If there’s anything Edinburgh possesses in abundance, its ghost stories. The various tales of the cities’ ghosts and ghoulies are so numerous they could fill entire books! And they do in fact; many of them.
It was the tales contained in one particular book that drew me to Edinburgh’s South Bridge Vaults this cold and windy afternoon. The book in question was named The Town Below the Ground: Edinburgh’s Legendary Underground City. Written by former tour guide and author Jan-Andrew Henderson, it explores both the myths and the facts associated with Old Town’s infamous underground tunnels.
Now silent and empty, these gloomy network of tunnels were once home to hundreds (if not thousands) of Edinburgh’s poorest. Poverty, disease and crime and ran amok at the worst point in the vaults history, and tales of murder, tragedy and desperation have long been associated with them.
Regular readers may remember my post recounting a visit to Mary’s King Close published a few weeks ago. Well, the South-Bridge Vaults represent the darker side of this period of Edinburgh’s history. My account of Mary King’s Close may have seemed grim in places, but it’s positively sunny compared to what I have to tell you about the South Bridge Vaults!
Oh, and it’s boasts more than it’s fair share of spine-tingling ghost stories too. So make sure to stay tuned for those!
Taking the Tour
Given how much I enjoyed The Town Below Ground, it was only natural that my ghost tour of choice was the one provided by Henderson’s own company; City of the Dead. That, and the company’s gigantic advertising sign being planted right outside St Gile’s cathedral, making it sort of hard to resist. I don’t want to admit that I’m a sucker for advertising, but I’m totally a sucker for advertising.
Our tour guide for the afternoon was a young, incredibly animated guy dressed head to toe in black. I’ve heard other people saying that the tour guides in Edinburgh are generically kind of nuts, and this guy certainly brought in to that stereotype. Whether he was naturally like this, or just trying to fill this image I don’t know. But he did cheerfully inform us at one stage that there was a local homeless guy with a dislike for him, so if we happened to pass a drunk yelling ‘Goth!’ and chucking beer cans at him, just to casually carry on walking. Which is always a reassuring way to begin a tour.
Luckily we never actually did encounter the guide’s – let’s call him ‘Larry’ – drunken nemesis, but as we strode the streets of Old Town we did get a lot of intriguing background on the murky past of Scotland’s capital.
The History of the South Bridge Vaults
Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, it’s fair to say that Edinburgh was the pits of the British Isles. The city was – and still is – nicknamed ‘Auld Reekie’, and I’m sure you can figure out why! Shit, piss and other bodily matter flowed down the streets, crime and homelessness were rampant and disease regularly tore its way through the helpless population.
And it was during this time that the South Bridge Vaults first came to be. Dug out of the nineteen arches of Edinburgh’s South Bridge in 1788, they first begun life as storerooms and business properties for successful companies. But as water began to seep through the walls, ruining stock and flooding the rooms, these were rapidly abandoned over the following ten years.
And with its previous occupants gone, what happened next was what happened to the majority of Edinburgh’s uninhabitable, unsanitary spaces. They became home to the homeless and destitute.
It’s hard – both literally and figuratively – to imagine how people survived in these damp, freezing, pitch black rooms. Many didn’t, as Larry informed us, but to have spent even a short time in this dreadful place must have been extremely harrowing.
Stalagmites dangled from the ceiling, physical remnants of centuries of water seeping through the rocky walls. The chamber felt claustrophobic and ominous, and as my (dreadful) photo below goes to show, without the atmospheric lamplight it was hard to see a hand in front of you face.
And venturing upstairs via some treacherous stone steps, things only got worse. Two bleak, narrow stone chambers stretched out in front of us. Not a single shred of sunlight filtered in to these stark, depressing rooms. And how could it? There were no windows, no doors, nothing but the glow of our guide’s torch. These rooms felt very much like a crypt; still, silent and devoid of all life. But, Larry assured us, in the late 17th century and early 1800’s these were far from uninhabited. As many as ten people would be crammed in to each room; families, children and strangers alike.
Living conditions were, needless to say, appalling and many died of disease, malnutrition or exposure within the confines of the vaults. With the great mix of vulnerable and shady characters sharing these confined living quarters, it’s also not surprising that more than a few murders are believed to have occurred here during it’s occupation.
Ghostly Tales of the South Bridge Vaults
And speaking of murders, let me take you to the best part of the tour; the ghost stories! I promised you ghost stories at the start, so let’s get stuck right in!
The terrifying tales associated with the South Bridge Vaults are too numerous to recount here, but I will tell you the two that stood out the most for me.
The first is the legend of a spirit known as the ‘Tall Man’. This looming, shadowy spectre has been witnessed fairly frequently by visitors on the tour, and is scarily described as having a white, skull-like face. He’s even reportedly been captured on camera more than a few times, and having seen the photos myself I’ve got to admit they’re some seriously spooky shit.
But if the ‘Tall Man’ sounds scary enough, this second story will truly make your hair stand on end!
The most disturbing story regarding the South Bridge Vaults happened to a mother and her young daughter while participating in the tour a number of years ago. At one particularly scary point of the tour, the mother had felt her little girl take hold of her hand, squeezing it anxiously. The mother had squeezed back to reassure her, but over the next few minutes her daughter’s nervous grip grew tighter and tighter. Suddenly it became so vice-like it was excruciating and the mother ripped away her hand, crashing in to another visitor and triggering a mass panic.
Swept away in the flow of this terrified scramble, upon exiting the vaults the mother was immensely relieved – though a little puzzled – to see her little girl standing safe and sound a small distance from the exit.
The mother apologised to her daughter for pulling her hand back like that but explained that she’d frightened her, and asked how she’d managed get outside before the rest of the tour party.
Equally confused, the child explained that she’d never held her mother’s hand on the tour. Quite the opposite, when she’d begun to feel afraid because of the guide’s scary stories, a kindly stranger had taken her by the hand and led her out the vaults. Mystified, the mother asked her daughter how she’d known this hand was a stranger’s and not her own.
The little girl’s reply was chilling. She knew this hand couldn’t be her mother’s, as this hand had claws.
And there folks is why you shouldn’t have kids! Or at least shouldn’t bring them on tours of extremely haunted locations. I really wouldn’t be surprised if that’s kids mother didn’t sleep for a month after this. Yikes!
And with this tale told, it was finally time for our own little moment of terror in the vaults. The lights were extinguished and we all stood in total silence as we waited to see what, if anything, would happen.
As I nervously counted down the seconds, I was steeling myself for something to happen. Would I hear unexplained knocks like so many visitors before me? Would I feel the whisper of freezing breath upon my cheek, or the brush of icy fingers? Or would I, like that little girl all those years ago, feel the unfamiliar grip of or strong, clawed hands encasing my own?
As it turns out; no.
I would experience nothing in fact, save for the startling bang of the mini-explosive Larry let off to inform us that our minute of silence was over, and so was our tour.
How to Take a Tour with City of the Dead
The lack of actual paranormal activity aside, my underground ghost tour with City of the Dead was a real bundle of fun that was truly an hour well spent! The tour – and it’s rather eccentric guide – were in turns fascinating, hilarious and downright terrifying. There are numerous ghost tours operating around the Royal Mile, but those held by of City of the Dead are among the best out there!
Tours are held daily between 3 and 8pm, and an adult’s ticket costs a quite reasonable £11. To buy your ticket or find out more information, simply pop in to the tourist information centre outside St Gile’s Cathedral, located on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. And to find out more about its numerous ghost tours or the book The Town Below Ground, do drop by the City of the Dead‘s website!
Have you taken a ghost tour in Edinburgh? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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