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Five Dark Historical Facts About Edinburgh

20th Apr 2023
Five Dark Historical Facts About Edinburgh

Hear spirits echo through old city streets. Join us on our brand new Ghostly Tales of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile tour.

Edinburgh is an awe-inspiring city with stunning Victorian and Georgian achitecture dating back centuries. However, if you look closely, you'll soon discover clues that dark tales from the city's past lurk closer than you'd think. Discover five dark facts about Edinburgh in this blog. 

1. Body-Snatching Was Rife In Edinburgh

Dark fact number one! Did you know that Edinburgh is said to have been the body-snatching capital of the world during the 19th-century? If you've ever visited one of Edinburgh's many graveyards, you may have noticed that some graves and tombs have bars. This was to prevent the body-snatchers from gaining access. Why work for a meager sum when you could simply dig up a cadavear from a local graveyard, remove and sell the belongings buried with it, and sell the body to the local medical school for a year's wage! It was a lucrative crime in Auld Edinburgh.

You can learn more about body snatching and the two most infamous body snatchers, Burke and Hare, on our Doomed, Dead & Buried tour

2. Edinburgh Was At The Heart Of The Witch Trials

The city of Edinburgh has had quite the death toll in times gone by, contributed to by incidents such as the plague, wars, and of course, the witch trials. King James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, had an obsession with the otherwordly. 

Part of this obsession included a belief in witches, and over 1,500 were executed for the crime by torturous means. It was a common belief even for the locals. Especially as the concept was backed by the church and if the king believed so, then it must be true! Men and women were both accused, but women were the main victims. According to James, they were the frailer sex and therefore, more prone to devilish temptations. This story could be tied back to James' religious beliefs and Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden. 

You can learn more about Scotland's witch trials and some of those accused on our brand new, five-star, Witches; Trial & Truth tour

3. People In Edinburgh Once Lived Underground

Well, not exactly - however, some of the city's poor did! Lurking underground along the South Bridge of Edinburgh's Old Town are a series of chambers named The Edinburgh Vaults. These cavernous tunnels were originally intended as storage and workspaces for businesses in the 1800s. However, they were abandoned due to being too damp for this purpose.

This led to the city's homeless taking shelter there. It was a cold, damp place without any sunlight. There was also vermin, the lingering smell of fish oils, and of course the pungent smell of the 'toilets' too. The largest and most extensive section of vaults is The Blair Street Underground Vaults which you can get exclusive access to on our five-star ghost or historic underground tours. 

4. Human Waste Was Thrown From Windows

Many visitors to Scotland look forward to the fresh air, and they'd be right. It's one of the greenest countries in the world with Edinburgh labeled as one of the greenest cities in the UK. However, there's a reason the city was historically nicknamed Auld Reekie, and that's because the air was not always quite so fresh...

"Garde a l'eau!", aka beware of the water, was a common French phrase used in Auld Edinburgh. Without modern day plumbing, most people disposed of their waste by putting it in a bucket and chucking it out the window, where it would trickle down the streets. The French term, often not pronounced quite right by the Scots, was used to warn any passerbys to get out of the way. So, if you've ever had your day ruined after being targeted by a rogue bird dropping, imagine how that would have felt. 

5. There Were Public Hangings

There were no TVs, iPads, mobile phones, or laptops back in Auld Edinburgh. So, citizens of the city had to find their entertainment elsewhere, and in some cases it seems a simple hobby didn't suffice. As the witch trials proved, Edinburgh's past citizens loved gossiping and seeing 'criminals' be punished. 

Public punshiments would often take place at busy market spots such as the Mercat Cross, as did hangings in areas like the Grassmarket. Crowds would gather to jeer at the 'criminals' throughout. On our tours we often refer to this as the Edinburgh mob. 

So, there you have it, five dark historical facts about Edinburgh! If you enjoyed this blog perhaps you'll join us on tour to learn more, or sign-up for our newsletter for more blogs like this one straight to your inbox.

Join us on our Ghostly Tales of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile tour: entirely above ground, accessible to all. Delve into the gore of Old Town Edinburgh’s darkest deeds and crooked characters, if you dare. Book now!

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