The Edinburgh Vaults are a series of chambers formed by the 19 arches of the South Bridge. Today, the vaults are one of the most haunted places in Edinburgh. Numerous tour operators offer nightly ghost tours that are equal parts titillating and terrifying. But their stories do not scratch the surface of the hardship and horror the Edinburgh underground has seen.
The city of Edinburgh straddles seven major hills. Most of those hills are now obscured by the five bridges spanning the city, but before the bridges’ construction, navigating Edinburgh meant long slogs up hills and down valleys. The second bridge to be built was the South Bridge, built in 1788. It was meant to link the High Street with the growing University of Edinburgh on the south side of the city. But the bridge seemed doomed from the start.
Shortly before the bridge’s completion, it was agreed that Edinburgh’s oldest resident, a well-known and highly respected judge’s wife, would be the first person to cross the bridge. Unfortunately, she died several days before the bridge was completed. However, agreements had been made and plans put in place, so when the bridge was opened, the woman’s body was carried across it in her coffin.
This incensed the locals, a suspicious and superstitious lot, and many flatly refused to cross the bridge. In fact, they would go out of their way to cross the North Bridge rather than put one toe on the South Bridge. But space in Edinburgh was at a premium, and various and sundry shops soon moved in. Many of those shops used the spaces underneath the arches to build workspaces. These workspaces were typically dark, airless chambers, barely suitable as storage space. And it quickly became apparent that the vaults were not even suitable for that – rushed construction of the bridge meant that the bridge was never properly sealed and quickly developed huge cracks that allowed water, sewage and other runoff to seep into the lower levels. Within 30 years of the bridge’s opening, the vaults were abandoned by the businesses above.
These underground spaces quickly became squatters’ quarters for the poorest, most desperate in Edinburgh, especially after the city was flooded by refugees from the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1847. The horrific living conditions – no air, no ventilation, no heat or light, not to mention the foul seepage – made the vaults utterly unlivable. Diseases like cholera were widespread. Crime was ubiquitous. Everyone knew that the Edinburgh Vaults was a place where people came, not to live, but to die.
The Vaults quickly became Edinburgh’s red light district. Gambling and prostitution were common; violent crime was the norm, including rampant thievery, rape and murder. The Vaults were used to store all manner of illicit materials…including the bodies of the victims of Burke and Hare, Edinburgh’s most notorious serial killers.
In 1828 William Burke and William Hare, two Irish immigrants, allegedly killed 16 or 17 people (mainly women) in the Edinburgh Vaults – and stored the bodies there. They then sold the bodies to a surgeon for dissection during his anatomy lectures. Science was advancing by leaps and bounds during this time, and the demand for cadavers was substantial. Burke and Hare found a gruesome way to meet this need, using the Edinburgh Vaults as their hunting grounds.
By the 1860’s the squatters were evicted and the vaults filled in with rubble to prevent flooding and discourage ongoing illegal activity…and the Edinburgh Vaults were forgotten. It was not until a chance excavation in the 1980’s revealed the labyrinth within. Numerous middens filled with old toys, horseshoes, buttons, clay pots and plates and the like were found, evidence of the desperate, hardscrabble life of Edinburgh’s most vulnerable.
Being the site of such suffering, violence and death, it is no wonder that the Edinburgh Vaults are one of the most haunted places in all of Britain. Many visitors, upon arriving at the lowest underground levels, are greeted by a gust of cold air. Numerous people report unexplained, disembodied voices; some hear children yelling. Other visitors have seen full-blown apparitions. But there are a few spirits who are regular visitors to the Vaults’ underground tourists and are worth mentioning by name.
The most commonly encountered ghost – probably because he is the most aggressive – is Mr. Boots; he’s also sometimes known as the Watcher. Mr. Boots is described as a tall, shabby man who sticks to the back section of the vault. According to legend, Mr. Boots murdered a woman and kept the body in his “house” in the vaults. He throws stones at anyone who dares to approach the spot where the body was stashed. But his name comes from the fact that he is most commonly encountered as menacing, heavily booted footsteps following visitors through the back vaults. Mr. Boots is also the ghost who allegedly photo bombed Emma Surgenor’s picture of her sister, Lauren, in July 2015.
The Aristocrat is a well-to-do gentleman, with a tall black hat and a beard, who leans against the wall and grins at passing visitors. Although he is not a mean or aggressive spirit, many people report feeling a sinister presence when near him.
The Cobbler is the antithesis of the Aristocrat and Mr. Boots. The Cobbler is described as a short, stocky man wearing a long apron. He usually smiles at people as they pass by and is considered a positive presence.
And then there is the Child, sometimes known as “Jack.” He is a blond, curly-haired boy of about six or seven who wears a blue suit with knicker-bocker trousers. He wanders the vaults and seems to be attracted to women and children. Jack has been known to grab the hand of visitors as they traverse the wine vault, as well as tugging on their clothes.
Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted and Joe Swash Believes in Ghosts have filmed episodes in the Edinburgh Vaults. And for the brave souls who dare, many of the aforementioned tour operators offer overnight tours. If you dare, take a historical tour of Edinburgh and explore the mysterious Edinburgh Vaults with an authentic Scotland vacation.