A night in Edinburgh's haunted undercity
"Are you a sceptic?" asks the tour guide in the stone lobby, opening the door to Edinburgh’s infamous underground vaults.
I smile thinly.
"You're on the fence then," he guesses optimistically, shifting the door with an eerie creak.
"Yes," I lie. I don't believe in ghosts.
As we descend the two flights of stairs, a breeze whispers past by my face and plays a haunting melody down my spine. If I was less level-headed I would find it all a bit unsettling, as if someone was warning me to turn back.
The six-hour Vaults Vigil, operated by Mercat Tours, leads a few daring individuals down into the depths of a dismal past, where the spirits of the dead live on to bother the living.
Candles and small lanterns light the vaults and create a subtly sinister ambience that at once alarms and allures. Leaking walls bleed damp, cold water onto the dirty and uneven floor. The temperature remains constant – until it plummets chillingly - which I am assured is a sign of a ghostly presence.
You never know what you might come across in
the vaults below Edinburgh.
Everyone is given recorders that allow us to gauge the frequency of the surrounding energy. Ghosts can be detected at the push of a button. But here in the gloom, if I stop long enough, I don't feel the need of an electronic monitor to sense the spidery filaments of other lives.
Built in 1788, the vaults were storage compartments, jewellers, pubs and fabric stores that were evacuated a mere seven years later as the premises began to flood. Brothels and gambling flourished in this vacant area, but by 1820 the leaking became so severe that even the illegitimate enterprises dissolved. Before the vaults permanently closed in 1830, squatters and criminals moved in and turned the place into a disease-ridden slum.
In the Tavern vault, my tour guides, Gary and Struan, explain a number of theories about paranormal activity. "Ghosts and spirits," advises Gary, "draw heat out of living bodies in order to materialise, which explains the decrease in temperature around victims…"
We all shiver and the drop…drop…drop of the leaking room echoes through the damp, pungent room.
"Another theory," continues Gary, as we move out of the Tavern, "is that the vaults are a 'weak point' for spirits to come through - just as Halloween is a 'weak date'".
As Struan has in effect a captive audience he can take his time to distinguish between ghosts and spirits:
"Ghosts are the replayed energy of peoples' past actions, such as a woman rocking her baby, which are interminably recorded in the surrounding stone and are thereby distortions in the space-time continuum. Spirits, on the other hand, have their own personalities, move about without restraint, and are infamous for their abundant attacks on visitors."
On that cheering note we are encouraged to wander through the 12 rooms alone. My fellow adventurers quickly begin to experience strange happenings. Some complain of haphazard sickness and headaches. Others experience quick wind rushes and cold spots. Clothes are tugged and they hear distant shouting and banging. Three ladies see actual figures - a limping man, a lady with a baby, a dancing girl and a small prancing boy. One woman can literally smell the stench of an old man.
Some of the rooms and hallways included electric lighting – better to see the ghosts of visitors past
I am still wearing my scepticism like armour and nothing has yet happened to cause a chink in my defence. Then as we creep into the Wine vault a distinct sound can be heard from one of the impassable chambers next door. It is definitely not a figment of our imaginations. It is so real, in fact, that the bemused Gary decides to go upstairs and check if anyone has broken in. There is no-one there…
As we walk through one of the corridors, an unfortunate woman hears a stone drop in front of her and, despite my desperate pleading to the contrary, she resolutely denies kicking it. Later Struan tells us that "stone throwing" frequents that corridor and is caused by a friendly - but mischievous - spirit named Jack, a six-year-old boy dressed in a blue velvet jacket who pulls sleeves and hits legs, especially when children are touring. One woman in another tour proclaimed that Jack had approached her and said, "please go, he’s coming back, please go."
On the web
In a corner of the Double Vaulted Room, I soon find out whom Jack was warning us about. My recorder spasms and begins to blare even though I'm not pressing the button. This is the place where Mr Boots, a devilish spirit and the presumed murderer of poor Jack, attacked a girl two years ago. Eyewitnesses claimed that a smoky presence appeared behind the girl and lunged into her body, causing her to faint and fall over. One couple alleged that the girl took on the features of a morbid, bearded man as she collapsed.
Like a sullen mist rising from a country road I feel my scepticism leave me. I am afraid … and there are still three hours until morning.