Edinburgh's old town is said to be the most haunted site in the British Isles, and with a history so shocking, bloody and long, it's not hard to see why
“So, who here believes in ghosts” our pale, caped guide breezily asked the group as we all gathered for the 10pm terror tour of the Edinburgh old town. Most of the crowd nervously put up their hands. “And who doesn't believe in ghosts?” Two brash Aussie lads mockingly put up their hands.
I keep my hand down both times. Ask me on any normal day, and I will steadfastly say that I do not believe in the supernatural, that I am a man of science and that everything has a rational explanation. But the thought of admitting that there, on that night filled me with foreboding. As though saying it out loud would somehow be tempting fate.
We are stood under the clock tower of the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile, the meeting place for the over 18s only Auld Reekie terror tour. Our destination; the Edinburgh vaults – an underground labyrinth of passageways and chambers with a history so dark and chilling that it makes even a staunch sceptic like me shudder with dread.
Setting the scene
After the crowd gathered and our guide had broke the ice with some good natured banter, the laughter stopped as he briefed us on what we had signed up for. He explained that he would do all he could to keep us safe whilst underground, but warned that neither he, nor the tour company could be held responsible for any supernatural injuries we may incur. He went on to explain that people on the tour had been known to suffer heart attacks, have their skin scratched and their hair pulled so violently that their scalps have bled. Good to know I thought, but all this is surely just a ruse? That kind of thing is simply impossible right?
When we booked this tour, I assumed it would be the kind of thing where 'jumper outers' in make-up would leap from behind walls and doorways to frighten the living daylights out of the patrons. Not so. The guide clearly explained that no such people are employed, and anything that happens is totally genuine. Good...
The Old Town
The tour starts with a walk around the dark, narrow alleyways of the old town. Ancient streets that looked so grand in the daylight now appeared gloomy and unsettling. The winter chill was in the air and unearthly wisps of fog drifted by. We hear stories of how the people here used to live, though 'live' is the wrong word - more like 'exist'.
The old town covers less than one square mile, but in the 17th century, over 60,000 people called it home. Tiny rooms housed several families, and life was nasty, brutal and short. People were afraid to venture beyond the walls of the city, perched high on its rocky defence, as the walls protected them from the people they hated - the English.
We wound our way back around to the Cathedral, where we were told the tale of the witch hunts. In the 1600s, Edinburgh was the torture and witch hunt capital of the world. Even someone pointing at you and calling you a witch in the marketplace was pretty much a death sentence. The conviction process was sadistic and long.
It started with the walking of the witches, where suspects were made to walk or crawl back and forth continuously in front of the Cathedral for days. Stopping even for a second was an admission of guilt. If this test was passed, then the subjects hands and feet were bound, and they were thrown into the city sewerage ditch to sink into the waste and excrement. If by some miracle the victim did not drown, then they were taken to the castle and burned alive.
Hearing these tales does stir up the feeling that such terrible events can leave their mark on the fabric of a place. That somehow, all this suffering and injustice could leave behind a legacy that we do not understand, rooted into the very ground we walked on, and would soon be going under.
The history of the Edinburgh vaults is surprisingly sketchy. It is known that they initially housed businesses, which left in the 1700s due to the poor conditions. Subsequently, as the industrial revolution got into motion, they became the appalling dwellings of the city's poor. Prostitution, murder and other atrocities were rife, and mysteriously, at some point during the 1800s the residents abandoned the vaults and the whole place was sealed with rubble. No records were made, nobody remembered them or talked about them. It wasn't until the 1980s that they were re-discovered by accident. How could this be? Could it be that they were sealed from the outside world with no record of their existence for a reason? To hide some terrible secret?
The crowd was quiet as we queued at the door. I was glad to see that I was not the only one affected by what we had just seen and heard, and what we were about to. Entering the vaults, the heavy door creaked open. Shadows shifted, the atmosphere was tense, and the air was cold.
We were told bone chilling stories in each of the rooms, of a woman kidnapped by a group of devil worshipping men. Taken to one of the chambers, she was subjected to unspeakable tortures before being put to death on a spit. The men in our tour group were advised not to go into that chamber, as the female spectre of that same woman did not take kindly to a male presence being in the room with her. “Are you going in?” My mate nudged me and asked.
“Not a chance” was my reply.
One of the chambers was sealed off by steel bars. The story here goes that a contemporary occult syndicate conducted their bizarre rituals within this room – the stone circle they used is still in place. However, their supernatural meddling happened to make the resident spook so violent and active that they were compelled to leave this chamber, sealing it behind them. This same group do still gather here, now using a different room for their arcane practices. This one we could enter, though we were warned explicitly not to enter the stone circle, as one unfortunate tourist had previously done only to suffer a fatal heart attack as a result.
Even stood around the circle I could feel a trembling in the air. The deathly hush of centuries of pain and immense suffering entrenched within the stones that surrounded us. The unblinking presence of long-dead minds watching the world that had treated them so cruelly, waiting to exact thier revenge.
Maybe it is all in the imagination? Nobody knows, but I do know that whilst I was there, within that grim monument to the darkest episode of human existence, I have never felt so close to the paranormal, and probably never will again.
Where to stay
If you can face staying in the old town after your subterranean ordeal then I recommend the Bank Hotel located on the Royal Mile. The shops, cafés, restaurants and sites of Edinburgh city centre are all easily accessible from here, and the charming building was originally a bank built in 1923. It has a bar with a great menu, 24 hour reception, and immaculate old-world decoration. The quiet eerie hallways and pictures with eyes that seem to follow you make it a fitting place to lay your head after the tour. Just don't look up if you hear any bumps in the night.
Auld Reekie tours, 45 Niddry Street, Edinburgh. Tel 0131 5574700