An Optimistic Skeptic in Edinburgh’s South Bridge Vaults

by Keith Savage · 16 comments

On a Mercat Tour in the South Bridge Vaults, Edinburgh

I want to believe.

I want to believe in the paranormal. I want to believe in ghosts. I want to believe in the goodness in peoples’ hearts. I want to believe Pam Mandel sold her blog for $750,000.

I want to believe in the supernatural, but I don’t. Not really, and I blame that shill Derek Acorah for my lost innocence. Cable networks have been force-feeding hours of primetime shlock to people like me for far too long: Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted, Pawn Stars, Ancient Aliens, and the 823 hours of programming proving Nostradamus actually could see the future.

You see, though I want to believe, my practical and rational side won’t let me. So when I planned my trip to Edinburgh, I knew I’d have the opportunity to explore at least one of these themes in the flesh: the city’s haunted underground (guess that “goodness in peoples’ hearts” bit will have to wait).

Edinburgh’s Old Town has quite a reputation for some seriously wicked events. Back home I’d be lucky to contact the spirit of an angry corn cob too violently threshed. Here, beneath this ancient city’s streets, who knows what might happen.

But let’s make one thing clear right off the bat: there isn’t an underground city in Edinburgh. There are two places in the city that are now underground tourist attractions: Mary King’s Close and the South Bridge Vaults. People actually lived “underground” in the South Bridge Vaults; the same is not true of Mary King’s Close. Though it looks like a normal street, South Bridge is actually a 1,000-foot-long bridge with 19 arches. Only the arch over Cowgate is visible; the others have been hemmed in by buildings and become vaults.

I decide to start with Mercat Tours, one of Edinburgh’s most well-respected tour companies. They offer a variety of flavors to accommodate history buffs, ghost hunters, and scientifically-minded skeptics alike. I want both sides of the story, so I choose the Paranormal Underground tour to satisfy my child-like wonder and the Historic Vaults tour to appease my practical side.

Each tour begins at the mercat cross on the Royal Mile for a brief intro before heading down Blair Street to the Mercat Tours office, where the entrance to the vaults is conveniently located. We descend several small, stoney staircases and lose a good 15ยบF. The pictures don’t do the vaults justice – it’s pitch black down here, damp, and cold. The stone floor slopes unevenly and stalactites hang from the ceiling. Icy water droplets pitter-patter on my jacket and occasionally slide down the back of my neck. Slick lichens coat the stone walls and the thick scent of mildew fills the air.

Ian, my guide on the Historic Vaults tour, explains how the vaults were used to house taverns, small businesses like cobblers, and store wine casks. With no source of natural light, people used to burn stinky fish oil to see by. Cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox and typhus ran rampant in these terrible conditions. Life down in the vaults was hard and short. Remember that dampness I mentioned? During the construction of South Bridge, the builders failed to adequately seal the bridge. The nice shops planned for the vaults were eventually driven out by the dampness that destroyed goods and made business impossible. Once reputable businesses cleared out, the area became a home for Edinburgh’s homeless.

It doesn’t take a wild imagination to see things down here, to feel a shiver or glimpse a shade. When Lizzie brings me and a few others down to the vaults the following day on the Paranormal Underground tour, I’m already familiar with the vaultscape. While there are roughly 18 arches worth of vaults, each tour company has access to only a small portion. Many bars and businesses have their own sections of the vaults as well.

This tour isn’t meant to scare your pants off. Lizzie approaches the stories of ghostly sightings and experiences from a scientific point of view and explains how ghost hunters use tools like electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors to determine if “entities” are present. Lizzie gives each of us an EMF detector and tells us to go off on our own through the inky blackness. I stalk the periphery, away from the rest of the group, stumbling on rubble and catching sight of my breath in the occasional candlelight. Strange sounds echo through the corridors. I figure ghosts might think I’m an easy mark on my own.

Then I see it: a giant white rat crawling along the wall. A ghost rat! I feel a sheen of cold sweat as I stare at it, frozen in place. There’s the sound of someone shifting stance and the rat stretches into its true form…a distorted beam of light from one of the florescent bulbs mounted on the wall. I think Lizzie’s leg created it. I finally exhale and hand back my silent EMF detector.

Both guides were entertaining and good stewards of their groups, though the tours overlapped on some of the historical information. Exploring Edinburgh’s vaults is a unique and fun way to spend time in Edinburgh. Determine which kind of tour-goer you are and pick a Mercat Tour aligned with that mindset. If you want to see more of the vaults, consider another tour company like City of the Dead that has access to a different section.

Me? I should have gone on the Historic Vaults tour second so as not to strip the experience of that wistful belief in the paranormal. After all, I want to believe.

Disclosure: Mercat Tours provided me with two complimentary tours. Thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.

DeborahNo Gravatar April 2, 2015 at 6:12 PM

Keith, is there any difference between Back of Vaults and The Vaults of Edinburgh? My grandparents were both born in Back of Vaults, but I can’t find anything on the internet regarding it. I’ve been to the vaults and now am beginning to wonder if they indeed where born there. The birth certificate says Back of Vaults Edinburgh. Thanks! I love your blog and am learning everyday from it! Deborah

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 2, 2015 at 8:27 PM

Tough question and one I don’t know the answer to. However, having been in the South Bridge Vaults, it surely could not have been there. That is a dark, rubble-strewn place that hasn’t seen occupation in a very long time.

DeborahNo Gravatar April 2, 2015 at 10:27 PM

Thank you Keith. I visited the South Bridge Vaults 10 yrs ago and recently started questioning the location of Back of Vaults. Do you know of someone you could put me in touch with or a website? I’ve searched Google UK, but Back of Vaults doesn’t appear. Hey, you’d love our WI weather if you were home now!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 2, 2015 at 10:39 PM

I am, in fact, currently home in Wisconsin right now ๐Ÿ™‚

Well, I did a little searching on “Back of Vaults.” Turns out that it appears to be a place name, like a street. It seems it is literally the back of the Vaults in the Leith, which is where the Scotch Malt Whisky Society now stands. I’ve been there! I think your investigation ought to take you there.

DeborahNo Gravatar April 2, 2015 at 11:33 PM

Thanks Keith. I think I’ll get in touch with the owner!

DeborahNo Gravatar April 2, 2015 at 10:32 PM

Keith, I just remembered. It’s Back of Vaults Leith… any help would be appreciated!

Bluegreen KirkNo Gravatar April 6, 2011 at 9:08 AM

This is not someone place I would be going to with my family no one would go to sleep at night even if the white rat was something created from the light bulb. Just not happening! Lovely story loved the photos!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 6, 2011 at 9:35 AM

My wife is the same way. No way she’d go down into the vaults. I found it to be really fun and a great way to spend a couple hours in Edinburgh.

JoAnnaNo Gravatar April 6, 2011 at 7:37 AM

I don’t know if I’m a believer either, but it sounds like these are kind of fun, even if it is just to learn about the history of the underground vaults. How many people were in a tour group?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 6, 2011 at 8:49 AM

They are fun, and Mercat Tours runs an excellent professional business with engaging guides. My groups were small, less than 10 people total. It was low season, though, and they mentioned tours could be in the 20-30 person range.

KatherinaNo Gravatar April 4, 2011 at 5:10 PM

You know I don’t feel comfortable in a graveyard… so imagine in Edinburgh’s vaults! I think I will continue reading about it… my imagination already plays bad tricks on me, I don’t need my eyes to do so too!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 5, 2011 at 9:46 AM

Greyfriars wasn’t too bad, was it? Kash and his bravado were there to protect us :p

Lindsay aka @_thetraveller_No Gravatar April 4, 2011 at 3:16 PM

I don’t know why, but I’m seriously so freaking scared of the thought of paranormal activity… aliens… ghosts… just the THOUGHT. And some people do have good hearts. I like to think that most people do, but we are all just so different and what we believe as ‘good’ changes from person to person, family to family and culture to culture.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 5, 2011 at 9:45 AM

The paranormal is freaky, but it’s also intriguing and the idea of it is exciting. The idea. I think if most people actually thought there would be contact with malevolent ghosts they wouldn’t go on these tours.

RoyNo Gravatar April 4, 2011 at 2:18 PM

That underground tour looks like fun. Last time I was in Edinburgh I spent far too much time in a Walkabout pub lol. (but that was fun too)

Keith SavageNo Gravatar April 5, 2011 at 9:44 AM

I spent most of my time in pubs too. ๐Ÿ™‚

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