Murky History Beneath Edinburgh

On the rare occasions I get invited into a radio studio to do an interview, I’m never at my most comfortable.

For a start, I’m not very good talking about myself and I’m so wholly focused on not making a mistake that I inevitably make a mistake.

This week, to mark the launch of my Days Out Underground book, I’ve been on BBC Radio Newcastle and BBC Radio Scotland to talk about subterranean attractions the listeners could go to.

The interview for Scotland was very 21st Century – the producer was in Edinburgh, the sound engineer in Aberdeen, the interviewer in Dundee and I was in Sheffield.

It all came together well, but there’s something quite odd about sitting alone in a small room carrying out an interview with somebody you’ve never met. You expect there to be a bit of a warm up and a countdown to the interview starting, but you’re slotted in at the allocated time and are one of many people making up the day’s programme.

If the listeners took one thing away from the interview, though, it’s that there are some surprisingly cool things to do beneath the surface of the Earth in Scotland.

One of the coolest is a visit to the Blair Street Vaults below the city of Edinburgh.

This needs booking in advance through Mercat Tours and after meeting on the Royal Mile the guide – dressed in period costume – will take you to the mysterious spaces that were found within one of the city’s bridges relatively recently.

When Edinburgh’s South Bridge was built in 1788, it was designed to take the unpleasantness of Cowgate out of the equation for the posher folk heading out of the town towards the university area.

This impressive 19 arch structure was originally home to dozens of traders selling their wares to the well-to-do passers-by. The high quality of the footfall meant these retail spaces were amongst the most costly in Europe, but all did not remain well.

Sadly, the designers forgot to include waterproofing in the design – a bit of an oversight when you consider the city’s weather.

The arches and the spaces below them soon started to become damp and even fill with flood water, meaning many businesses had no choice but to move out.

With the dark, damp places empty, they took on an altogether seedier nature in the 19th Century.

Some of the spaces beneath the city were used as illegal whisky distilleries, while the famous ‘bodysnatchers’ dug bodies and transported them through these secret passages on the way to the research labs at the university.

It may be that some of the places on your tour housed dead bodies that were stored there are sunrise and kept hidden until nightfall meant they could be on the move once more.

Head out on the tour to discover an underground world beneath Scotland’s capital city that was hidden for decades and provides a window on the past.

Signed copies of my coverDays Out Underground book are available from my website

Published by peternaldrett

I'm a writer who contributes to newspapers and magazines on a regular basis and has also published several outdoor guides to the Peaks, Lakes and Yorkshire Dales. I write educational material for multiple publishers and have just finished writing my first book for Bloomsbury - out in 2019. My new Peak District Year Round Walks is out now.

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