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 15ºF. 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.