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What are Edinburgh's Blair Street Underground Vaults?

28th Jul 2021
What are Edinburgh's Blair Street Underground Vaults?

By Simon Bendle, Mercat Storyteller

Is there really an underground city beneath Edinburgh? Sort of, but not as you might think. Edinburgh does have an underground world. People did once live down there. And Edinburgh’s true subterranean story is certainly the equal of any strange legend.

The underground world beneath Edinburgh’s ancient, cobbled streets is the result of the city’s remarkable topography. Scotland’s capital sprang up in an area of steep hills and precipitous valleys, the formidable Edinburgh Castle standing tall at its heart. Hemmed in by a medieval city wall, space was always tight. Every square foot had to be built on. And, as the city expanded, the irregular camber of the land made for a very peculiar development.

A Rabbit Warren of Underground Vaults

Towering tenements were built cheek-by-jowl on steep hillsides; huge bridges spanned deep ravines; roads were raised to level-off sharp inclines. Edinburgh’s hills seemed to disappear in places under this rash of unorthodox development. Meanwhile, out of sight, a rabbit warren of underground vaults, chambers and passageways spread like roots beneath the city’s undulating streets. We take our visitors to the infamous Blair Street Underground Vaults beneath Edinburgh’s 18th century South Bridge. The old bridge spans the deep Cowgate valley and originally it stood alone, its huge arches open on both sides so people could pass freely beneath it. That quickly changed, however, as new buildings went up on either side, sandwiching the bridge and enclosing the arches. Within the enclosed arches, floors and ceilings were then added, creating a series of vaulted chambers down there, two, three, four storeys deep.

Haunt of Edinburgh’s Criminal Underworld

Originally, these hidden chambers were used as storage areas and workshops for merchants and shopkeepers who had businesses on the bridge above. But that was never going to work. Too damp and gloomy, they were quickly abandoned. And that’s when Edinburgh’s criminal underworld moved in – its thieves, prostitutes, bootleggers and body snatchers. Some say the restless souls of these ne’er-do-wells inhabit the underground vaults to this day. Follow in their footsteps on one of our spine-chilling underground ghost or history tours and you’ll quickly come to understand why

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