Below Ground Level
In 1785, construction on Edinburgh’s North and South Bridges was finished. Designed to create more accessibility in the growing city, the area near South Bridge became a popular shopping area for the citizens. To best utilize space and attract consumers, shop owners began doing business beneath South Bridge’s nineteen arches. Tenement buildings were built up on both sides of the bridge, enclosing the arches and creating the illusion of vaults, though only some, not all, rooms were technically below ground.
For a short while, restaurants and shops thrived in this Underground City, as it is called today, but its best days were shortlived. Due to shoddy construction, the vaults began flooding, and the wealthier patrons and businessmen abandoned the area, ushering in slum conditions and the seedy reputation it is best known for.
By the early 1800s, the vaults were used for brothels, pubs, and low-income housing. Not surprisingly, the unfortunate residents experienced terrible living conditions. They lived in damp, cramped spaces, exposed to pestilence and disease but no sunlight. Allegedly, famous serial killers William Burke and William Hare stored some of their victims in the vaults. Burke and Hare killed people and sold their cadavers to doctors, since bodies were needed for medical science at the time.
Not much else is known about the Edinburgh Vaults, and sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, residents were evicted and the vaults filled with rubble to prevent future use. They were rediscovered in the 1980s by Norrie Rowan, an international rugby player. Over the next decade, he worked to excavate them. In this process, many artifacts were found, belying the vaults’ past. Toys, plates, medicine bottles, and other eerie, two-hundred year old remnants of human life were excavated.
Since its discovery, the Underground City has cultivated much public interest. Ghost hunters have flocked there, many of them deeming it a place resplendent with paranormal activity. Orbs have been seen on photographs and otherworldly voices caught on recording, though disbelievers would argue all of this is due to the environmental conditions in the vaults. Regardless, many ghost tour companies visit the vaults on their tours. And ghosts or not, a visit to Edinburgh’s Underground City is an interesting look at how a subset of the eighteenth century population lived.