Friday, 5 July 2013

The Niddry Street Vaults, perhaps Edinburghs most haunted place

Edinburgh was not always a peaceful place. There used to be volcanos where the castle now stands Arthur's seat, in Holyrood park, was a volcano and so was Calton Hill. Edinburgh is often said to be built, like Rome, on seven hills, though this is an underestimate designed to allow the classical allusion. Over the centuries the inhabitants have built bridges to hide the gorges glaciers carved out in an effort to wear down the hills. One of these bridges housed a hidden city, later abandoned, which is now a tourist attraction in its own right.

The Origins of the Vaults
During the last Ice Age glaciers advances and carved out deep gorges in what is now central Edinburgh (these gorges can still be seen by those with a keen eye for such things). They flowed round Castle rock and left a tail of land they could not touch that is now the Royal Mile. This left a highly defensible rock on which the castle was built, and people built houses, sometimes 14 stories high, close to the castle for protection.

One of the gorges the glaciers carved out was the Cowgate gorge, which today feels like a light starved canyon even in the day. Today the walk from the castle to the High Street or even to Leith is short and pleasant. A few hundred years ago travel within Edinburgh was much harder: a trip to South Queensferry or Cramond might take a day and a trip from the High Street to the South Side of Edinburgh involved negotiating the gorges. Eventually two large bridges were built to span these gorges. One of these was South Bridge,

South Bridge was built between 1875 and 1788 to bridge the Cowgate gorge and provide Edinburgh's first purpose built shopping street. Every inch of space was used for commercial premises. The arches of the bridge formed tenements which almost disguised the fact they were built under a bridge (no one seems to have called the people who lived there trolls ) while the land underneath was excavated to provide storage rooms guared by underground caretakers.

The Vaults: from Business District to Slum

Human behaviour is unchangeable and construction of the bridge was rushed and underfunded. One thing the builders forgot in the rush was to make the bridge waterproof. As a result the vaults flooded and with the perpetual damp became health hazards. Those businesses that prospered moved to healthier places and those that did not saw the place become a slum. This happened rapidly. People began moving out around 1795 and by the 1840s the council had decided to remove all the legal residents, which left the place free to be colonised by the poorest. Then, as now, no one cared about these people as long as they stayed invisible and did not frighten the horses or scandalise “respectable” society. There are suggestions that Burke and Hare, the original unacceptable face of capitalism, hid bodies in the vaults and hunted victims there but there is no evidence to prove this.

The Irish potato famine of 1845-1847, which was created by  landowners selling potatoes for export thus denying them to the natives, similar to the export of British jobs, known as offshoring, in the 21st century which caused endemic high levels of UK unemployment, drove hordes of Irish, who the Reverend Kingsley, author of a popular children's classic The Water Babies, referred to as “white chimpanzees” to Edinburgh. With no money, no work and no prospects they took over the Vaults and moved into the classic industries of the poor such as Prostitution, alcohol and gambling. Fight and murders were common and in the early 20th century the vaults were sealed off. In the mean time several generations were born, lived and died in these damp, unheated rooms.

The Ghosts of the Vaults

In the 198os former Rugby star Norrie Rowan, owner of some property that included the vaults crawled through an opening and found the remains of the hidden city in the Vaults. After some work Mercat Tours were allowed to offer tours of the vaults.

After a while visitors to the vaults started reporting paranormal experiences. A medium claimed to identify several ghosts there and over time it appeared visitors were describing the same ghosts over and over again. There were even ghosts of birds and of a shaggy dog. Others include the spirit of a little boy, who the staff think was killed during the construction of the bridge (allegedly there is a tradition that a building can be protected by a sacrifice during construction, and that if no sacrifice is made a victim will be chosen by the spirits of the land). One rather dark presence dresses in knee length boots, looks scruffy, has bad breath and is associated with one room of the vaults. When unhappy he switches off the lights and extinguishes candles. He seems to dislike women.

Sceptics attribute the phenomena to vibrations from traffic above that are at frequencies too low to hear but which people register unconsciously, expectation causes them to interpret these sensations as paranormal. It is a comforting notion.

As with the Mackenzie Poltergeist visitors to the vaults have left with scratches, burns, bumps and bruises, especially when entering a stone circle constructed by a Wiccan who claimed to have trapped an evil presence in the circle. In 2009 a BBC production team recorded unexplained voices in the vaults for a period of 20 minutes. One voice seemed to be a Catholic priest saying the last rites and they include Children yelling. Like the Mackenzie Poltergeist both entities have lasted far longer than the usual poltergeist infestation, suggesting they may not actually be poltergeists. 

The vaults may or may not be haunted, though this does seem likely, but they show how people will survive in even the most trying circumstances and manage to make a life. It is not a place for the nervous and fainthearted however. 

At this time the Badjao Bed andBreakfast is not haunted and we have no intention of taking in any ghosts.  If you stay with us and visit the vaults we recommend you reconnect with  the mundane world in a nearby bar immediately afterward. 

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