Edinburgh Vaults, South Bridge
In 2019, right before the Corona pandemic, we visited Edinburgh. When we first arrived in the city, it was raining heavily. Wanting to make the most out of the trip, we decided to take a ghost tour that same night anyway. Thank goodness the weather improved as we approached the night. We did the Doomed, Dead and Buried Tour by Mercat Tours. Let’s focus on the Edinburgh Vaults.
Trip to Edinburgh
Scottish Edinburgh was on my (paranormal) bucketlist for years. So, when I turned 40, that was on top of my wishlist. I was thrilled to get the city trip for my birthday! Even though I already knew a lot about the city, which is known to be the most haunted city in Great Britain, I started reading more about the haunted places. On top of my list were the Edinburgh or South Bridge Vaults. I knew that Mercat Tours was the only tour provider with access to the vaults. The Doomed, Dead and Buried Tour was the one we chose. But, let me start by telling you some background information about the vaults.
The history of the Edinburgh Vaults
The Edinburgh Vaults, also known as the South Bridge Vaults and even as the Blair Street Underground Vaults are located on Blair Street, Edinburgh. At least today’s entrance is. The construction of South Bridge started in 1785, when the 19 arches to support it were built. The vaults, chambers and tunnels underneath it were walled in and sectioned off the descending levels. By 1788, when South Bridge was officially opened, approximately 120 vaults, or rooms, were ready.
The grand opening of South Bridge and the Edinburgh Vaults was quite special. A rich elderly woman from Adam Square had followed the entire construction of the bridge and demanded to be the first to cross it. Her wish was granted because of her influential friends in high places, but just before the festive opening, the woman died. Anyway, she was the first one to cross the bridge after all, in her coffin. Many superstitious locals looked upon this as a bad omen.
The conditions in the vaults
Above ground, the businesses on South Bridge were thriving. Most vaults were used as storage facilities, but as Edinburgh’s population continued growing, the vaults unofficially provided living quarters for the poorest of the poorest. Although there is little written evidence of squatting, as most were squatting illegally, evidence was found in the material which was left behind. It’s unbelievable that people actually lived in the damp, dark and most likely very smelly Edinburgh Vaults. The conditions above ground weren’t much better. The city became overpopulated, the mortality rates were sky high. The lack of sanitation caused illness, and murders occured very often. Some murderers even used the vaults for hiding their victims. But, corpses who died of natural causes were often stored here, as well.
Body snatchers and criminals
The Edinburgh Vaults were not only used as living quarters for the poor, they were also a great place for criminal activities such as body snatching. Yes, freshly dug up corpses were hidden here until a buyer was found. The demand for corpses in those days was huge. Criminals were paid £ 10,- for each corpse, so it was a profitable business. The conditions in the vaults were ideal for storing corpses: they were fairly cool and had a constant temperature, it was near the Canongate and Greyfriars graveyards and near medical school in the area. Locals feared these activities. The last thing you’d want is for your loved-one to end up on a dissection table. The rich were able to place mortsafes of iron bars to protect their dead. The poor could only pray that their loved-once were left at peace.
Rediscovering the Edinburgh Vaults
By the 1860’s, the conditions became so bad that most of the vaulted rooms were cleared. The chambers were filled with rubble to prevent flooding and the squatters to return. During WWII some of the vaults were used as air raid shelters, but soon after the vaults were completely forgotten. Until the 1980, when former rugby player Norrie Rowan became a property owner and builder in the Old Town. He re-discovered the vaults by accident. The rubble was cleared in most areas and some were transformed into night clubs, hospitality venues and even a theater. But, the part under Blair Street remained cleared and was eventually opened to the public. Since 1996, Mercat Tours has organized ghost walks in this creepy underground city.
The ghosts of the Edinburgh Vaults
The Edinburgh Vaults has been named Britain’s most haunted place by the BBC. When you’re down in the vaults, it’s really not hard to imagine it’s haunted. Some areas in the vaults are more haunted than others, so let’s take a look.
The Double Height Room
This room was one of the first stops we made while inside the Edinburgh Vaults. The room has a high ceiling, probably due to a collapsing upper floor. It looks like it’s two rooms on top of each other. Our tour guide mentioned the fact that during one of the tours in 2005, a woman claimed to have seen a man resembling President Abraham Lincoln in front of the top floor’s door. This apparition is also known as the Aristocrat.
He is a tall man with a top hat, and a beard. He’s often seen in the Double Height Room, but is also known to move into the Tavern Room. Dogs dislike this room: they bark, whimper or simply refuse to enter. A bird-like apparition likes to swoop down, clawing at people below. The ghost of a naked man has been seen floating in the upstairs section of the room, close to the doorway. The temperature in the room shows dramatic changes and the atmosphere can be menacing.
The Tavern Room
As said before, the Tavern Room is also haunted by the Aristocrat. Psychics who tried to lay contact with the spirit say his name is either Finnion or Gerain McKenzie. He’s often seen leaning against the wall from where he watches people. He’s grinning at them but in a curious way, not a hostile way. He might have been a member of the Hell-Fire Club. Not the Hellfire Club in Ireland, but a notorious gentlemen’s club inside the Edinburgh Vaults.
This club was believed to have ties to the Dark Lord himself. People have seen a black mass moving along the ceiling as well as the apparition of a dark figure that paces along around the room. Sighs and screams are known to come from this room and some people claim to have felt as if they were drunk here. Some even appear to be drunk: they’re unable to walk straight and suffer from extreme giggling.
Niddry Street Corridor
Reports of paranormal activity have occured since the tours started here. A malevolent male spirit is said to house here. He’s very territorial and occasionally shouts “Get Out!”. He is a big man, wearing a dirty blue overcoat. It looks as if he’s holding something in his hand, most likely a knife. He obviously thinks he owns that part of the vaults.
The Room of the Cobbler
This very active room is haunted by a very happy spirit. He’s believed to have been a shoemaker from the late 1700’s or the early 1800’s, and he still carries out his profession. He was first seen in 1997 in his usual south-west corner of the room. He’s short, stocky and bald, probably in his early 50’s. He wears a leather apron on top of a white shirt. He’s sitting on a bench while working on a shoe and he really seems to enjoy company. He’s always smiling and laughing. The cobbler is very interested in people’s footwear and is known to tug at shoelaces. He doesn’t understand velcro, though. He’s puzzled over that one. He’s such a strong and friendly ghost that psychics have advised the staff to go to the Cobbler’s Room in case of paranormal trouble. He will protect people from malevolent spirits.
The Veiled Woman
However, something inside the room is not friendly to everyone. Small stones have been thrown at visitors. They bounce off against the walls. Some visitors have even seen the stones being thrown across the room. Especially female visitors can feel grief, anger and can even experience abdominal pains in the north-west corner of the Cobbler’s Room. These dark feelings are linked to a young woman, completely dressed in black. She wears a veil as if she’s grieving. Psychics have described the woman as very disturbed. They think this woman has lost her child in a traumatic way.
The Wine Vault
A little boy named Jack or James is often spotted in the Wine Vault, although he’s able to wander through the entire area. Jack or James is believed to be 6 to 8 years old and he has blond curly hair. He wears a blue suit with knicker-bocker trousers and a white shirt. Jack likes to watch the visitors from the lower shelf and he sometimes even moves around when there are groups.
He really likes other children and he loves holding hands with women. Like he’s looking for a mother-figure. He likes to sing and is sometimes seen playing with a red ball. It’s likely that Jack is afraid of a spirit known by the name Mr. Boots. He is known to sometimes tug sharply on someone’s sleeves or coat because he doesn’t want that person to enter the Blair Street Corridor. Jack sometimes hides inside the Cobbler’s Room where he feels protected.
The Room of the Caretaker
In this room, a man is often seen sitting by the fireplace. He seems really relaxed with his legs outstretched and a drink in his hand. A small, wiry-haired terrier-like dog sits at his feet. The dog tends to brush against people’s legs and he even sniffs at people. Its wagging tail sometimes is the only thing people see.
The White Room
The Vault’s most active room is the White Room. This is the room where a very unpleasant spirit lurks. He is called “Mr. Boots”, but he’s also known as “The Watcher”. He is a big man who wears knee-length leather boots. His footsteps are heard echoing throughout the vaults. He tends to sneak up on people. Some people even claim they can smell his bad breath. Mr. Boots walks around the entire underground city. People think he’s also the same spirit that stalks the Niddry Street Corridor. But, he’s particularly protective about the White Room, he doesn’t want anyone in there.
He’s a strong spirit, making batteries drain, camera’s to malfunction and lights go out. He’s left scratch marks on people and he’s able to inflict pain. It is believed that Mr. Boots was a body snatcher or a murderer and that he hid his victims in the White Room. That might explain the stench of death that sometimes lingers here. He once shouted “My name is Edward!” when his nickname was used. Mr. Boots is known to avoid one room in the vault’s, namely the Cobbler’s Room. People are safe from him there.
How we experienced the Edinburgh Vaults
The whole tour was amazing. Our tour guide Lauren was so funny and we learned a lot about past life in the city. The vaults were definitely the pinnacle of the tour. The group we were with was quite large, but that was never a problem. Going down into the vaults was truly an amazing experience. The eerie atmosphere, the feeling of being watched… It was perfect. I cannot even start to imagine what it was like to live down here. When we reached the White Room of “Mr. Boots” our tour guide blew out the candles, leaving us in complete darkness. That was fantastic, I just loved everyone’s reaction!
The Edinburgh Vaults today
Those crossing the South Bridge for the first time don’t even know they’re on a bridge. It looks just like a normal road with shops and tenements on the sides. But, once you reach the short stretch of railings half way across, they’ll be surprised by the view into the Cowgate in the valley below. If you want to visit the Edinburgh Vaults, you can contact Mercat Tours. You can find them near St. Giles Church near the old “mercat” column.
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Cover photo: Kjetil Bjørnsrud via commons.wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Sources: Mercat Tours: Descend and Discover – official souvenir guide book, wikipedia, mercattours.com, edinburghtips.nl, ancient-origins.com and visitscotland.com
Address: 28 Blair St, Edinburgh EH1 1QR, United Kingdom