The University of Iowa

Ghostly encounters in the Edinburgh Vaults

June 16th, 2014
girl and statue of bagpipe player

By Amanda Bartlett*

The first part of our journey has drawn to a close as we head to our second destination – Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh. It is the second most populous city in Scotland, the seventh most populous city in the United Kingdom, and my favorite city we have explored BY FAR.

Edinburgh is home to many historical monuments, including the famed Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street and St. Giles’ Cathedral. It also became the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, an award granted in recognition of Edinburgh’s literary heritage and passion to keep it alive. It is the second-most commonly visited city in the United Kingdom, just after London.

However, Edinburgh’s popularity wasn’t always a positive aspect. In the 18th and 19th centuries, population increased exponentially (from 49,000 to 136,000 over the course of 80 years). Overcrowding became an issue, particularly in the already-cramped tenements, or apartments, lining the cobbled streets. Poor sanitary conditions resulted in widespread disease, specifically outbreaks of cholera.

Amazing view from the castle
photos of Edinburgh Scotland

Click for full size.
 Left: the street where our hotel was and just a short walk away from the famed Princes Street shopping district!

Many of these people attempted to seek shelter in the slum areas under the South Bridge, which was also home to the Edinburgh Vaults – a series of chambers built in the 19 arches of the bridge, which was established in 1788. Its initial use was as Edinburgh’s first known supermarket, where tradesmen sold and traded their wares for about 30 years. It was also used as a storage space for many respectable businesses. This ended when flooding became a problem, as construction of the bridge was rushed and the surface had never been sealed against water. As the vaults were eventually abandoned, they developed into Edinburgh’s slum.

brick vaults

The storage vaults where goods, and possibly even bodies, were kept.

Its residents were not just innocent people needing a place to stay. Many predators, specifically body snatchers, arrived as well. Hidden from view, the vaults provided the perfect place for crime to occur, and bodies to be kept. Considering the vaults were located in close proximity to a graveyard as well as a medical school, serial killers would store bodies in the vaults, and doctor-surgeons would purchase them to use for medical research. But eventually, living conditions proved to be unsuitable even for these criminals, who could no longer tolerate the poorly circulated air and lack of sunlight, running water, and sanitation.

Things became so bad that by the 1860s, most of the vaults had been emptied and filled with rubble, so as to prevent flooding and discourage ongoing crime. For over 100 years, they lay abandoned and forgotten. That is, until a man named Norrie Rowan, who owned a bar on South Bridge, discovered a section of medieval street below his property, and soon, an entire underground labyrinth.

But are the vaults REALLY empty?

According to many paranormal investigations, the Edinburgh Vaults are reportedly one of the most haunted locations in the world. Mustering up all of our courage, our group went on a ghost tour of the vaults, learning of the spirits that still roamed its corridors from the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the famed ghosts is known as “Mr. Boots,” an evil entity who is believed to have murdered a woman and kept the body in his “house” inside. He hates the people who tour the vaults, and allegedly gets angry or even attacks anyone who dares to sit in the spot where the body was hidden. The most common reports of his presence, however, are the sounds of thick, heavy boots, stepping ever so slowly around visitors.

candle on a black background

Today candles light the vaults, but in the 17-1800's they were too expensive. Instead, lamps burning fish oil illuminated the corridors.

“She told us of the presence of a malevolent male ghost who was very strong… he told her to get out of the vaults… She had tried to reason with him but he made a lunge at her and she saw him very clearly… He said ‘get out’ repeatedly. He was very territorial.”

            -- A woman describes her encounter with Mr. Boots

Other spirits in the vaults are not known to be nearly as terrifying. As our guide, Alex, led us from room to room, he mentioned two other spirits – The Aristocrat and The Cobbler.

As stated by Alex, The Aristocrat is a “well-to-do gentleman with a tall black hat and beard, (who) is often seen leaning against the wall between the double height room and the tavern. Arms folded, he watches and grins at people as they pass.” Though not an outwardly mean spirit, his presence is reportedly quite sinister.

dark room with upper level door

The door to an upper-level vault, and where spirits are sometimes seen

While walking between rooms, I felt a slight, but definite tugging on my jacket. I whirled around to see if anyone was trying to scare me (our professor had stomped her shoes moments earlier to sound like Mr. Boots moments earlier, scaring us out of our wits) but everyone seemed to be minding their own business. Though a bit paranoid, I decided to just ignore it, and enjoy the rest of the tour.Alex then told of a happier spirit residing in the Cobbler’s room. “Believed to be a shoemaker from the late 18th century, he is described as a short, stocky man wearing a long leather apron and a white shirt.” He is known to smile at people as they pass, and is generally felt as a positive presence.

As the tour ended, we were led into a final room, which described the history of the vaults, as well as some of the spirits in detail (some of which are quoted in this very entry). I felt goosebumps as I read about a spirit whom our guide failed to mention – the Child. He is a small boy who wanders through the vaults, aged at about six or seven. He is described as having “blonde, curly hair and is dressed in a smart, blue suit with knicker-bocker trousers.”

He is attracted to women and children, and has been known to not only hold hands with visitors…

…But also tugs on their clothes.

sign with description of ghosts

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The description of The Child that I read which eerily described the same tugging I felt on the bottom of my jacket during the tour...

*Amanda is a freshman from Pleasant Hill, Iowa, majoring in journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa. She is currently studying abroad on the summer program Crime and Justice in Britain.