Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Edinburgh Vaults

by Richard Denning

Any visitor to the city of Edinburgh cannot fail to be aware of the various bridges that are an integral feature of the city center. The city stands on a number of hills with deep valleys in between. Constructing bridges over these valleys massively improved the ease of moving around the city. Any visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe (as I was in the summer of 2014) will spend a great deal of time crossing and recrossing the city via these bridges.

Many of the visitors may be unaware that beneath the South Bridge is a hidden world of passages and catacombs called the South Bridge Vaults.

The South Bridge was built to cross the gorge along which Cowgate runs and to link the city to the University to the south. Building work on the bridge started in 1785. The bridge consisted of 19 stone arches. Towering tenements, shops and workshops were built alongside the bridge, sealing off the archways. As part of the construction some 120 chambers of varying sizes were built. The idea was that these would be store rooms and workshops for the businesses above.

The Cowgate arch - today the only visible archway.

The bridge officially opened for business in 1788 in a manner which seemed to single it out as cursed right from the start. The wife of a local judge was selected to be the first across the bridge, but she died just before the official opening, so she was pushed across in her coffin instead! Many locals refused to cross the bridge after that incident.

As for the vaults being used as warehouses and workshops, this proved a failure. The builders had not waterproofed the vaults and soon water was leaking down the walls. Stocks of goods rotted and became mildewed, and the traders soon abandoned the vaults - within thirty years of their being opened.

Abandoned by the legal owners, the vaults started to attract an underclass of inhabitants. The poorest people who could not afford accommodation elsewhere moved in. So too did Highlanders trying to evade the clearances. Criminals found the dark places ideal lairs or places to find victims or store stolen goods. In 1815 local authorities raided the vaults and found and shut down a distillery.  Burke and Hare, the infamous serial killers who sold corpses to medical schools, are rumoured to have selected their victims in the Edinburgh Vaults.

Between 1835 and 1875 the vaults were gradually cleared and sealed off. There is poor documentation of this operation. What we can say is that the vaults passed out of use and into memory and in time even out of that. Forgotten, they lingered sealed off for over a century.

Students moved in to many of the tenements in the post war period. In 1985 one of the walls of these student flats was accidentally knocked through. Curious, the land lord excavated further and so opened a way into some of the Vaults. So it was that over a hundred years after they were sealed off, the Vaults were rediscovered.

Nowadays the vaults on the south side of Cowgate are home to nights clubs as well as containing remnants of houses that were mostly demolished to create the bridge.There is even a well in one chamber.

The vaults on the north side of the Cowgate arch are used mainly for tours. This summer my family and I went on one of these tours. Apart from historical tours the guides also run ghost tours (mainly at midnight). The links with ghosts have featured on a  number of TV programmes with reported recordings of strange voices such as that of a  priests recanting a prayer.

Some of the chambers do have have obvious links with the occult and witchcraft - like this one which is owned by the local Wiccans and in which weddings and other rituals are performed:

Or this one below in which the circle is rumoured to be haunted. The guide challenged us to walk across the center but warned us that visitors who had reported after effects such as scratches!

None us took up the challenge!

All in all it is a fascinating and atmospheric place. When the lights are off you can almost feel Burke and Hare creeping around. I recommend taking the tour.


Richard Denning is a historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord.

Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.


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