A Tour of the Undead

City of Edinburgh Tours leads series of guided walking and bus tours around Edinburgh, and on Saturday night, I made a “Why not?” decision and joined a group of friends on a “Tour of the Undead.” Our walking group of six total started on the Royal Mile, led by our intrepid ghost/guide Robert, alias Dr. John Knox. It was a considerably cold night, the sun having been set for hours already (of course, it sets at about 4:30pm), and I don’t think any of us were dressed for an hour-and-a-half walking tour – but that is why one always carries a pair of gloves, a hat and scarf when walking around Edinburgh.

Walking up the Royal Mile, we were introduced to the more ghastly side of Edinburgh’s past, learning about torture weapons like the rack, the rat, and thumbscrews; visiting St. Giles Cathedral, under the parking lot of which Protestant reformer John Knox is buried; spitting on the Heart of Midlothian in (dis)respect; and making our way down Fisher’s Close, one of the many closes or alleys that branch off the Royal Mile. These closes are especially interesting result of the organic growth of Edinburgh’s original city, as they are the product of many houses built very close together and were used as roads, walking paths, and waste disposal areas.

Getting a little more ghostly, we made our way to the incredibly dark Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, a graveyard originally established as the overflow burial grounds for the quickly-filled Edinburgh cemetery (the one resting under St. Giles’ parking lot). This cemetery in particular makes for good ghost stories, with its approximately 250,000 burials (including a large pit where paupers who couldn’t afford nicer accommodations were thrown) creepy Black Mausoleum housing the infamous Mackenzie Poltergeist and the cemetery’s history of body-snatching. In the eighteenth century, the University of Edinburgh was well-known for its scientific technology and medicine, particularly advancing surgical practices and knowledge of human anatomy; the problem with studying human anatomy in the eighteenth century is that the scientist needs fresh human bodies to splice up. This resulted in a high demand for freshly-dead corpses, which created the very lucrative occupation of grave robbing. Innovations such as mortsafes (large iron cages placed over the coffin once buried) were created for the protection of more elite graves, but those of poorer souls were prone to being uprooted. If you were really loved, a family member or friend would spend six nights sitting on your grave – alone, in a cold, creepy cemetery – to dissuade any robbers and to ensure your body rested in peace; once six days had passed, the body was generally too decomposed to sell, thus it was safe. Horrible as it may sound, one instance of grave robbing ended up saving a life, when an elderly woman presumed dead was accidentally buried alive and cried out when the grave robbers tried to pry rings off her fingers with a knife. That would keep me out of the graveyard for a while – that, and the fact that if you were caught, you would almost certainly be executed.

The climax of the tour was a walk away from Greyfriar’s Kirk and up South Bridge Street, where we entered a flat complex through an unassuming door. Instead of going up the stairs toward flats of the living, we went down, into an underground network of vaults. These damp, warm (yea, time to thaw out!) stone rooms and corridors are funny architectural remnants of when the city of Edinburgh tried to level out its grounds by building series of bridges over existing roads. For a while, these streets and the buildings off them continued to function as before; the one we were in was once a tenement house and the corridor in which we uneasily stood as Robert spoke was the actual street once open to the air. Architecturally, it was fascinating – these spaces were created because roads and buildings were literally plopped right on top of them and fell into disuse because they were no longer viable as living or even storage facilities. As far as the ghost tour was concerned, they are prime sites for scary stories. Their dark heavy ceilings, damp walls, and occasional thump (the result of people walking across the skylight in the ceiling, as we discovered later) from down the corridor make a perfect setting for recounting the really terrible acts of violence committed in these vaults during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when witch hunting was all the rage. Witch trials, the interrogation tactics of which were heartlessly cruel, often incited riots so the ever responsible government moved the trials down to these vaults as a matter of public concern. The stories, all true, were enough to make anyone queasy and very ready to brave the cold rather than stay in the vaults longer than he must.

Which really was a shame, because these vaults are fascinating and are the highlight of my reflections on this tour. Here we have architectural spaces created as a result of the altering of the urban landscape above. Some would argue this tore the urban fabric, rendering useless vibrant streets and buildings for the sake of beautifying or reimagining the landscape of the city. Perhaps it did do this, but it also created entirely new spaces that people repurposed and utilized in ways before untenable. The vaults pose an interesting example of architecture and urban design changing the way people operate, creating new and destroying old ways of living in the city itself. Had I not been on a ghost tour, I might have stayed down there longer – but definitely not by myself.

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