Forgotten City Lies
Beneath Edinburgh

By Jeremy Lovell

EDINBURGH (Reuters) -- Deep beneath the cobbled streets of the Scottish capital lies a dank and forgotten realm where prostitutes once rubbed shoulders with body snatchers and the light of day never penetrated.
The thousands of subterranean citizens moved out long ago leaving the Edinburgh Vaults underneath the city's South Bridge alone with its multitude of ghosts until it was rediscovered in the 1980s and found new life as a tourist attraction.
"There are no written records of who lived in these vaults, although there is ample anecdotal evidence that thousands of people lived and died here, some probably never even seeing the outside world," said tour guide Jim Lennie.
"The chances are that few of the people who lived in the Georgian part of the city above knew they were there. The existence of the vaults was wiped from the city's records until they were rediscovered in 1985," explained Lennie on a recent tour.
The vaults are formed by the 19 arches of the South Bridge, built between 1785 and 1788 across the Cowgate ravine as the cramped ancient city began to expand.
Bricked in and built around, the vaults became a warren of nooks, crannies and tunnels forming the historic city's underworld.
"There was almost a whole city down here but no sign at all of it on the surface," Lennie said. "People lived, worked and died down here. That was the 'good old days'? I don't think so," he added with a grimace.
Evidence has been found of wine storage, leather works and a multitude of small businesses and living quarters for the city's unwanted and unseen poor.
But there were also other less legitimate pastimes beneath the feet of Edinburgh's gentry.
"We know that in 1815 there was an illegal whisky distillery operating here, and it is highly probable that there was also a brothel," Lennie said.
It is also believed that parts of the vaults were used to store cadavers either dug from fresh graves or plucked from the streets and sold to Edinburgh's Medical School, whose appetite for bodies for dissection was endless and unquestioning.
The city's notorious body-snatchers William Burke and William Hare are believed to have used the vaults from time to time to store their grisly merchandise before deciding that digging was too much trouble and turning to killing instead.
Burke was hanged after being turned in to police by Hare who himself died a pauper in London in 1859.
Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, learned his anatomy during training some years later at the Medical School and is known to have visited the vaults from time to time as a young doctor.
The vaults vary from the cavernous to the cramped. There is no -- nor was there ever -- running water or sanitation.
The only liquid that penetrated the unlit and airless caverns was likely to be whatever seeped through from the streets above where -- in the habit of the era -- households would empty their sewage at night.
Water for cooking and washing had to be carried by hand down the winding tunnels each day.
Wine rather than water was the drink of choice as the water was too polluted, and there was a thriving import trade in red wine from France.
On the positive side, the temperature in the vaults is fairly constant -- insulated from the outside world by metres of brick and mortar.
But even so the atmosphere inside would have been choking with open fires for heat and cooking, and fish-oil lamps providing what light there was.
"Candles were for the rich, not the people of the vaults," Lennie said.
All that is left now of the subterranean citizens of yesteryear are the ghosts which range from little dogs to young girls and even practising bottom-pinchers.
"There was a study here a couple of years ago and the vaults were declared probably the most psychically active place in the United Kingdom," Lennie said.
"Some of the people I have taken round down here have had distinctly funny turns. The mind plays some very odd tricks underground and in the dark," he added with a wry smile.
Undeterred, one enterprising local restaurateur has turned part of the vaults into a modern eatery where diners can savour the psychic shivers along with their chilled wines.
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