When I found out about the underground vaults in Edinburgh, Scotland, I had to go on the ghost tour. I knew from previous experience that I would learn about Scottish culture and Edinburgh’s interesting characters. But it was the vaults that intrigued me. I figured they were some kind of tunnel system or crypts. They were neither.
As Edinburgh grew in population, South Bridge was built in the 1780’s to connect Old Towne with the University. It was the first planned shopping district. One hundred and twenty rooms or vaults were constructed under the bridge’s nineteen arches. Above ground along the bridge, taverns, shops, and tradesman moved in. Below these fine establishments, vaults were commonly used for storage or for workshops. Up to four floors of vaults were constructed and were linked by tunnels and stairs.
Illustration from HistoricUK.com
All went well until the merchants discovered the hastily built bridge leaked. As the filthy runoff seeped in, (they tossed human waste from the windows above), the businesses pulled out.
By the 1820’s, the vaults were overrun with the poorest people of Edinburgh and Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. Illegal gambling and distilleries popped up. Lightless, damp, and without proper ventilation, sanitation, or water, living conditions were horrible in these slums. Murders and robberies became commonplace.
This was a perfect haven for two of Edinburgh’s most favorite characters, Burke and Hare who soon discovered a lucrative business. The University paid good money for corpses for its medical students. The two men found the vaults an overpopulated hunting ground. They got caught when their last victim didn’t die as planned. Although the details of their kills are sketchy, it is believed that they hid the bodies in the vaults.
At one point during the tour, our guide mentioned that a presence was known to haunt the vault in which we stood. He asked us if a name came to mind but didn’t give us much time to answer. John popped into my head. He said people guessed Jack or James. Close! A little boy ghost sometimes holds the hand of women on the tour. Not mine. *chills*
The vaults were closed from the 1800’s until the 1980’s when a Scottish Rugby player, Norrie Rowan discovered a tunnel. He hid a man seeking asylum from Romania in 1989. Then in the 1990’s, Rowan and his son excavated tons of rock from the vaults. It reopened to nightclubs, Fringe Fest, and ghost tours in the 2000’s.
The walkways between buildings or closes are creepy even during daylight hours.
Town hangings took place right where we met on the grounds of St. Giles. A few criminals didn’t die right away. While one was set free by the town as a sign that God forgave him, the other was rehanged. Tough crowd.
The two-hour tour ended with a shot of whiskey in a very dark, damp, and musty smelling vault. I lifted my glass of soda and toasted to the lack of public lynching and serial killers. I felt very safe even though a chill wind ran up my back on the way back to the car.
Have you been on a ghost tour? Is Edinburgh, Scotland on your bucket list?
Ghost Walk – A Ghost Tour in Breckenridge.