The Secrets Underneath Edinburgh’s Streets
14 October 2021
Established by King David I in the 12th century as one of Scotland's earliest royal burghs, it’s not surprising that Edinburgh overflows with history. But many of the city’s stories are hidden deep underground – you may have walked over them for years and never given them a second thought!
Edinburgh’s secrets are everywhere – you just need to know where to look……
The Real Mary King’s Close
Imagine a warren of underground streets frozen in time. Step inside The Real Mary King’s Close and that is exactly what you’ll find.
Once part of the city’s most vibrant streets, this perfectly preserved close provides a fascinating glimpse into Edinburgh life between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Named after Mary King, a fabric merchant who built her own business after her husband’s death, a tour of the close will be brought to life by one of the costumed character tour guides posing as former residents of the Old Town’s closes. This could be Agnes Chambers, a maid in the household of prominent merchant burgess Alexander Cant; or Dr George Rae, the Plague Doctor who tended to victims when the 1645 plague hit Edinburgh.
This underground time capsule is a warren of secrets just waiting to be explored – just try and avoid the cry of gardyloo!
2 Warriston’s Close, High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1PG
The Underground Vaults
Constructed from 1785 onwards and linking the Old Town’s High Street with the south side of the city, South Bridge consisted of 19 arches, although only one of which, the Cowgate arch, is visible today.
To make the most of passing trade, merchants built shops along the bridge. With space at a premium however, rooms were built beneath the blocked-in arches, constructing of dark, airless, vaulted chambers which were used as pubs, cobblers and other tradespeople.
However, South Bridge had never been properly waterproofed and over time it began to leak. The vaults below became damp, unusable areas and, eventually, the businesses moved out.
Over time, the vaults took on a new, less pleasant, lease of life. The poor and destitute moved in and the vaults became slums, brothels and illegal taverns. Damp, dark, cramped, with no fresh water and sanitation, they would have been rife with disease. Despite this, some of the tiny rooms would have accommodated as many as 10 people.
A hotbed of crime, it’s also believed that murders and bodysnatchers Burke and Hare prowled the vaults looking for unsuspecting victims from the poverty-stricken residents, who might not be missed if they were to suddenly disappear. Killed by the murderous pair, their bodies were then sold to the university’s medical school's anatomy department for dissection!
Eventually, in order to rid Edinburgh of this squalid space, the vaults were filled in with rubble, sealed up and forgotten about for generations. That was until 1985 however, when a chance excavation revealed the warren of tunnels and rooms and found several household items belonging to former inhabitants, such as toys, clay pipes, buttons, and ceramic jars.
The residents may be long gone, but even to this day this labyrinthic of underground chambers is still dark, damp and claustrophobic. And this unique piece of Edinburgh’s history is now open to the public – several walking tour companies will escort you down to the eerie atmospheric chambers, including Mercat Tours, Auld Reekie Tours, City of the Dead and City of Edinburgh Tours.
But be on your guard, said to be one of Scotland’s most haunted underground experiences, you never know who you’ll bump into……!
Princes Street Gardens
With its lush green gardens, historic monuments and panoramic view up to Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens was not always the picturesque scene it is today.
A man-made body of water, and covering the site of today’s gardens, the Nor' Loch is believed to have been created around the middle of the 15th century under the instruction of King James II. Stretching from the castle rock to present-day Market Street, it was key in protecting the city from the always-present threat of invasion.
As the population of the city grow, the loch became an open sewer for the city, with all manner of human and animal waste deposited in the water. The stench must have been unbearable!
The loch also served rather as a place during some of the most gruesome chapters of Edinburgh's history. It served as the site of execution of hundreds of women, cruelly condemned as witches – those convicted were thrown into the loch; if they sank, they were innocent but if they floated, they would be burned at the stake.
Demands to get rid of the loch first started in the early 18th century by the city’s increasing upper classes, and in the 1760’s the loch was drained. Developed in stages from east to west between 1830 and 1876, the beautiful Princes Street Gardens now occupy the former Nor’ Loch – a much more tranquil scene than in days gone by.
A Disused Railway Tunnel
Buried 49 feet below ground at St Andrew Square, coming up a steep gradient to just below street level at Scotland Street, this railway tunnel was 1000 yards long, and 24 feet in width and height, yet was closed to passengers in 1868, just 21 years after it had opened.
However, it has since had a colourful history. During WWII it was used as a bomb shelter, accommodating up to 3000 people. Because of its position nearly 50 feet underground, the tunnel was seen as Edinburgh’s safest (as well as its biggest) air raid shelter. It was also used briefly as a mushroom farm, it’s dark and damp conditions being ideal for cultivation.
After the war, the tunnel was briefly used again in 1948, when a professor visiting the University of Edinburgh conducted a series of radiation experiments there. The tunnel’s depth helped to block out any unwanted background radiation from other sources.
For a brief period in the 1970s it was used by a local garage to store up to 150 cars!
The tunnel was finally closed in 1983, when Waverley Mall was built.
Hidden beneath the streets of Gilmerton, in Edinburgh’s southside is an archaeological mystery that has baffled experts for over 200 years.
A series of underground hand carved passageways and chambers, Gilmerton Cove is a unique subterranean attraction featuring seven different rooms with rock hewn furniture tables and chairs.
But what exactly was it used for, and by whom? Numerous theories abound – from a Covenanters refuge to a witches coven.
Why not visit for yourself and make up your own mind?
Celebrating local history and heritage, this once abandoned railway tunnel has today been transformed by artist Chris Rutterford into the biggest mural of its kind in Scotland.
Turning what was once a dark and forbidding place into somewhere that is bright and cheerful, the colourful images on Colinton Tunnel’s walls can’t fail to brighten up a dark day and put a smile on your face.
Featuring illustrations from Edinburgh author & poet, Robert Louis Stevenson’s From a Railway Carriage, as you wander through the 147 year old tunnel, keep an open for a magical train, fairies, witches and much more.
Looking to capture an amazing Instagram shot? You’ll find plenty of inspiration here!
Outside The Palace of Holyroodhouse, between the junction of Horse Wynd and Abbey Strand, can be found a row of three copper 'S' cobblestones – but what do they mean?
Known as Sanctuary Stone, these markers signify the five-mile boundary known as Abbey Sanctuary that gave protection to debtors seeking refuge from their creditors.
In times when minor theft could warrant a hanging, the Abbey offered sanctuary to criminals. For a fee, food and housing were provided, and, more importantly, the sanctuary prevented creditors from being able to haul the pursued into jail.
Anyone claiming protection, and who could afford to stay, was allowed to do so for an unlimited amount of time. On Sundays they were even allowed to venture into town without fear of punishment.
In 1880 a law was passed that meant debtors could no longer be thrown in prison and many of the old sanctuary buildings were demolished. One however still exists and today serves as a gift shop for the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
The Heart of Midlothian
On the surface, the heart-shaped mosaic set in the cobblestones on the Royal Mile may look like a romantic symbol, but in its past life, this area marked a far from romantic destination.
Today, together with the mosaic, brass plates bedded into the cobbles mark the site of the Old Tolbooth. A multi-use building – it was used as a place for collecting tolls, council chamber and courthouse – it was as a prison that is was most fearsomely regarded. Holding thieves, murderers as well as petty criminals, it became notorious for its squalid conditions and torture treatment. Those found guilty of their crime were publicly executed by hanging, with the most infamous criminals having their heads impaled on spikes as a deterrent to would-be lawbreakers.
The conditions of the Old Tolbooth were so bad that in 1561, Mary, Queen of Scots ordered it to be demolished and rebuilt. The new building became Edinburgh’s main jail and amongst its new features included a heart at its doorway – not that this indicated any kinder treatment – the torture and executions at the New Tolbooth continued until it was demolished in 1817.
The prison and its heart became famous through Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, which fictionalized a riot at the Old Tolbooth. The title of the book referred directly to the Old Tolbooth itself and eventually led to the site of the entrance to the jail being marked out using cobbles in the shape of a heart.
Today - much to the bewilderment and disgust of the unwitting tourist – it has become customary to spit on the heart for good luck, although no can say for sure why. Some believe it’s a practice left over from when passers-by would spit at the prison in solidarity with those inside; others say it was the prisoners themselves who spat on the heart, if they found themselves lucky enough to be released. Others say it’s a gesture of good luck for the local Edinburgh football team, Hearts, whose emblem is derived from the stone heart.
Whatever the reason, today it’s a popular photo location for tourists…. just watch out for the spitting!
Fancy learning more about Edinburgh’s stories? A guided walking tour is a great way to explore the city and there’s a fantastic range to choose from. Discover more about Edinburgh’s Tours>