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Edinburgh's Hideous Hidden City
Mercat Tours (Edinburgh)
Member Name: sandrabarber
Mercat Tours (Edinburgh)
Date: 06/09/02, updated on 17/02/05 (1112 review reads)
Advantages: Fascinating, Well worth the money
Edinburgh is an amazing city. For my money, it's architecturally the most beautiful in Britain and it has a history that is truly fascinating. I go there every August for the comedy festival and normally see only the shops, the bars and the comedy venues. This year, however, I was determined to get up earlier than usual and give myself time to take some of the tourist trails.
After scouring the net and reading some guide books, my mate and I decided that one thing we must do was take the guided tour of Edinburgh's hidden underground vaults run by Mercat Tours.
Edinburgh's underground vaults have only recently been uncovered after lying abandoned and full of waste for many years. Now open to the public on accompanied viewings only, accessible only via huge locked doors which look like any others in the city's winding old streets, they are a real treat - a wander back into the city's history and a VERY spooky experience.
The underground vaults (which are the arches beneath a long-gone bridge which have now been built over) are basically slum dwellings and workshops which were once inhabited - or I should say vastly OVERinhabited - by the city's poor. Down there in the bowels of the earth people worked, lived and 'played' (I use inverted commas for played for reasons which will become clear later) in appalling conditions.
Cast your imaginations around this scene:
The vaults are permanently dark, and full of damp and mould. The Edinburgh rain seeps through and drips from the ceilings and walls relentlessly. There is no light and no fresh air.
In one small room, which is accessible only via a labyrinth of other similar rooms, a cobbler works without a fire, moulding his leather with the help of horse urine which is steaming fresh from the horse he keeps in the corner.
In the next small room, the poor gather at the oyster bar to eat oysters and fish - not necessarily fres
h - which cook all day long in vast pots.
Next to that is a room the size of an average terraced living room. A three-generational family live there: mother, father, eight children and two sets of grandparents. They carry out their work in that room as well as their lives.
There are no such things as toilets. People do their 'nastiness' (the Edinburgh term of the 18th century) in a bucket in the corner which is emptied ONTO the street above once or maybe twice a day. The rain from the streets above dilutes the nastiness to such a texture that it seeps back down into the walls again on its way to the sewer in the middle valley of the city.
The Edinburgh sewer is also the Edinburgh drinking water. People are riddled with disease in the vaults and infant mortality is about forty per cent. The average lifespan is 32 years.
Later, as sanitation and social awareness increases, people move out of the vaults. They are then taken over for other purposes - illegal stills and drinking dens, for one.
It is thought that the vaults also served as storage for the corpses taken by the bodysnatchers, later to be sold to the university for experimentation.
It is also rumoured that the infamous 'Monday Club', a bunch of decadent aristocratic young men, meet there and practise devil worship and sacrifice.
Homeless people still seek refuge there, until at last one day the vaults are closed off, bolted, and left to rot.
It is hard to believe today that people existed, never mind co-existed, in such conditions. Hard to believe, that is, until you take this tour.
Led around in a party of about 20 people by a guide who really knows her stuff, you can almost smell the smells and hear the voices as you learn of Edinburgh's hidden history.
The vaults are lit by candles and dim electric lights. You walk on floors of volcanic rock and find yourself constantly tripping if you d
on't watch out. You have to follow the guide closely, as even she doesn't know the full layout of the place and follows only the lighted paths.
It's slightly claustrophobic in places, but in others the ceilings have been destroyed and there is plenty of room to breathe. But wherever you are the air is very, very strange. Musty and oxygenless. Your chest gets more and more wheezy as you pass through. You are told not to touch the walls, because of the infamous damp.
Along the way you get to see and touch artifacts that were found when the vaults were cleared out - an enormous kettle that an 8 year old child would have to take to the well and carry back, bits of shoes the cobblers made, oyster shells that are someone's long-discarded dinner.
The tour lasts about 75 minutes, and ends in a little museum room where you see more artifacts and get to read about some of the characters and events of the vaults. You also have time here to chat to the professional and friendly guide and ask questions.
It is a fascinating and unforgettable experience, and while you're down there it's so easy to forget that above you is one of the most vibrant, cosmopolitan and fashionable cities in the UK. Coming back up to it after your tour is over is almost a culture-shock.
The underground vaults tour costs £6 and is worth every penny. Tours run throughout the year, with 2 per day in winter and 6 per day in summer. You do not have to pre-book, just join the tour at the Mercat Tours sign in High Street in the centre of the old town.
For the very brave, the tour can be taken at night, as part of the Ghosts and Ghouls Tour which will also take you around Edinburgh's graveyards and to some of its most haunted places.
I didn't have time for that one this year, but next year it's an absolute must.
Find out more about the underground vaults and other Mercat tours at www.mercattours