Body Snatchers and Tortured Spirits: The Dark History of the South Bridge Vaults of Edinburgh

Edinburgh Vaults

Beneath the ancient fortified city of Edinburgh, Scotland lies the South Bridge Vaults—notorious underground tunnels and chambers which became the dwelling places of the impoverished and the villainous. The dark stone vaults served as houses and workspace for tradesmen and merchants, but as conditions deteriorated, the chambers and tunnels were where the poorest of Edinburgh’s citizens lived, and very often died. Prostitution, poverty, violence, and illness consumed the vaults, and infamous serial killers hid their dirty work in the stone recesses.

But it wasn’t always like that.

The Early History of the Edinburgh Vaults: Shops and Living Quarters

The city of Edinburgh straddles seven major hills. The iconic Edinburgh castle has been a site of human habitation since the second century AD, and was built into formidable fortifications as of the 12th century to protect against dangerous invaders and sieges.

The imposing castle of Edinburg as seen in modern times, from the north.

The imposing castle of Edinburg as seen in modern times, from the north. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Naturally, the closer one lived to this castle the better, and so bridges were built to span the deep ravines that sloped away from castle itself, modern highways of their day.

The 19 arches to support the southern bridge were built in 1785, and vaults, chambers, and tunnels were established beneath the bridge-top surface, walled in, and sectioned off in descending levels. In all, approximately 120 vaults or rooms were built beneath South Bridge. It opened officially in March 1788.

Detail of Edinburgh, scanned from a reproduction of 'Civitates orbis terrarum', c.1581.

Detail of Edinburgh, scanned from a reproduction of ‘Civitates orbis terrarum’, c.1581. (Public Domain)

The South Bridge surface was a booming location for businesses, especially during the Industrial Revolution. Beneath the thriving merchant areas were workshops, and beneath those were living quarters.

The Lower You Were Under the Bridge…

It was under all this that an underground city inevitably grew, eventually descending into slums filled with poverty, illness and violence. The lower you were under the bridge, the lower your social class was.

Cubby holes inside the Edinburgh Vaults, as seen on a ghost tour.

Cubby holes inside the Edinburgh Vaults, as seen on a ghost tour. (CC BY 2.0)

The industrial age in Scotland brought work and wealth, but housing, planning, and public health did not improve at the same pace. Living conditions in cities were very bad. There was overcrowding as families of more than 10 people lived in cramped rooms, mortality rates were high (higher than in England and other European countries at the time); and with no sanitation, no running water, and no sunlight, illness spread, and tuberculosis was a growing problem.

Storage inside the vaults.

Storage inside the vaults. (CC BY 2.5)

For those who lived deep in the Edinburgh Vaults, the troubles were compounded. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1847 flooded Scotland with refugees, who often ended up at the very bottom of South Bridge. In addition, criminals and underworld dwellers moved illicit materials through the tunnels in a black market, established a red-light district with gambling and countless pubs and brothels, and crime, robbery and murder flourished.

A Haven for Serial Killers

The conditions were so bad at one point, that serial killers were reportedly able to murder over a dozen hapless victims and store bodies in the vaults, all without being detected or stopped.

One infamous instance of this is known as the Burke and Hare murders. In 1828 two Irish immigrants, William Burke and William Hare, allegedly killed 16 people (mostly women), stashed the dead bodies in the tunnels and chambers, and then sold them to a surgeon for dissection during his popular anatomy lectures.  The demand for cadavers during a time of advancing medical science meant bodies were a valuable commodity, and the fact that corpses were not detected so close to the people living in the vaults speaks volumes about the conditions there.

Portraits of serial killers William Hare and William Burke circa 1850.

Portraits of serial killers William Hare and William Burke circa 1850. (Public Domain)

The Closed and Forgotten South Bridge Vaults Is Rediscovered

There are indications even the poorest citizens were leaving the South Bridge slums between 1835 and 1875. The vault complex was purposefully shut down, and tons of rubble were dumped in at some point, although the date isn’t found in any remaining records.

The dark history of the South Bridge vaults was forgotten in time. In the following decades, all forgot that families had lived down in the tunnels under Edinburgh.

Over a hundred years later, in 1980, a Scottish rugby player inadvertently rediscovered the hidden tunnels and chambers, and they were excavated and restored with the removal of hundreds of tons of rubble. It was only when excavators unearthed children’s toys, medicine bottles, plates, and other household items in midden heaps that researchers realized the South Bridge had been home to many unfortunates.

Ghostly Residents Remain and Draw in New Visitors

With the unnerving atmosphere, and the eerie accounts of the vault history, it’s no wonder that paranormal events have been reported concerning the shadowy halls, damp chambers, and tight spaces. Certainly, the chilling reports of Burke and Hare’s murdered victims in the vaults are creepy enough, but there are several different specters who are said to now haunt the chambers as well.

The spooky atmosphere inside the vaults.

The spooky atmosphere inside the vaults. (CC BY 2.5)

A ghostly child named “Jack” is said to grab visitors’ hands, and the more menacing “Mr. Boots”, described as “a nasty piece of work,” throws rocks at people, it is claimed. Some who visit the vaults say they can hear his heeled boots stomping across the cobblestone, and his voice echoing through the tunnels.

Despite (or more likely due to) this, tours into the Edinburgh vaults are very popular, and businesses have been set up to host private events, weddings, and live music. Several high-profile television shows and documentaries have been done on the ghostly voices and supernatural happenings.

Today there are many who risk traveling down beneath the ancient city to experience what life might have been like for those that dwelled in the South Bridge Vaults.

Featured image: The damp, dark, and chilling chambers and tunnels of the Edinburgh Vaults. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Liz Leafloor

Originally published at Ancient Origins.

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