Edinburgh is a strange place. Only Scotland’s capital city would have streets that are underground. This is because Edinburgh originally only took up a very small area of land. As the city grew, it didn’t expand onto the surrounding area, but grew upwards. Extra storeys were added onto the already existing buildings, the end result being that the ground floors and street levels in some parts essentially went underground.
Although the poorer members of society usually wound up literally at the bottom of this haphazard set up, they were still too close for comfort for the ‘better offs’ who wished to get away from the overcrowding. Eventually in the 18th century, this was remedied by the building of the New Town, which the rich moved into, leaving the poor to the squalid conditions of what became known as the Old Town.
Construction of the New Town saw the erection of several bridges, connecting the various hills that make up Edinburgh for ease of access. South Bridge was designed as a street for high class shops, with vaults built into the lower part of the bridge to act as cellars for the merchants. Unfortunately, the permanently rainy weather of Edinburgh hadn’t been factored into the construction and the vaults were found to be leaky as they hadn’t been waterproofed. Soon, the vaults and cellars were abandoned by the shops, and the poor, who had nowhere else to go. They were also used by bodysnatchers as they went about their questionable trade.
Life in this new underground ‘street’ eventually got so bad that the city fathers had it sealed over, pretty much the same as what happened with Mary Kings Close. Although, the first time Mary King’s Close got shut up during the plague outbreak in 1645, where the residents of the street were sealed in to meet their fate. For years, the vaults in the New Town were left mouldering away in anonymity, until the 1980s, when Norrie Rowan came across them and excavated.
It was obvious that the South Bridge, also known as Blair Street, vaults were something special. Once they were safe to enter (after a lot of restoration), they were open to the public on history tours. However, it soon became clear that these weren’t your usual Edinburgh historical walks. Things began to happen: things that put a whole new light on the vaults and gave them a reputation beyond that of a slice of history. Participants reported feeling as though someone was breathing down their necks, strange shadows – in one instance, a young woman got such a shock at a disembodied voice telling her to ‘GET OUT’ that she had to be taken to hospital for treatment.
Soon the historical tours were accompanied by paranormal tours, which became very popular. The tours, operated by Mercat, were well established by time I took one in as part of the fieldwork for my university dissertation on Scottish ghosts. The reputation of the hauntings was well established and had featured in the first season of Ghost Adventures. The vaults were also the location of a well known psychological experiment into the experience of haunting by Dr Richard Wiseman and Dr Ciaran O’Keefe in 2001 during the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The conclusions of the experiment were that people who believe in ghosts were more likely to report paranormal experiences; those experiences were reported in the parts of the vaults believed to be haunted (participants weren’t told which sections were reputedly haunted and which weren’t); and that ‘paranormal experiences’ were probably down to environmental factors, such as air movement and appearances of the vaults. The full report can be read here. Ghosts weren’t conclusively proven.
Yet, several people swear that the ghosts are there. Perhaps the most poignant, and most harmless are the spirits of a young boy named Jack and his dog, which are believed to have died after becoming lost in the vaults. Jack can occasionally be felt tugging on the sleeves of visitors to the vault, whilst others report feeling the invisible dog brush their legs as it trots past. Another theory is that Jack and the dog were killed by the man who went on to become the vault’s most alarming entity, Mr Boots. This ghost has scared several people, breathing down their neck, appearing as a dark shadow and yelling at unwitting visitors to get out.
He’s been seen as a full apparition, sporting a tricorn hat, blue coat and leather boots. He has been blamed for breaking up a pew in one of the vaults, and his footsteps have been heard echoing around the dark lairs. It’s thought he was an alcoholic rent collector who lived in the vaults. He makes no distinction in who he scares, be it tour guide or tourist. Both large and small tour groups have seen him, and he once scared two guides out of the vaults one morning. Phenomena Mr Boots has been blamed for include throwing stones, strange smells, rapid drops in temperature and sighs.
Another malevolent ghost is the Black Lady, who lurks in a corner of vault five. She particularly has it in for expectant mothers as it’s said she lost her own child whilst alive. In the same vault, in the opposite corner, is a much friendlier ghost, The Cobbler, who seems to be happy watching the tour groups go by. Those frightened by the Black Lady tend to feel better when they stand by the friendlier ghost. Another apparition to be encountered is that of a hanging man, occasionally seen dangling in one of the vaults.
The South Bridge vaults are certainly an oppressive place. During my own particular tour, I found myself glancing around the corners in slight trepidation at the mention of Mr Boots. Whether he was there or not is hard to say, but there certainly seemed to be some parts of the vault where he is supposed to lurk that the light doesn’t quite reach. My mum, who at the start of the tour said she didn’t believe in ghosts, came out wondering what the strange shadow was that she saw. Part of the vaults’ ‘charm’ is that it is quite understated, like the tours taken round there. They lack the pomp and circumstance of the other Edinburgh ghost tours and that’s probably what makes this the creepiest of the lot.
- To visit the vaults on a Mercat Tour, visit their website for more details
- Read Michael S Collins‘ short story Hunting The Captain set in the vaults
- Ghost Adventures episode investigating the vaults can be seen here on YouTube