way from the streets above, where shoppers and buses are passing by.

The enormous bare-stone caverns are at once imposing and intimidating and have a distinct supernatural air to them. It is deathly quiet and not for the faint-hearted.

Many Mercat employees, originally sceptical of the reported hauntings, have themselves changed their opinions as a result of experiences in the subterranean caverns.

Claire Palmer, the corporate events manager and until recently a non-believer, had a recent experience which has left her shaken.

Entering the vaults early one morning to light the candles in preparation for the days tours she experienced loud and distinct heavy breathing followed by a heavy dragging sound which was repeated several times.

“It wasn’t noise leakage” she states, “the noise surrounded me and was actually in the room. I’m not easily shaken, but this was very unnatural and very disconcerting.”

More than 300 sightings have been recorded by Mercat, the most frequent of which is a small boy who tugs at the sleeves and legs of visitors and the increasingly notorious Mr Boots, a rather nasty character by all accounts, said to push people and march angrily around.

Co-owner of the ‘City of the Dead’ Tours, Jan-Andrew Henderson is undoubtedly the best man in Edinburgh to talk to about the city’s hauntings.

“The history of the Underground City is a dark mirror of what happened above ground and Edinburgh has one of the most horrific histories of any city in the world.”

He admits that like many others, he was a cynic when he started the tours, but now believes there really is something there.

For those with a love for all things supernatural and ghostly, the city is second to none for its ancient history and bloody past.

Cobbled streets, haunted alleyways and hidden vaults, Edinburgh has it all.

So as the clock chimes midnight and you leave your favourite haunt to weave your way down the historical Royal Mile, make sure the black cloak disappearing down that dark alleyway is indeed a tour guide and not something a little more sinister.

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