Are there any other cities north of the border as storied as “Auld Reekie”?
The Scottish capital exhibits an elegant mashup of Reformation-era, Georgian and Victorian architecture, tumbling down from the castle to the banks of the Firth of Forth.
Beautiful when drenched in sunlight, imposing beneath leaden skies, and handsome even in the pervasive Scottish drizzle, Edinburgh is undoubtedly one of the UK’s greatest cities.
Yet even such an attractive place can hide a wealth of forgotten buildings (and we’re not talking about tourist attractions like Mary King’s Close or the Edinburgh Dungeon).
From long-disused railway tunnels and Cold War bunkers to crumbling cinemas and lighthouses, there’s a whole other abandoned Edinburgh to explore.
One made up of haunting ruins, hidden places, quietly decaying cemeteries and much more. This article explores 12 abandoned places in Edinburgh, some of them relatively well-known, others far more obscure.
Abandoned Scotland Street Railway Tunnel
Deep below Edinburgh’s New Town lies an unlikely secret. Opened in 1847, the Scotland Street Tunnel was once the pride of Edinburgh’s engineers. Created by tunnelling through half a mile of solid igneous rock at a steep 1 in 27 gradient beneath St Andrew Square and Dublin Street, the tunnel connected the old Canal Street Station to Canonmills and out to Granton Harbour. Costing over £100,000, it should have been operational for decades after. Yet it closed only 21 short years later, after a new line made it unprofitable to run.
In subsequent years, the abandoned Edinburgh railway tunnel wore many different guises. A mushroom farm; a place to store motorcars; and even a stint as Scotland ‘biggest, safest’ air raid shelter (supposedly capable of holding 3,000 people). During World War Two it also served as the emergency headquarters and control centre of the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER).
Yet no-one ever managed to find a permanent use for the abandoned Scotland Street Tunnel. Partially infilled in the 1980s, it now exists primarily in folklore and faded memory, preserved in passages by Robert Louis Stevenson, and a small collection of Edinburgh urban exploration photographs. The site of the abandoned Edinburgh, Leith & Newhaven Railway, meanwhile, is still visible to this day opposite Platform 19 at Waverley Station, where a gated tunnel runs through the former Canal Street Station and into the silent Scotland Street Tunnel.
Abandoned Lighthouse, Western Harbour Breakwater
The abandoned Western Harbour Lighthouse must be one of the most-mournful sights in the whole of Edinburgh. A beacon that once sat on the edges of the Western breakwater, jutting out into the Firth of Forth, it has since deteriorated into an overwhelming state of decay. Windows have been smashed, doors kicked in. Flooring has been torn up. Paint peels off the walls. Everything has been broken, bashed, and left to disintegrate. Few abandoned Edinburgh structures typify the word ‘ruin’ so thoroughly.
Like many smaller lighthouses, this one fell out of use with the advancing decades, as changes in technology and shipping patterns rendered it obsolete. Left to fall into ruin, it has since been battered by bad weather, and attacked by bored vandals with nothing better to do. The days when it once proudly guarded vessels through the treacherous Firth of Forth are long over, and today its remembered largely in the images of urbex photographers and local historians.
Barnton Quarry Nuclear Bunker
Only a few short decades ago, Edinburgh was a major target for nuclear annihilation. In the strange, paranoid days of the Cold War, the Scottish capital’s proximity to the Rosyth Naval Dockyard made its evisceration by nuclear fire almost inevitable should Soviet Russia choose to hit the red button. In that event, as houses burned, radioactive ash fell to earth, and thousands of lives went up in smoke, the military elite and local politicians had one last, desperate fallback: the Barnton Quarry nuclear bunker.
A vast web of tunnels, command centers and control rooms carved beneath Edinburgh’s suburban landscape, the ROTOR bunker was one of the UK’s Regional Seats of Government (RSG), a collection of 14 such centres designed to keep each region semi-functioning during the Cold War in the event of Westminster being destroyed in a sea of nuclear fire.
Interestingly, fire is exactly what destroyed the abandoned Edinburgh bunker. In 1987, flames swept through its bombproof corridors, utterly devastating the old nuclear facility. Barnton Quarry bunker was for many years a ruin, widely photographed by Edinburgh’s urban exploration community, but no longer. It is now undergoing restoration as a visitor attraction, due to open to the public in 2021. In the meantime, the site site is not accessible to the public and visits are not permitted, with 24-hour-a-day on-site security in place.
Shrubhill Tram Depot
After years of controversy, modern Edinburgh finally got an 8.6 mile tram line linking York Place to the city’s airport. Yet this sleek, 21st century system has nothing on its early 20th century equivalent. Right up until 1956, a vast network of tram lines stretched out to every corner of the city, shuttling thousands of people to-and-fro daily, from the suburbs to the port district via Princes Street and the city centre.
Eventually ditched in favour of buses, the system more-or-less vanished. But a handful of relics still remain, not least the ruined tram depot in Shrubhill, which is arguably one of the most imposing abandoned buildings in Edinburgh. A hulking Victorian structure built in 1898, the depot is an awe-inspiring sight. Grand redbrick walls loom up into the sky, alongside towering chimneys. A network of steel girders crisscross the concrete wasteland where the tram sidings once stood.
As reminders a bygone eras go, the crumbling shell of the abandoned Shrubhill Tram Depot is a powerful one. It’s been reported that the old Shrubhill depot is due for redevelopment as apartments, preserving the listed building’s exterior. It may be that there is life in the old tram shed yet.
Hidden Victorian Railway Tunnel, Leith
If you want to have your sense of urban geography completely knocked for six, you could do worse than walking beneath the Great Junction Street bridge in Leith armed with a sheaf of old photographs. There, where there is now just a low path leading to a desolate earthen bank, there used to be something far more interesting: a Victorian railway tunnel that stretched beneath the nearby hill and houses, only to reemerge and enter the now defunct Leith Citadel station.
If Scotland Street Tunnel is still relatively unknown, then this hidden tunnel must be the subterranean equivalent of an obscure band’s long-forgotten debut EP. In less than 100 years, the tunnel seems to have completely vanished off most people’s radars. Those living above likely have no idea of the lost world beneath their feet, or the empty darkness that exists just below their beds. Although now completely blocked off and inaccessible, the abandoned Edinburgh tunnel’s old route can still be traced on maps, the ruins of one entrance still visible.
Edinburgh’s Abandoned State Cinema
Not far from the hidden Leith railway tunnel (above) sits one of Scotland’s great forgotten cinemas. The State Cinema was an expansive Art Deco complex that opened during one of the area’s periodic boom times. Housing a skittle alley, billiards tables, and a clutch of shops alongside its large auditorium, the State was like a compacted high street, able to provide diversion for almost anyone. For a whole generation of youth, the smells and sounds of the State would’ve been the backdrop to dating, relaxing, and catching up on the cinematic blockbusters of the day.
Like many old Art Deco picture houses, though, the State wouldn’t survive the relentless progress of the 20th century. In 1972, it was closed and converted into a bingo hall. This, too, went the way of the Titanic, and soon the State was a nightclub, before possibly being converted into a gospel church. Whatever the specifics of its long life, it seems empty now. Battered and decayed on the outside, lonely and unloved within, the derelict cinema now mainly exists as a relic of another time, one of the most recognised abandoned buildings in Edinburgh for urbex photographers.
Abbeyhill Railway Station
Looking at the derelict Abbeyhill Railway Station today, you’d be forgiven for thinking this area had always been a wasteland. Little remains now of the abandoned Edinburgh suburban station that once stood here, with only the snaking silver lines of overgrown track attesting to its former existence. Not so long ago, though, Abbeyhill was a bustling place; a focal point on a line that took trains deep into the beating heart of Edinburgh.
Opened in 1859, Abbeyhill long seemed like a permanent feature of the city landscape. Passed from operator to operator over the years, it survived the turn of the 20th century, two World Wars, and nationalization of the rail network. By the time its centenary rolled round, it must’ve felt like it would be there forever.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Only half-a-decade later, in 1964, the Musselburgh branch service was withdrawn, leading to the closure of Abbeyhill and four other stations. The abandoned Edinburgh station has remained closed ever since.
Old Jewish Cemetery
On the edge of Newington, lies a cemetery so small and hidden it seems almost invisible. Of the many abandoned places in Edinburgh, the Old Jewish Cemetery on Sciennes House Place is among the most intriguing. Nestled between traditional Victorian tenement blocks, surrounded by a wall and locked away behind iron railings, the site is exactly the sort of place you could walk past dozens of times a week without ever really noticing it. Yet stop and take a closer look and you’ll be rewarded with an important slice of Edinburgh history: the final resting place of the city’s early-19th century Jewish community.
The tiny burial ground opened in 1816, the final resting place of four generations of Jewish families who settled in Edinburgh from Germany and the Low Countries. Though the cemetery has been closed since 1870, its gravestones, adorned with Hebrew script, still survive in reasonable condition to this very day. Seen now, Edinburgh’s Old Jewish Cemetery has a peaceful atmosphere; a fragment of the past, forever held in stasis even as the world shifts and changes around it.
If your tastes swing more towards the peaceful, you could do worse than dropping by the old Dalry Cemetery. A large, walled-in graveyard, Dalry was a Victorian burial ground that has long since fall into glorious disrepair. Weathered old graves slowly crumble amid an atmosphere of absolute stillness. Ivy and gnarled trees fight for the snatches of sunlight that penetrate Edinburgh’s characteristic cloud cover. It’s a place as haunting as it is picturesque, somewhere to wander and contemplate the transience of all earthly things.
Situated fairly close to the city centre, Dalry Cemetery is smaller than many of the city’s Victorian burial grounds. Yet it never really feels that way. The foliage and emptiness combine to create an atmosphere that’s both peaceful and melancholy; an abandoned Edinburgh graveyard that seems a million miles from the bustle of Scotland’s vibrant capital.
Edinburgh’s Wild West Ghost Town
In a quiet alleyway off Springvalley Gardens, in the heart of Morningside, lies a quirky tourist attraction known as the Wild West of Edinburgh. Built around 1995 as a marketing effort by a company which sold Southwest-style furniture, the offbeat frontier town once housed artists and ceramists. Authentic western facades and signage were reportedly crafted around original garages and out-buildings by a former Euro Disney employee.
But the units have been empty in more recent times, with one local blogger speculating a decade ago that the entire street was poised for redevelopment. At present, however, the Wild West of Edinburgh endures, its faded signage giving it the look of an authentic Old West ghost town. Considering that many locals don’t even know about it, the Wild West is one of the quirkiest abandoned places in Edinburgh. (Find out more here.)
Abandoned Route of the Colinton Tramways Company
Some time around 1909, a small industrial tramway was built between Slateford and Colinton, as a means of transporting construction materials from the existing railway to site of the new Redford Cavalry and Infantry Barracks. Though the short line, which was owned and operated by the Colinton Tramways Company, became disused after the barracks were finished in 1913, evidence of its existence can still be seen today.
An original bridge over the Union Canal survives at the top of Allan Park Road, near Slateford station. From there, the abandoned track-bed forms a footpath connecting to what is now Craiglockhart Road. A proposal to upgrade the short-lived industrial tramway to a passenger line around 1915 never materialised, but the Colinton Tramways Company nevertheless remains an intriguing part of Edinburgh’s railway history, albeit a rather esoteric one.
The original article by Urban Ghosts can be found here: http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com/2016/11/abandoned-places-edinburgh-urbex/
* This article has been amended to reflect the fact that the Barnton Quarry bunker is undergoing restoration as a visitor attraction and is secured against public access. An earlier version said it was abandoned and accessed by urban explorers. We apologise for the error.