What Lies Below: A Look at Secret Subterranean Edinburgh

By Spencer Hart on at

Previously in this series we've explored the subterranean wonders of London and Manchester; now it's time to cross the Scottish border and investigate the hidden marvels of Edinburgh.

The Vaults

Edinburgh was a fearful place at the turn of the 18th century. Driven by their mistrust of the English, the Scots decided to build a defensive wall around the city. This barrier forced citizens to expand vertically, building houses on top of one another and sometimes reaching 14 stories high. This verticality created a dark underworld beneath the new city known as 'The Vaults'; a location that remained lost for hundreds of years.

[Image Credit: Visit Britain Shop]

The most famous of these vaults is known as the 'South Street Vault'. When completed in 1788, it was deemed an honour that the area's oldest resident, a judge's wife, should be the first to cross the threshold. Unfortunately for the judge, several days before the grand opening, the woman died. Unperturbed by this, officials decided she could still be the first 'body' over the threshold, so she crossed it in a coffin. Many superstitious locals claimed the bridge was thus cursed, and refused to cross it.

The arches below the bridge were developed into vaults and quickly became trading premises in their own right. Archaeology shows evidence of taverns, cobblers, cutlers, smelters and milliners. These businesses didn't last long, the vaults were dark, damp and very unpleasant; as legitimate business evacuated, seedier society multiplied, quickly becoming a place for more disreputable folk.

Most infamously the Vaults were said to be home to Burke and Hare, the body snatchers who hid the corpses of their victims in the labyrinths.

[Image Credit: Ghost Adventures]

But after 30 years, with no light, heat or plumbing, the place became completely uninhabitable. It was abandoned and filled with rubble to prevent any further habitation.

The tunnels were rediscovered in 1985 by Norrie Rowan, an international rugby player, and now they're used for ghost tours or can be hired for private events.

Mary King's Close

Mary King's Close is a labyrinth of streets and passageways that run below the Old Town area of Edinburgh. The location was named after Mary King, a prominent businesswoman who traded fabrics and sewed for a living.

[Image Credit: Real Mary Kings Close]

In 1645, the area was hit by the plague, and myth has it that the council decided to confine the victims within the streets, bricking up the close and leaving people to die inside. In 1753 the close was completely buried when the Royal Exchange and City Chambers were built on top, using the existing buildings as a foundation.

[Image Credit: UK Wanderer]

During World War II the underground maze was used as an air raid shelter. Now it's a popular tourist attraction, with companies running tours around the historic underground streets.

Corstorphine Hill Military Bunker

More than 100 feet below Corstorphine Hill lies a three-storey hardened bunker, designed to provide shelter for royalty during the Cold War.

[Image Credit: Skyscraper City]

If the Queen had been in residence at Holyrood Palace at the time of a nuclear attack, this is where she'd have fled, along with ministers, journalists, military officials and engineers. The bunker measures 30,000 square feet, and features radar surveillance systems, war rooms, government offices and even a BBC studio.

[Image Credit: War History Online]

In 2006, a history-nut named James Mitchell purchased the site for just £60,000. Mitchell has plans to renovate the bunker and turn it into a historic tourist attraction.

Urban Legends

Naturally, all of these stories of encumbered plague victims and brothels beneath the city streets give rise to urban legends. Once the plague had died down, overcrowding forced the tunnels to be reopened. Two brothers were hired to remove the plague victim's bodies but according to some, the brothers decided it was easier to hack up the corpses and hide them in the walls of the buildings.

[Image Credit: The Drum]

One room in Mary King's Close now contains a shrine to a little girl who is said to have died while looking for a lost toy. A ghostly apparition of the girl has been 'sighted' multiple times, and it is now customary for visitors to leave toys for her.

[Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock]