By Alexandra Redisch in Edinburgh
It’s a lovely summer evening, yet there’s a chill in the air. Nothing new there, we’re in Scotland, after all. But today, that’s as it should be, because I’m about to descend into the underworld and experience the city’s grim and ghostly past. Come with me to the Edinburgh underground, a haunted place, where restless spirits and grave robbers rule. Welcome to the Blair Street Underground Vaults.
We meet at the old Mercat Cross (not meerkat, Mercat is an old English word meaning ‘market’). Our guide is a literature student called Lia; a blond, willowy thing with a billowing black cloak and a small candle. She’s to take our little group to the city beneath the streets of Edinburgh.
A city beneath the streets? How does that work, exactly? To understand the meaning of the vaults, you also have to know the history of urban development in Edinburgh. After the battle of Flodden in 1513, the people of Edinburgh felt the need for a city wall to keep the English out, and quicly built the Flodden Wall, parts of which can still be seen close to the Cowgate.
During the following years, especially after industrialisation, people flocked to town; it was seen as too dangerous to live outside the city walls. Naturally, Edinburgh got packed pretty quickly.
There were five hills in the city. To better use the topography, bridges were built between the hills, and houses rose up on all sides. The curious thing about Edinburgh is that you can walk around and think you’re on street level, when in fact you are several stories above that. The houses grew taller and taller, often reaching staggering heights of 13+ stories.
To fully take advantage of the small spaces available, vaults were built into the arches of the bridges, which were often hidden from view by neighbouring houses. In the beginning, the vaults were used by merchants as storage spaces, but as rain started seeping in, they were abandoned and left to the more undesireable elements of the city.
Some vaults were used as taverns, some by criminals as headquarters for their dubious businesses, and some were even used as a hiding place by notorious killers such as Burke and Hare.
Most depressingly, the poorest of the poor lived here. Imagine living in a damp room, cut out of rough stone, no windows or lighting except for fish oil lamps, no furniture to speak of, no reliable water supply and certainly no toilets. The rooms would be adjoining, creating a honeycomb pattern, and often a family could be living in a room next to hardened criminals hiding from the law. Edinburgh’s poor were living here as late as the 1850s.
Naturally, ghosts abound in such an environment, and no tour of the vaults would be complete without a few honourable mentions. In the Blair Street Vaults, there are a handful of lost souls you may meet, like The Naked Man in the Double Height Room, who floats around (don’t look up!) and doesn’t seem to notice his visitors. Another is The Aristocrat: a well dressed man believed to belong to a Hell-Fire Club, who is often seen by the entrance to one of the rooms that used to be a tavern. He stands with arms crossed, looking at visitors with a bemused look on his face. Yet another is Little Jack, who tries to grab hold of womens’ hands and clothes. He wants to play, but sometimes he seems scared…
The Cobbler lives in the same room as Little Jack. He probably had a small shoe making business in that room, many years ago, because The Cobbler is attracted to shoes. Visitors will often find their shoes untied or unbuttoned when standing close to his preferred spot. He is a very friendly ghost, like most of his spectral colleagues in the Blair Street Vaults. The Cobbler has also told visiting psychics that he can offer protection from the notorious Mr. Boots, the only ghost that can wander throughout the rooms.
Mr. Boots lives mainly in The White Room, a room which many guides refuse to enter at all. He is called Mr. Boots because he wears great big boots which echoes throughout the vaults when he is out and about. Little Jack is afraid of this room, and that’s not surprising. One visitor was reported to have a rather nasty encounter with Mr. Boots: she was at the very back of the room when she felt a wind on the back of her neck as if someone was blowing at her. She moved but it didn’t stop. Irritated, the woman turned around to tell what she presumed to be another tourist to stop it, and came face to face with nothing but a bare wall. Rattled, she turned around again, only to recieve a gust of wind full on; reeking of old, rotten flesh, and a voice only she could hear, screaming at her to ‘get out!’
So, did I feel anything out of the ordinary? I can’t say I experienced anything conclusive, but in one of the corridors I could’ve sworn I saw a small figure out of the corner of my eye (perhaps Little Jack?), and (being the asthmatic that I am) I did have trouble breathing in The White Room… Make of that what you will – sceptic or not, the Blair Street Vaults are worth a visit. If nothing else, Edinburgh’s underground paints an evocative portrait of the city’s past.
Blair Street Vaults – practicals
I visited the Blair Street Vaults with Mercat Tours and paid for it myself. The tour takes about 2 hours and cost GBP 14/12/7 for adults/concessions/children. Tours begin at 7 and 8pm every day from Mercat Cross and finishes near Hunters Square.