Edinburgh from below

Wednesday, 17 August, 2011

Atmospheric underground tour

Meeting outside the imposing Tron Kirk on Edinburgh’s busy High Street, the anticipation is palpable.  A small, intimate tour group is about to leave the rare rays of Scottish sunshine behind to descend into a work of dark, damp history, in what is billed as one of the most haunted places in the world.

Our guide, a petite, articulate English woman, dressed in dark period costume (and, most appropriately, wellington boots – this is a Scottish summer, after all) makes jokes with those about to embark, putting them at their ease.  A quick check in slightly spoils the ambiance created at the Kirk, but there’s little time to reflect on that as we enter the vaults of Edinburgh’s South Bridge, and are plunged into the dank, dreary underworld that is underground Edinburgh.

The vaults themselves – originally built for storage in the mid 1700’s – are extremely atmospheric.  Lit only by our guide’s torch, candle light and the occasional emergency exit sign (health and safety people), we squelch through the puddles and try not to stumble on the uneven floors, afraid to touch the dripping walls or peer too closely into the pitch black corners.  Our guide is eloquent and extremely knowledgeable about Edinburgh’s history, sharing her personal experiences of the vaults and answering any questions the inquisitive group may have.  The tour is very intimate, and our guide draws us in, speaking perhaps a tad too softly for the echo-prone space, but then one doesn’t exactly feel like it’s acceptable to shout down there.  We don’t know who we might disturb.

We are presented with a cross-section of who might have lived in these horrible conditions, and what might have gone on down there.  The dregs of society: the beggars, thieves, streetwalkers, ladies of the night, murderers and worse.  The vaults were a hotbed of criminal activity, and our guide is keen to stress that here you had the most vulnerable people holed up in close proximity with the most ruthless.  Stories of fires, murders, body snatching (Edinburgh’s infamous pair, Burke and Hare probably spent time in those very vaults) are muttered in muted tones, as we strain to hear in the dark, and soak up the unnerving atmosphere.  We also see a working Wiccan temple, and are invited to test our mettle by stepping into a stone circle build to harness the negative presence the Wiccans discovered in that particular cave.  Our guide has interesting insight into the Wiccan philosophy, explaining it as a religion rather than simply hocus pocus.

All in all, it was an interesting if uneventful experience.  A lot of focus is given to suggesting what you MAY be feeling (for example ‘a lot of people find this room hot and hard to breathe in, even though it’s the coldest cave with the best ventilation’), so the sceptics amongst you probably won’t be convinced.  The tour does end rather abruptly – albeit with a wee dram of whiskey and a piece of shortbread to sweeten the deal – so that does taint the experience slightly, making it feel a bit more manufactured.  Auld Reekie Tours clearly know their stuff in terms of history, and the city of Edinburgh itself has done the rest, providing the ambience and tales that the tour is based on.

Tour Provider – Auld Reekie Tours http://www.auldreekietours.com

(c) Emma MacLennan 2011

Reviewed Saturday 13th August 2011 / Auld Reekie Tours, Edinburgh



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