Paris is fairly well known for its catacombs, but it is in no way the only metropolis that once featured life underground. Scotland’s pristine Edinburgh once had an unseemly history of residents living under bridges and streets.
Why They Built Underground
The initial cause of Edinburgh’s use of subterranean living can be directly connected to the construction of the Flodden Wall in 1513. This surrounded the city, which meant that new buildings had to be constructed either outside the Wall (which was not safe from attack) or necessitated the conversion of cellars and below-street storage rooms into housing within the actual city.
In the 1700s, Edinburgh began building a series of bridges, and because the bridges served as crossing for roads and hills, and not rivers, there were dry open spaces beneath the bridges which became prime real estate for cheap housing. Entire “cities” formed under bridges in a honeycomb of sealed-off rooms which were not visible from the bridge where the wealthy tended to stroll about.
Originally, the rooms under the bridges were used to hold prisoners and undesirables, but eventually bridges such as the South Bridge were used for tradesmen to use as economical shops, albeit shops with no windows and narrow doors.
Robert Louis Stevenson described the places in his 1878 book Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes: “…under dark arches and down dark stairs and alleys…the way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on either wall. (There are) skulking jail-birds; unkempt, barefoot children; (an) old man, when I saw him last, wore the coat in which he had played the gentleman three years before; and that was just what gave him so preeminent an air of wretchedness.”
During the 19th century, the population in the city swelled with survivors of the Irish famine, who relocated to cities such as Edinburgh and, lacking money, added to the crowds living below the city. A doctor of the time remarked that he found a family of four living in “a vault or cave under a large tenement…(and they sublet) their miserable and dark abodes to as many as can be crammed into them.”
As the 20th century dawned, fire, structural collapses, and housing built outside the Flodden Wall brought an end to the occupation of the labyrinth below Edinburgh. As new buildings and roads were erected, many traces of the subterranean houses were paved over and destroyed, but not forgotten. Tales of the underground city became the stuff of legend, as many people believed that the buried habitations and shops were full of ghosts and ghouls.
Over time, remains of this dark period in Edinburgh’s history would occasionally be discovered. In the 1970s, a substantial find was uncovered when the archaic Marlin’s Wynd, which once held the stalls of fruit and book merchants, was found virtually intact beneath the floors of the Royal Mile’s Tron Kirk.
Mary King’s Close
Additional traces of the former city below the streets have come to light—arguably the most notorious being Mary King’s Close, a “street” buried beneath the City Chambers. Lore of the city states that in the mid-1640s that Close housed plague victims who were sealed up, still alive, in an effort to prevent the spread of the illness.
Several companies in the city host tours (or ghost tours) of the remaining Edinburgh vaults and streets where countless people once lived—and died.
“Life Beneath Edinburgh”, Celtic Heritage, Sept/Oct 2002.
“Edinburgh Vaults”, Historic UK website, pulled 6/14/16.