Ew, what a smell! That’s what folks said in the 1700s about Edinburgh… and the nickname Auld Reekie was born! The smells are long gone from this lovely city, but the name stuck around – just like the ghosts said to haunt Auld Reekie to this day!
BOO-ting up the laptop for Hallowe’en
Today is Hallowe’en, the perfect moment to tell ye about ways to experience that long-gone past: the ghosts that is, not the smelly bit! Just before Hallowe’en, I had great fun joining the Ghostly Underground Walking Tour by Mercat Tours, warmly recommended to young and old: spooky scary!
Guides and ghosts
The Walk starts at the Mercat Cross down on the Royal Mile. The Cross is just a few minutes walking down from my preferred lodging area of Old Town, and a short but steep stroll up from New Town. It’s a fun and active area: there was a kilted band playing, rocking the violin and guitar, a funky and artful Celtic-modern mix.
Looking for our unknown guide, we spotted a somewhat scary looking young woman swirling around the Cross in a black outfit. OMG: is that blood spatter on her cape?? We approached her with some trepidation, and sure enough, it was our guide Jenny.
A Close call
Jenny takes our info and leads the small group of maybe 15 participants off. Our first stop is in Stevenlaw’s Close, a dark and even narrower than normal Close, the Scots word for an alley. Jenny starts her yarn, then halts and says the story works better with audience participation. Any volunteers?
Now, kids, here’s a lesson from Dad’s old Army days: when they’re asking for volunteers, make sure you take a step back. The ones unaware of that trick don’t step back, and so, presto, they’re the volunteers! Alas, I guess I wasn’t paying attention or – well, I’m not saying that my wife pushed me, and made me flail an arm up, becoming a volunteer, but: hmm, I could swear an evil grin quickly washed over then vanished from her face…
My role was to play some convict – maybe my name “Con” made that unavoidable – who allegedly became a ghost. Jenny made me lean against the stone wall where we had gathered and had me stick my hands out, handcuff-style.
My “Big Stage Moment” came when I had to perform a blood-curling scream – which went extremely well: even Guide Jenny jumped! I guess we all have acting capabilities buried somewhere deep inside, and we just need to think of the right thing to call it up. No I’m not going to tell you what my thing was. Although: did I mention I got volunteered by, ahem, someone?
Digging digging deep down underground
The Walk then goes underground under South Bridge where it crosses Cowgate, built in the late 1700s. Tons of history here. The Bridge was constructed by building over 100 arched chambers, vaults, stacked up to 4 levels high. Tradesmen and pubs moved in, and questionable characters used the vaults for storage of illicit items.
However, the construction was so poorly done that rainwater started coming in, as did blood from butcheries, waste and other disease-causing detritus from above. The air and conditions quickly became intolerable. The paying occupants moved out, and the poor and destitute moved in, scoring free living space – but even they left again soon, it was that bad! Leaving it to the ghosts….
Fun fact: the vaults on the South side of Cowgate are used during Auld Reekie’s summer’s Fringe Festival for shows and performances! I guess the ghosts stick to the North side or, they just don’t get noticed among the wild Festival crowds…
Another fun fact: the Travel Channel did a cool show on Edinburgh’s vaults and ghosts in 2008.
Skeletons in the closet
Following Jenny, we descended lots of narrow and dark stairs to enter into the Blair Street Vaults, cavernous rooms deep below. Jenny tells us stories of what happened here, who lived, who died – but why are the lights flickering every time she mentions a certain name? And where’s that sudden draft coming from? There are no windows, no access to the outside – and what kind of draft affects even electric candles? Are ghosts real after all? I’m a down-to-earth skeptic Northerner but I felt, dunno, ill at ease here!
After circuiting the dark dungeons we resurface, enlightened and exhilarated: who knows what exactly happened down there, all those centuries ago! By the way, I’m sorry if you were hoping for the stories here. My blog is not the place for spoilers; I encourage you to do the tour yourselves: we can prebook ye! Oh, and please, don’t toddle off for pictures, leaving your group. It’s dark and eerie, and the Guide doesn’t seem too worried about leaving someone behind: I guess they have no fear of a bad online review, as there is no Internet down there. You’d be on your own – with the ghosts!
Auld Reekie and company
Fun fact: want some more Edinburgh nicknames? The famous poet Robert “Rabbie” Burns refers to “Edina”, the Roman name. Sir Walter Scott, him of ‘Waverley’ fame, calls it “Yon Empress of the North”. But the locals simply say “Embra”, with an “m” sound.
News you can use
Couple of practical points. The Ghost tour goes at 3pm and 5pm, small groups, and takes about an hour 15. It runs year-round except major holidays like on and around Christmas. Tours on “ghostly” dates like Hallowe’en book out far in advance. Always wise to book early! Can lil’ Johnny or Mary come? If they’re over 5 years old, yes, but you’ll need to judge if they’re ready for this: the other participants will thank you for bringing only a well-behaved child!
Man of the world
Back in the daylight we thanked Jenny and went on our merry way: to the nearest pub, for a relaxing drink, to steady the nerves! We walked in, ordered at the bar, and sat down, looking at each other. With a smirk, I said to my wife: “That was great fun, but crikey, who even believes in ghosts!” Such a man of the world – or so I thought…
A paler shade of ale
Smugly, I leaned back in my chair, nursing my cold draft pint – only to suddenly feel a cold draft breeze around my neck! I turned around, but the pub door was closed, no windows open either… and why were the other drinkers looking at me funny, going a bit pale, taking a step back? Did I pick the wrong Pale Ale?? I’ll never know but, I downed this one in a hurry and never mind a second: that’s the time I used to get outta there!
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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