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Issue 25 - Historically haunted

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


This article is 12 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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Historically haunted

Edinburgh's underground vaults attract historians as well as mediums. Are the rumours true that this is the most haunted place in Britain? Marieke Smegen tries to find out

Edinburgh’s underground vaults have always intrigued me. It is incredible to think that they were created more than 200 years ago, and they are still standing.

The vaults form the base of the South Bridge in the Old Town. This bridge was built to cross a deep ravine south of the High Street. The land at either side of the bridge was sold to local retailers for up to £150,000 per statute acre. This was a huge amount, especially in those days.

Merchants built shops and workshops on either side of the bridge, thus enclosing all but one of the arches. Business was to thrive, with goldsmiths, booksellers, wine merchants and hoteliers making the most of the new bridge.

In 1788 the grand opening of the South Bridge took place. However, the first person to cross the bridge was an old lady... in a hearse. She had died, but her wish to be the first person to cross the bridge was still granted. To many people this was a very bad omen – and in some ways they would be proved right.

The bridge consists of 19 arches. Although very dark, damp and smelly, archaeological evidence and old registers tell us that many people worked down there. Cobblers, wine merchants, bookbinders and jewellers could be found plying their trade underground.

However, during the building of the bridge, one very important thing was forgotten: the builders had not used any puddling clay, which is the substance that should have been used to waterproof the vaults. In Scotland it does occasionally rain, so the underground workshops soon began to get wet. So wet indeed, that most merchants vacated the site.

As a result, illicit traders started to move into the vaults. Proof has been found of an illicit whisky distillery underground. These traders were smart; they stole water from a pipeline above ground and women with very wide skirts were employed to carry the bottles outside. Squatters and criminals also sought refuge underground.

We do not know exactly until when the vaults were used. What we do know is that in the second half of the 20th century, they were left unused and became full of rubble.

Norrie Rowan, a local publican, rediscovered the vaults in the 1980s. They were excavated and Mercat Tours, a company specialising in visitor attractions, decided that the rooms would make a perfect background for story telling.

In 1991 Mercat Tours started taking groups of tourists down. Soon they began to realise that the vaults were not just a nice place to tell stories. Strange things started to happen; things that could not be explained rationally. Customers and guides became convinced that the vaults are haunted.

The BBC went as far as calling the vaults the “most haunted place in Britain.” Is this true?

I decided to find out for myself. With the help of the Scottish Paranormal Association and Mercat Tours we directed our own little ghost project.

One Saturday morning before the daily tours start, I descend into the vaults with Mercat guide Gary Shiells, Scottish Paranormal Association medium Fiona Williamson and her colleague Rachel Atkinson.

Fiona starts to catch some psychic activity in the vaults almost straightaway.

“What a smell!” she shouts out. She tells us there is a man with us in the room. Aman who is not very nice, and his breath is awful. Fiona hears the man speak. The man says: “Ah, you’re back. You didn’t learn your lesson the first time.” Fiona has been in these vaults before, so this remark is not strange. He obviously does not want us here.

I find myself doubting whether there is actually anything there. After all, I cannot see anything and Fiona could just be making this up. On the other hand, during the two hours we are down the vaults, she keeps on doubting herself, trying to find rational explanations for spooky things that happen to us. I decide to believe her.

Fiona explains that this man has always been blamed for everything, in life as well as death.

“He is very grumpy, but not the evil man he is made out to be,” she tells us.

The man in question seems to be Mr. Boots. Gary admits that this character has been encountered in the vaults many times by both tour guides and tourists. Mr Boots seems to be interested in me. He is wondering what I am writing down. Fiona tells him this is his chance to tell us his story, but he refuses.

We go into a different room. Fiona closes her eyes and concentrates for a moment.

“I really don’t like this room,” she says. “I can hear screaming.”

Slowly Fiona gets a picture of the room as it was possibly 150 years ago.

“I can see a woman. It’s not an active spirit, but she sits in the corner. She is pretty dirty but I feel this is a nurse.

“There are shelves on the walls, with bottles. It is stuff she uses. Is it old style medicine? Poison?”

Fiona seems to get a clear view of the whole room, something that did not happen in the other room. She says the room belongs to someone who worked as a nurse or witch in her time. Bad things happened in there. It seems strange, a nurse working in the foulest conditions, underground.

We move on to another of the many rooms in these vaults.

“He’s here again,” Fiona says, “he comes right up to my face.” Mr Boots shows up again. Rachel now speaks out loud. She asks if the man wants to speak to us.

Fiona says he just grins. He then says something that Fiona first refuses to repeat. We convince her to tell us what he said, but what he came out with is indeed too rude to repeat. At least he now convinced us he really is a sleazy guy. He makes himself known as William, but does not give us any other information.

Suddenly, Fiona shouts out.

“Wow, I just saw two guys walking past through that door! Oh, that’s horrible!”

She tells us the men were carrying a coffin. It makes me think of the body snatchers that were said to use these vaults as their route to the Edinburgh Medical School. They used to sell bodies to this school for examination by the students. The bodies were obviously stolen, but no questions were asked because the school was so desperate for bodies. Gary however says that these guys carrying a coffin cannot have been body snatchers, as they would always just carry the body and not the coffin.

I found it intriguing how much Fiona sees and feels in these vaults. We come across two children, another woman and a man. Fiona even sees a “wee Westie dog.” Most of the things that Fiona has mentioned have been mentioned by other mediums on previous visits. In my eyes this confirms that what she sees has not been made up.

The vaults have been subject to many studies and overnight vigils. Alot of evidence shows that these vaults are haunted. However, there are always sceptics, so maybe visiting the vaults yourself can be the only way to find out the truth.


Mercat Tours organises daily history and ghost tours down to the vaults. Special events such as overnight vigils take place on a regular basis.

For more information contact Mercat Tours, tel. +44 (0)131 557 6464 or visit: The Scottish Paranormal Association can be contacted via: