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The Edinburgh vaults are a series of underground chambers in the arches beneath the city’s South Bridge. Built in 1788, the vaults were first used as workshops for tradesmen but were quickly abandoned due to terrible damp and flooding. After that they became a slum, before being abandoned altogether. Since being rediscovered and excavated in 1990, the vaults can be visited on ghost tours.
In the 18th century Edinburgh was a growing town, but had become renowned for its cramped conditions. Work on two large bridges, the North and South Bridge, began in 1785 in order to expand the city. The South Bridge was made of nineteen arches spanning the Cowgate gorge between the High Street and Edinburgh University, and was designed as Edinburgh’s first purpose-built shopping street. Buildings were constructed in front of every arch but one, which is known as the Cowgate Arch. These arches had floors added to them making 120 hidden rooms beneath the shopping street, which could be used for tradesmen to run their businesses.
Unfortunately the bridge hadn’t been designed to be waterproof, and it wasn’t long before the vaults began to flood. As early as 1795 the businesses began to leave, and Edinburgh’s most desperate and poor citizens moved in. The Cowgate area had grown into the city’s main slum, and the vaults provided a dark extension to it with even worse living conditions. No sunlight could reach any of the rooms, there was no running water or plumbing, and no fresh air could reach the lower depths.
The vaults also became the centre of Edinburgh’s underworld; numerous taverns and brothels opened, and illicit goods were stored in the secret nooks and crannies. Criminals found a refuge in the dark chambers, and countless robberies and murders took place. William Burke and William Hare were local men who committed 16 murders in order to sell the bodies for medical research, and are said to have hunted for victims in the vaults and to have stored their bodies there.
Eventually the horrible conditions in the vaults became too much for even the slum-dwellers, and they were completely abandoned sometime between 1835 and 1875. Rubble was dumped into the vaults and they were forgotten about until the 1980s when Norrie Rowan, a rugby player, found a tunnel into them. He used the tunnels to help a Romanian player, Cristian Raducanu, escape the Romanian secret police in 1989, and later excavated the tunnels with the help of his son. They found evidence that people had lived in the vaults, such as toys, plates, medicine bottles, and hundreds of oyster shells, which were an affordable meal for poor people in the 18th and 19th centuries. Remains were even found of the houses which stood in the area before the South Bridge was built, including floor tiles and a fireplace.
Nowadays the vaults are open to the public attending special tours, typically one of the ghost tours which are popular in the city. The colourful history of the vaults has encouraged a belief in paranormal activity, and many people have reported ghostly sightings and sounds in the deep chambers. Whether you believe this or not, descending down beneath the city is a remarkable experience, and it’s amazing to be in such a unique and historic space.
Images: http://www.historic-uk.com, https://www.mercattours.com