Edinburgh sits on seven hills, much like Rome. Only two of these high points are visible today- Castle Hill and Calton Hill. Between the hills, the city was built up with various bridges connecting them. One of the most famous was the South Bridge connecting Old High Street and the University district. In the poor neighborhood of Cowgate, narrow streets with a gate at either end called closes were knocked down and their stones reused to create the elaborate system of 19 arches. It spanned a chasm over 1000 feet long, and at its highest point it stood 31 feet above ground. The bridge’s foundations, which penetrated Edinburgh’s bedrock, went as far down as 22 feet.
In 1788, It was new and ready to built on. Unfortunately, through a series of events the superstitious Scots thought South Bridge was cursed. It had been decided that the first person to cross the new bridge would be the neighborhood’s oldest resident, a respected judge’s wife. Unfortunately, the lady passed before the bridge was completed. However, a deal was a deal, so the lady’s coffin was carried across the bridge first. Because of this, people refused to take the bridge for years.
As fears abated, property on South Bridge began to sell at a premium. Storefronts and houses began enclosing the arches of the Bridge. Soon, the space underneath the arches had roughed in walls and ceilings. There were about 120 of these Vaults or rooms in all. These spaces were rented out for a variety of business. Later archeologists have found evidence of taverns, cobblers, cutlers, smelters, victuallers, milliners and distilleries. The Edinburgh Vaults were born.
However, as time passed quality of life in the Vaults began to deteriorate. The arches were not built as living spaces and weren’t waterproof. Eventually, legitimate business were driven out and the space was occupied by the poorest of the poor and darker elements of society. The lower down in the Vaults you went, the lower down on the social scale you were. Overcrowding and poor sanitation was rampant. Illnesses like tuberculosis spread like wildfire in the cramped conditions and lack of fresh air and sunlight. The Potato Famine hit Ireland in 1845, and many refugees from there found themselves at the bottom of South Bridge. They mixed with Highlanders fleeing the clearances and other home grown poor. Criminals operated under the nose of the police and prostitution and smuggling were some of the lesser offenses. Life was cheap.
In 1828, serial killers William Burke and William Hare killed 16 people and hid their victims in the warren of tunnels in the Vaults. They sold the bodies to medical schools and were making a tidy profit. No one missed the poor people they were killing. Apparently, this was not the first time the Vaults were used for such a purpose nor the last.
It is thought by 1875, the Vaults were abandoned and filled in with rubble. They were forgotten about until a Scottish rugby player rediscovered them. Now tours go through daily, and visitors report seeing a ghost child “Jack” or a malevolent “Mr. Boots”.
However, dear reader, your author will remain above ground. Enjoy the fresh air and clear skies and breathe deeply for the poor souls who were stuck in the Vaults.
Sources available on request