Underground tunnels, ghosts and creepy tales: Halloween in Edinburgh

by Jaclyn Nelson

Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by the paranormal, there is just something thrilling about being scared.  As a child, I would read countless stories about ghosts which would scare me so badly that I’d be unable to sleep, but I loved it nonetheless.  It’s only natural that my favourite holiday is Halloween.  When I realized I’d be spending this Halloween in Scotland, home to some famous hauntings, I was absolutely thrilled. But the question was, how would I spend my first Halloween in Scotland? I’m sad to admit it, but I think I’ve aged out of trick or treating and apparently, kids here not only have to dress up but also tell a decent joke to earn their treats… Too much effort. I did buy a pumpkin with the intent of carving it, but life (assignment, group projects etc.) got in the way, so it sat by my front door untouched. It’s there now, in fact. Thankfully though, I had other options for celebrating Halloween in Scotland. 

Mercat Cross, Edinburgh
Mercat Cross, Edinburgh

As a former history student, I love visiting old buildings, but while it’s great to learn about their stories and their former occupants, the one question I’m usually dying to ask is, “So… is this place haunted?” As a result, ghost walks are usually a surefire hit with me and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend Halloween. So, I did my research and found one in Edinburgh called the “Ghostly Underground” by Mercat tours which take visitors on a tour of part of the city’s network of underground vaults. 

We met with the tour guide at the Mercat Cross which marks the site of the old market square on the Royal Mile. Our tour guide, Daniel, filled us in on the story behind the market and shared a few of the grizzlier stories surrounding the area. The cross was a popular spot for public punishments, with huge crowds gathering to see criminals publically flogged, maimed and much, much worse.  Our guide shared a gruesome story of two men who fell foul of the law during the time of Oliver Cromwell and without giving away any spoilers, I couldn’t help but feel a little freaked out to be standing where it all took place.  

Underground with Daniel

The tour continued down the cobblestone streets where we learned more about 17th century Edinburgh, including its ongoing problems with raw sewage pouring through back alleys as the city grew in size. The conditions made for the perfect breeding ground for diseases such as typhoid and cholera which were rampant throughout the city, killing many. Nevertheless, as the population increased rapidly and the streets became overcrowded, Edinburgh grew upwards with towering rickety buildings, but also downwards into the “Vaults” underneath the streets which housed a network of stores and craftspeople. With many hidden archways under the streets, it seemed like the ideal spot to build. For a while anyway. 

We soon began our descent into the underground and even I, a seasoned ghost walk-lover, started to feel uneasy.  The underground was a series of small connected rooms, each with an eerie feel.  As we were guided through the underground, we learned more about its history.  Merchants rented out spots in the vaults which were soon filled with a number of shops. However, the vaults were rife with issues, cheap construction meant that water leaked in whenever it rained,  and since there was no natural light, workers had to rely on fish oil candles, which weren’t easy on the nose in a confined space. Because of its seclusion, the underground became the ideal place to commit crimes and as such, became a hotbed for illegal activity. 

Underground Chambers

Eventually, these negative aspects would force many of the shops to close so the underground was abandoned and was only rediscovered in the 1980s. Our guide told us of numerous ghosts that have been reported to haunt the vaults, from the prowling “Watcher” to the smartly dressed “Aristocrat”, to the kindly “Shoemaker” who admires the footwear of the visitors that pass through. There were even reports of an unnamed little boy who has been reported to hold the hands of those who pass by. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any experiences with these ghosts myself but I still enjoyed hearing their tales.  

Edinburgh at night
Edinburgh at night

If this post piqued your interest in attending a ghost walk next Halloween while studying in Scotland, please get in touch with an advisor from Across the Pond for details on how to make this happen.