Edinburgh’s Most Haunted: Blair Street Vaults

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One of the Capital’s most famous supernatural sites, the historic Blair Street Vaults are an experience not for the faint hearted.

Haunted or not, the vaults- the spaces beneath the vast arches of South Bridge, completed in 1788 - are a fearsome place.

The Vaults under South Bridge are a fearsome place. Picture: Julie Bull

The Vaults under South Bridge are a fearsome place. Picture: Julie Bull

Cold and damp seep from the crumbling grey brick walls, and the darkness is almost absolute – light seems to simply dissipate in the cavernous space, a maze of tunnels and nooks, sometime opening up into cavernous spaces, other time leading into claustrophobic corners.

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Mercat Tours run regular trips down into the vaults for those brave enough, and once again this Halloween will take a group of fool-hardy adventurers down into the depths to spend the night with the ghosts and ghouls that reside there - and this year the ‘paranormal activity’ is said to be at a level it has rarely reached, meaning there’s sure to be a few scares in store.

Mercat guide Nicola Wright, who has worked in and around the Vaults for 11 years, admitted: “We do get an awful lot of activity and the reports have been getting more frequent in recent weeks.

“This is a very sinister place. There are lots of dark, dark spirits down here.”

There’s certainly no shortage of spooks, no doubt a legacy of the twisted past the spaces have endured.

The historic vaults were used initially for businesses and taverns, though as a dark and sheltered spot away from prying eyes they soon naturally became a storage space for smugglers and and hideout for criminals. It is said even Burke and Hare used the vaults to carry out medical experiments.

Over time the businesses moved out and the space was taken up by the city’s poor, although the damp and chill meant most of them had abandoned the site by the mid 1800s. Before then however, plenty had died, some murdered, others of sickness.

One of the most commonly-sighted ghosts is the figure of a Jack, who tugs at people’s trousers or throws stones across the empty echoing chambers.

Less friendly is Mr Boots, so called because of the footsteps he makes as he tramps around the afterlife. And worst of all is the Watcher, a spirit reported to instill feelings of dread in psychics and who, as the names suggests, is constantly watching – although sometimes this will move into pushing, hair pulling and other terrifying activity.

Despite being generally- happy to work there, admitting the ghosts now mostly leave her alone, even Nicola she says he won’t go into The White Room, where the watcher is said to be at his strongest.

“People have come out of the room and found they had scratch marks or bruising, they’ve had their clothes torn, they feel very nauseous. If you take photographs quite often faces will appear in them. I won’t go into that particular room.

“He warns people not to enter, he shouts at people, he pushes people.”

Other unusual occurrences have been reported around the vaults, with a member of staff at an adjoining bar once reporting leaving an orange on the counter for a few seconds while he put something in the bin, only to find it perfectly peeled when he looked back.

The fearsome reputation of the vaults makes them a mecca for those hunting the supernatural, and their success varies depending on who you speak to.

In 2001, for example, Professor Richard Wiseman conducted a study of people spending time the vaults and concluded that, since those people who believed in ghosts reported more supernatural occurrences that those who did not believe, and since there were more “sightings” and odd events in rooms the participants had been told were haunted, that much of the experience was created in the minds of the people who went in there.

In contrast to this however – and perhaps lacking the academic credentials of Professor Wiseman – was Joe Swash, who spent a night in the vaults by himself in 2009 for a BBC programme, during which his microphone supposedly recorded the voice of a Catholic priest reciting the last rights for 20 minutes, something Swash himself never heard.

Others take down Electronic Voice Recorders, light meters and other ghost-hunting gadgets, and invariably all report strange, unexplainable readings.

For those that work there however, there’s no need for any specialist equipment - just nerves of steel to go down into the dark vaults after everyone else has left the building.-

Lots of guides have experiences,” says Nicola. “I train a lot of the guides and often when they are new we get a lot of activity, because the spirits aren’t used to them.

“They hear things, they get pushed they hear footsteps, they see faces.

“Tourists feel things as well. Temperature changes - quite often the temperature will drop suddenly. We had reports of footsteps last night, people seeing figures.

“A lot of time people are taking pictures and they tell me ‘you realise there’s a woman standing behind you?’ but I’m fine with it.”