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5 Places In Edinburgh With Dark History

1st Sep 2022
5 Places In Edinburgh With Dark History

As the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh is brimming with history, which we love sharing with visitors on our five-star history tours. The castle at the centre of the city itself is almost 1,000 years old, but not all of its history is lighthearted. In this blog we'll explore five places in Edinburgh that have dark history.

1. The Edinburgh Castle Esplanade

Today you'll find the Edinburgh Castle esplanade bustling with visitors. It provides wonderful views across the city and on good days you can sometimes see as far as the Firth of Forth. It's hard to imagine some of the things that occured there on the darker side of Edinburgh's history. Between the 15th - 18th centuries it was a place for witch burnings. It's said more people were burned at the stake there than anywhere else in Scotland.

It was a particularly bloody period under the reign of James VI, who had a peculiar interest in witches. Under his reign between 4,000 - 6,000 people were tried for witchcraft from the Scottish Lowlands alone, 75% of those accused were women. A bronze 'witches well' can be found close to the castle esplanade in their memory, don't forget to stop by if you're paying the castle a visit. Why not visit in person and learn more with our accredited guides? Book here. 

2. The Blair Street Underground Vaults

Hidden beneath the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town lies The Blair Street Underground Vaults, a series of tunnels and chambers once used by the local businesses before being abandoned. They were damp and dark with little to no natural light, but this didn't stop the city's poor moving in. To them, it was better than nothing. The city's criminals also began to take advantage of the location, illegally distilling whisky, and it's even said that body snatchers like Burke and Hare made use of them as well.

You can visit with us and explore the full history of the Blair Street Underground Vaults on our award-winning ghost and history tours

3. Queensberry House

This house, located on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, looks rather unassuming during the day. You'd never know that it was once home to the Cannibal of The Canongate. The story goes that James Douglas, the 3rd Marquess of Queensberry had to be kept under lock and key due to his extreme anger, despite being only aged ten. 

However, one night he escaped and cooked the family's poor servant on a spit! There are some holes in the story and James may have been framed, but nevertheless after the events he was written out of his family's succession.

4. Gibb's Close

Today Gibb's Close is home to one of the sweetest places you can imagine, a bakery! However, it was once home to the brother of William Burke, one half of the murderous Burke and Hare duo. It's the location where they lured their victim Mary Paterson by plying her and her friend with alcohol. Mary's friend declined and said she'd come back for her later but unfortunately when she returned Mary was not to be found. Burke and Hare later took Mary's body to the Edinburgh Medical School for money, where it was given to Dr. Knox. 

Her body was spared dissection after another doctor recognised her and sent her body for burial instead. Discover more about the body snatchers and Cannibal of The Canongate on our adults-only Doomed, Dead, & Buried ghost tour. 

5. The Grassmarket

The history of the Grassmarket is actually in its name - it was once a market, particularly for livestock, and the wellhead located there built in 1681 was the first to provide piped running water in the city. While a marketplace doesn't sound like a very dark place, it was in auld Edinburgh! The market's eastern side was home to gallows where criminals were hung, because as it was a form of entertainment for the locals back in the day, the bustling marketplace was seen the perfect location for onlookers. 

A nearby pub is named after the subject of one such hanging, Half Hangit Maggie, who was lucky enough to survive her punishment and be set free.

If you'd like to explore more of Edinburgh's dark history with us, book one of our five-star Edinburgh history or ghost tours, you can also sign-up to our newsletter for more blogs like this one!

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