Scotland: Underground ghost tour

After lunch, it was about time for our guided ghost tour – with Auld Reekie Tours.

This was the ONLY thing that I booked ahead of time …. 430p on Tuesday afternoon – the underground vault tour!

Last year, Andrew and I had watched an episode of Ghost Adventures (ghost-hunting reality show on the travel channel), when they get locked in to the underground vaults under Edinburgh.

It was one of the better episodes, so when we realized we were going to Edinburgh, visiting the vaults was one of the “musts.”

We met up with the tour guide at the designated street corner (in front of an old church on the Royal Mile)… along with about 12 other people. (sidenote: Mom and Dad did NOT go on the tour with us. Chickens.)

Since the tour goes underground, there was not really a need to wait til dark… but it certainly would have felt spookier.

Our tour guide was a guy (maybe late 20s) named Dominic. Sweet boy; very charismatic. He had that air about him that actors have – super friendly, super charming with a real feel for timing (both comedic and dramatic).

I was suddenly reminded of how much I really love actors!

He wore all black, but not in a creepy way. More like the way stagehands do – to better blend into the set. Or, in this case, the dark, dank underground haunted vaults…

So, we met Dominic in front of Tron Kirk and then he walked our group down a couple blocks and down a side street – then headed very steeply downhill.

Since the vaults are essentially built under the length of the Royal Mile, we had to go down to the entrance – basically just a couple of VERY steep steps off the side of a store front (where the Auld Reekie ticket office is).

The first room is a very faintly lit all-black room filled with glass cases hanging on the walls …. Glass cases with (very amateur) exhibits of instruments of torture.

Very strange.

Seems like the Auld Reekie owner is just interested in torture devices for fun … and decided to create this “exhibit” just to make the ghost tours a little weirder.

It worked.

So, according to Dominic …. The room we started in used to be just a cheap apartment – mostly for college students.

Apparently, one night (late 80s?), the tenants were having a party and a cup got thrown against one of the drywalls …. And instead of bouncing off, it went through!

So these partying college kids took a closer look … The drywall just came crumbling down. As did the 2 or 3 additional layers back there.

And all of a sudden, the Edinburgh underground vaults that had been sealed for at least 100 years had been rediscovered!

Now, it’s not clear to me exactly how many underground vaults there are … but the vaults that the Ghost Adventures crew investigated were HUGE. Several levels, yards and yards and yards.

The vaults that Auld Reekie tours are completely different. I wonder if maybe the vaults are all owned/rented by the owners of the businesses above (just like when they were originally built).

Some photos from various sources of the vaults one - twothree

The vaults that we toured were:

  • 4 or 5 in number
  • Off a single corridor (without apparent connection to other vaults)
  • The corridor was nicely/smoothly paved (likely a recent change for the tourists)

So the tour was about 45 minutes long … and it felt so short!

Dominic took us through each to the vaults in turn, NOT just down the line.

Nope, the order of the vaults visited was deliberately chosen for maximum storytelling power. Started off with your basic vault to learn a bit about the vaults in general, and then into vaults with escalating weirdness….

We actually started in the (dimly lit) corridor ….

Dominic warned us about physical sensations we may encounter – and I immediately began to feel a bit dizzy and light-headed. I’m sure just because we had essentially walked underground into a small, stuffy place. But I can see how some people might get a little freaked out!

We learned about the night watchman ghost that is occasionally seen at the end of the corridor – by guides and visitors. As the tour guide, Dominic needs to always always keep track of all the tourists in his tour. According to him, on one tour he was sure that he saw one of his charges wandering off into one of the vaults at the far end of the corridor … but, as soon as he reached the doorway there was no one there! The watchman has never bothered/harassed visitors; he’s just seen going in and out of the vaults at the far end of the corridor.

The other ‘spirit’ we learned about in that corridor was a woman who pays particular attention to the men.

Dominic told us about one guy, on the tour with his girlfriend, felt a cold hand near his crotch while they were standing around. It was only when he realized his girlfriend was a good 5 or 6 feet in front of him that he ran away screaming!

Which brings me to why Dominic was such an effective tour guide and storyteller : He genuinely seemed concerned. He told us over and over that if we needed to leave for any reason he would drip everything and take us out of the vaults. He gives his groups permission to feel scared, and to be aware of how they’re feeling. He appears equally respectful of skeptics, believers and fence-sitters.He doesn’t over dramatize anything. He doesn’t overplay his hand. … and he doesn’t exhibit any kind of condescension  that a skeptic might.

You can’t help but trust Dominic when he tells you what he himself has experienced … and the calm and reasonable way he tells you that women were getting attacked in a certain vault makes you really consider it might be true ….

He was fantastic!

Again, I really love actors….

So. The specific vault stories:

As I said, the first vault was just a good opportunity to tell us about the history.

These vaults were originally built under the Royal Mile as a place for storage for the businesses above. Unfortunately, the vaults were built/carved out of limestone or sandstone or something else porous. Which means that when it rains in Edinburgh, the rain seeps through to wet and ruin all the goods in the vaults.

Imagine bolts of fabric or barrels of flour sitting in puddles.

Needless to say, the soon were emptied.

In Edinburgh (at that time at least) it was illegal to sleep on the street. So all the homeless – prostitutes, drunks, families whose breadwinner had died, etc – started “living” in the vaults.

The vault is really just a stone room – maybe 20’x20’ … no walls, no running water, no toilets.

About 25 people would “live” in one vault, just using one corner as a ‘bathroom’ … but in reality just a pile of feces… Eventually it’d creep farther and farther into the room, mixing with the dirt on the floor, mixing with the water that seeped down, all over the floor where people were sleeping.

In order to eat (and mask the stench) they would build a fire…. But there’s no vent, windows or chimney of any kind. So they built the fires by the door to the vault, filling the corridors with smoke.

Some of the vaults were partway between the graveyards and the medical schools. Since autopsies were illegal, med students would buy the corpses on the black market to dissect. Grave robbers found the vaults handy for hiding bodies.

No law enforcement would come down to the vaults – to the stink and disease – so criminals pretty much had a free rein. Rapes, murders, stashing stolen goods …. I’m sure it ALL happened in the vaults.

And then – eventually – the city had had enough and just sealed up the vaults. And sealed up all that pain and crime and hate and death with it….

So sad….

The second vault that we visited had a big stone circle in the middle of the room. Apparently a local Wiccan group had connected with the Auld Reekie owner to use this vault for their wiccan/heathen ceremonies…. But after a few weeks some strange things started to happen in that vault after it was locked up for the night …

Things like … scratch marks on the inside of the door, and all the furniture in the room getting piled precariously in one of the corners.

Bizarre.

So the head of the wiccan group decided to stay overnight, locked in that vault, to figure out what was going on. The Auld Reekie owner locked this guy in with his sleeping bag. He chose to sleep in the stone circle – as the Wiccans believe that circle was a source of protection from various spirits.

He woke up in the middle of the night…. Hearing some kind of scratching or scuffling along one of the walls. As the vault has no windows or chimney at all, or course it was pitch black. So this guy had pretty much convinced himself that he was hearing a rat, the scuffling/scratching started heading up the wall and onto the ceiling!

Between hearing a series of voices just outside the stone circle and other bizarre happenings, he had had enough.

Once it got to what he thought was morning, he was gone – waiting at the front door to be let out.

That same day the wiccan group moved all their stuff to a different vault – permanently.

They left the stone circle, though.

It was thought that the circle was now – instead of a protection – a portal or doorway to evil spirits.

Dominic – bless his heart – raised his credibility even more. He says “Now, some of the guides will tell you not to step into or walk through the circle. But I know you all are adults. If you want to step into the circle I’m not going to stop you. Now is the time to do it.”

… and of course no one did.

Although I fully expected Kevin to.

We moved on to the last vault then, and as everyone filed out of the vault, I saw Kevin put one foot into the circle and then out again.

Show off.

He was carrying Chelsea’s bag at the time so we joked that a ghost would attach itself to her bag and he was going to carry it the rest of the trip.

The final vault required an explanation and warning before even entering.

We were strictly instructed to separate by gender at the door – boys to the left, girls to the right. Which put me right next to a bunch of strangers and Chelsea in the scariest of all the vaults.

Awesome.

According to Dominic, through many tours there would be scratches, pushes and other physical attacks on visitors. They eventually tried a few different combinations and by having men on one side and women on the other the attacks stopped.

On top of that, we were strictly instructed to turn off all electronics – phones, cameras, etc. Electronics of all kinds have been known to malfunction and break after visiting this vault. Of course, we had my mom’s cell phone on us and didn’t know how to turn it off. So far it’s fine.

Furthermore, the safety (electronic) light above the door wasn’t on. Dominic told us they just can’t get the light to work. They’ve had any number of electricians come look at it, and one day they went through something like 30 lightbulbs.

So the room was lit solely by Dominic’s flashlight …. But of course, since electronics have issues in this room, he told us all about the times that his flashlight has just stopped working (of course, he called it a “torch” since he’s British and adorable).

I know this sounds like just a bunch of talk. I fully acknowledge that not a single weird, paranormal or unnatural thing happened to our tour group.

However – I WILL tell you that this last vault was noticeably colder than the other vaults. What reason could there be? These are just stone rooms with no vents or ceiling fans, obviously.

But if I’ve learned anything from watching numerous seasons of Ghost Adventures – I’ve learned that pockets of cold air can indicate the presence of a ghost or spirit.

I’m just saying….

So, of course, since this was the final vault, Dominic was using his full power of anticipation and storytelling to really give us a chill.

Starting with dividing us from our other group members, plus the turning off of electronics and the light in the vault not working … needless to say, it is easy to see how someone could get all keyed up.

As he was explaining to us how he had to carry a backup “torch” because of the strange problems in this vault, his current “torch” began to flicker – until it finally went out completely (conveniently at a dramatic moment in his narrative) …. Spooky ….

Just before the vaults were sealed shut, there was a huge fire in old town Edinburgh (1824, I think). To escape the flames and stay safe many families sent their women and children into the vaults.

Initially this seems like a good idea – the stone walls and floor certainly wouldn’t burn. Instead, with the fire raging through the city, the walls of the vaults started heating up more and more  … just like a brick oven.

Ugh.

All those people were just cooked. … Just baked up like meat.

Ugh …. Bleck bleck bleck….

Not long after (around 1830 or so) the vaults were closed off and forgotten about.

So sad. So gross and so scary …

I can’t remember exactly how Dominic tied up the tour, but part of our ticket included a bit of shortbread and whisky at a pub next door.

We were guided to the pub at then Dominic disappeared (he had another tour to guide). Too bad… He was pretty much amazing. I would have loved to have a chat with him.

Not at all surprisingly, the whisky was not great. Not that I know – Andrew drank mine.

{ 2 comments }