What Lies Beneath Edinburgh’s Old Town?

by Keith Savage · 18 comments

The South Bridge Vaults, Edinburgh

They built right over the old streets and buildings.

Some closes, those narrow alleys between buildings, traded sky for stone and became subterranean passageways. How is that even possible? It’s even believed that some plague victims were sealed in their homes and left to die as new homes were built over them. It’s as macabre an entombment as any I can recall.

My fascination with Edinburgh’s underground began many years ago after I caught a special Halloween edition of Most Haunted. Yvette and the gang delved into the Old Town’s South Bridge vaults to explore a series of chambers, and what stuck with me was not the ghost of Mr. Boots or Derek Acorah’s laughable “possessions,” but the history of the vaults’ unique creation.

After planning a three-week trip to Edinburgh, I knew I had to explore it’s hidden history, reconcile the horrid stories I’ve heard, and come to a basic understanding of these feats of engineering. And maybe catch a glimpse of Mr. Boots, too. šŸ™‚

A Hill of a City

Like another famous city, Edinburgh is said to be situated on seven hills, but the one hill that figures into this topic is Castle Rock. This old volcanic plug towers majestically above the surrounding city with sheer sides on three of its four faces. In days of yore, it would have been the perfect spot to maintain a defensive position – hence, Edinburgh Castle. Interestingly, there used to be lochs to the north and south of the castle, where New Town and the Southside now stand. A town grew up near the castle and it had only one way to grow: down the tail of the volcanic plug. As the population increased, antique skyscrapers called “lands” grew up and down the sheer sides of the city.

Today, this area is the Royal Mile. One close in particular has become a popular attraction.

Mary King’s Close

Just past Roxburgh’s Close on the north side of the Royal Mile lies a subterranean network now dubbed The Real Mary King’s Close. I visited this tourist attraction in the summer of 2009 with my family, and the organizers have put together a compelling tour filled with informational bits and spooky stories all within dark, damp, and cramped surroundings. The place is unsettling despite the sanitized trappings of the tour. You descend steps and walk down an alley that by all appearances should be open to the sky. But it’s not. These are buried streets with buried histories, and The Real Mary King’s Close tour sheds a little light on a section of what must be a larger complex of underground passageways and chambers.

South Bridge Vaults

The area directly to the south of the castle is the Grassmarket and Cowgate. This shallow valley separates the Old Town from Edinburgh’s Southside and has had some history as a slum. The South Bridge was eventually built to cross Cowgate and connect the two parts of Edinburgh. Today, the bridge appears to be a single arch over Cowgate, but, incredibly, the South Bridge actually rests on a series of 19 arches! The rest are hidden, enclosed by buildings on either side. The area beneath the bridge was not specifically developed and brothels, pubs, and squatters moved into these areas at the turn of the 19th century.

Conditions were bad in these chambers, which have become known as the Vaults, and the entire place was sealed in the 1820s. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that the Vaults were excavated, and they’re mainly frequented by ghost tour companies today.

Skeletons in the…Floor?

The sordid history turned tourism cash cow is intriguing. I’m working to set up meetings with representatives from the tour companies so I can get a better understanding of these hidden places. I’m also on the trail of historical and paranormal sources to round out the truth and have a little fun with it, too. I know one company offers overnight vigils in the vaults.

Sounds terrifying. And fun.

Have you explored Edinburgh’s underground? Do you have tips for me or suggestions for things I should explore?

Original photos by avail and HammerintoAnvil via Flickr under Creative Commons

Donald HandleyNo Gravatar July 20, 2015 at 5:07 PM

I recently visited Edinburgh (15.07.15) and went on the Mary King Close tour and a night time tour through the vaults. I had taken a different guided walk ‘underneath the arches’ a couple of years ago and wanted to see more, or a different view of the underground Edinburgh city.

I wanted to be educated rather than entertained but I knew that any ‘attraction’ would be theatrical and dressed up for the tourist. The Mary King Close walk baffled me insofar as once I started to walk down the steps and turn a of corners, I was completely disoriented. You are told that the close was not underground until the Royal Exchange was built on the foundations of the other demolished closes next to the one being walked. I did not understand how this could have come about but seeing as there was no time to ask ‘Agnes’, (real name- Polly (or so she said!)), our guide for an explanation. The tour it’s self is very good and worth a visit as regards a starting point to find out about the underground Edinburgh.

The Vaults tour was undertaken on the evening of my daytime adventure with Mary King and her ‘Close’ friends. This tour was considerably shorter than the one that I had taken a couple of years back. A lot of the hour was spent above ground explaining the back ground and gruesome history of the vaults. Again, I was looking for the history rather than entertainment and again, I was quite prepared the latter over the former. On booking the tour, I did enquire whether there was a ‘screamer’ involved. I was assured that nobody is going to jump out and induce a heart attack nor are the lights going to go out at a dramatic moment although I was told that the host would create the atmosphere befitting the occasion. Again, the tour delivered what was promised, a potted history of the city beneath a city with all of the ghost stories and tales needed to make sure that you were not the last person in the group trailing from one room to the next.

This is how I found this site, I want to find out more about Edinburgh, both above and under ground but it is proving difficult to find any books with good reviews with which to start learning the history of this fascinating city.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 20, 2015 at 5:47 PM

Hi Donald,

Great reviews of your time exploring Edinburgh’s underground. I wonder if you would share the name of the tour company that took you into the vaults? I, too, went looking for books on the subject and found only popular texts that capitalize on the spooky aspect more than the historical reasons for the development. I have “The Town Below the Ground” by Jan-Andrew Henderson and “Ghostly Tales & Sinister Stories of Old Edinburgh” by Alan J. Wilson, Des Brogan, and Frank McGrail.

Donald HandleyNo Gravatar July 21, 2015 at 5:41 AM

The walk conducted through the vaults was organised by Mercat Tours.

I have read a few reviews of The town below the ground by Jan-Andrew Henderson and they said that the book promised a lot but did not deliver much in the way of historical fact. However, I will order a copy through the library and make my own judgement. The other book that I will read is History of Edinburgh by Micheal Fry. This apparently is a far more in depth look at Edinburgh above and below ground. Again, as with all book reviews, there are some shining reviews and some more critical.

This is something that I would like to learn more about, but living in Staffordshire makes it difficult to access information other than the internet and books, and unfortuateley historical facts about the Bridge seem hard to come by from either source.

Jennifer BarryNo Gravatar February 26, 2011 at 2:49 PM

Hi Keith, I love creepy historical tours. I check them out everywhere I go. I think my favorite so far was the vampire tour in New Orleans. This is definitely up my alley, forgive the pun. šŸ™‚

bweissNo Gravatar February 17, 2011 at 2:56 PM

sounds like a great ghostly place to visit

Ted NelsonNo Gravatar February 14, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Wow, a lot of interesting history lies beneath Edinburgh’s old town. Thanks for bringing it to life.

DinaNo Gravatar February 14, 2011 at 3:50 AM

I would love to explore this underground world, but maybe not by myself…

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 14, 2011 at 1:06 PM

Yeah, going alone might be too much. I need to hire a sidekick šŸ™‚

GrayNo Gravatar February 11, 2011 at 5:16 PM

Oooh, creepy. The UK is just so filled with the Gothic element in its history and literature, which makes sense, given all the torture that’s gone on in the past and the setting–the foggy moors and all that. I’ve never heard of the Underground before, though. That sounds worth exploring!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 14, 2011 at 2:06 PM

I think the truth of Edinburgh’s underground has been lost somewhat in urban legend. Seems like the perfect situation to try and cast some honest light on it.

CamNo Gravatar February 11, 2011 at 1:05 PM

We did the Mary King’s Close last winter. It was pretty cool seeing the city beneath the city. The tour was a little played up to be “spooky”, but it didn’t take away from the historical relevance of the underground world. People did strange things in the medieval era

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 14, 2011 at 1:06 PM

Agreed about the spookiness, but it was fun. Did you do any other ghost tours? My wife and I went on one that took us to the Covenanters’ Prison in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and it scared the pants off us.

andiNo Gravatar February 11, 2011 at 9:56 AM

Sounds like such an exciting place to explore!!!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 14, 2011 at 1:04 PM

I really hope I can do an overnight underground vigil!

AnthonyNo Gravatar February 11, 2011 at 6:07 AM

I actually haven’t discovered the underground, in all of the times I’ve been. Consider that stuck on my “to do” list, I look forward to hearing about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed a day trip to ‘Glencoe’ on an Edinburgh visit last year. It’s where the myth of the Loch Ness monster is and it’s beeeaaaaautiful on the eye. It’s like a bloody oil painting, take a camera if you go.

If you’re soppy like me; go and visit ‘Greyfriar’s Bobby’ and find the beautiful story of one man and mans best friend! Do an air grab of some sort for full affect.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 11, 2011 at 9:10 AM

I love the highlands and many of my future trips to Scotland will be dedicated to exploring the Scotland north of the cities. I’ve been to Glen Coe twice now and each time has been somber and gorgeous. The history of the massacre can be felt in the valley.

Greyfriars is one of my favorite areas of Edinburgh. You’ve got the pub of the same name and the really spooky kirkyard right behind it. My wife and I did a ghost tour through the kirkyard that took us to the Covenanters’ prison. There was much shrieking.

AndrewNo Gravatar February 11, 2011 at 3:13 AM

The underground of cities is really quite interesting. This idea of a town that has been around long enough to have that kind of history is all but foreign to the US. Mary King’s close was (as I have mentioned a few times before) my favorite attraction to Edinburgh. It was quite neat to see all of the history of the place with stories to boot. The loch’s must have been a dreadful place. I remember the story from our guide at the Close as well as the bus guide that they used to just toss everything into them, garbage, plague victims, waste, witches.

Looking forward to hearing more stories from you about the other parts of town.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 11, 2011 at 9:03 AM

The age of European cities enamors me. The accretion of lives over hundreds – if not thousands – of years slots me nicely into a mode of incomprehension. So much to explore, to ponder, to discover.

I’m definitely on the “happy the lochs are gone” board.

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