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. 🙂
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?