Captivated by the Scottish accent, enchanted by the elaborate architecture lining the Royal Mile, and charmed by every little black Scottish terrier that pranced by, I was almost ready to move to Scotland by the end of my stay there.We stayed just a hill’s climb away from the Royal Mile, which stretches from Edinburgh Castle to Queen’s Park and is the core of the Old Town in Edinburgh. Today, it’s bustling with locals and tourists who all seem to be searching for the perfect kilt, cashmere scarf, or hot plate of haggis. But back in 1707, it was near the setting of witch-hunts and an underground world of wet, dark vaults and corridors where criminals and the homeless lived to escape the brutality of the authority above ground.
Working and middle-class families lived in the alleys right off of the Royal Mile, and, by the eighteenth century, this area became one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. This forced builders to stack more floors on top of buildings in the narrow streets (up to fourteen floors just for housing!) Like in any city, men, women, and entire families became homeless for various reasons, and since homelessness was considered a crime in those days, people found sleeping in the streets were subject to brutal beatings that usually caused fatal infections. In order to escape this awful fate, the homeless would find their way towards the South Bridge and into the abandoned storage vaults underground, finding refuge in this damp network of rooms four stories underground, officially erasing their existence from of the face of society.
But wherever there’s refuge from authorities and punishment, there’s where you’ll find criminals—murderers, rapists, thieves, etc. So families sometimes slept deep underground in these sticky, cold, pitch-black crypts side by side with criminals; children brushed hands with murderers, women were raped, and if any quarrel erupted, people could be killed and the murderer would go unpunished except for what retaliation the people underground could organize.
Our tour guide showed us where to climb into a hole in the wall, and we were instantly inside the wet, stuffy vaults. As we all settled into silence, there was no noise apart from water dripping from the limestone ceiling and echoing down the corridors. Apart from the tour guide’s flashlight and a single modern light fixture on the wall for safety reasons, the only light in each of the rooms was from flickering candles and the reflection of their light in the puddles on the ground. Knowing the history behind a few of the specific rooms in the vaults, it was easy to imagine that unsettled spirits of people who once called this place home might still linger there.
When a fire broke out in the streets above and turned the underground vaults into stone ovens, there were at least 96 suicides in a single room. When the remnants of this room were originally uncovered, in the back corner of the room were found the remains of a mother who had slit her three children’s throats in order to spare them from the suffering they experienced as they were all being shoved into the burning stone wall and suffocating from a lack of oxygen. The guide warned us that, if we wanted to try and feel a ghost spirit in this room, the women should stand with their hands down by their sides; she claimed that many times women on her tours would shriek when they felt the hand of a young child slip into their relaxed palm.
For nearly a hundred years, these vaults were home to thousands of people, but they were sealed up by the end of the nineteenth century and were finally rediscovered in the 1980s when a group of drunken college students busted through their apartment wall and literally stumbled upon this underground capsule of history and horror. For me, discovering all of this history for myself in Edinburgh was like learning about the Holocaust for the first time. It consumed my thoughts for the entire week, and every night I laid in bed empathizing for those destitute people trapped in a life not worth living. I couldn’t help but wonder what other hauntingly true pieces of history are out there waiting to be discovered.