The Edinburgh Vaults (South Bridge Vaults) are enclosed spaces formed by stone arches of the South Bridge in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The bridge, completed in 1788 under the 1785 South Bridge Act, has been used for various purposes since 1788, including housing small businesses and shops, storage facilities, and a haven for homeless people.
Legend also says that criminals used the Vaults for various illegal activities in the past.
Folklore claims that the ghosts of people who died in the Vaults during the late 18th and 19th centuries haunt it.
19 South Bridge arches from the Edinburgh Vaults
The South Bridge was one of two bridges constructed in Edinburgh in the 18th century. The other was the North Bridge.
The South Bridge is a road bridge or viaduct that extends from the North Bridge (at the junction of High Street) across the Cowgate, past Chambers/Infirmary Streets to Nicolson Street and the University of Edinburgh on the Southside (Random Scott History: Chapter 31 – The Cowgate., pp.238-249).
The South Bridge has 19 arches that form the Edinburgh Vaults beneath the bridge.
The Edinburgh Vaults housed small businesses and shops
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Edinburgh Vaults housed small businesses, merchant shops, and tradesmen workshops. Merchants used the Edinburgh Vaults for storing merchandise. But they could only keep products there briefly because of the high humidity and flooding. The damp conditions were due to poor waterproofing construction of the bridge.
Businesses began abandoning the Vaults when the humidity and flooding issues became unmanageable. Most had moved out by the 1820s.
The Cowgate and the Edinburgh Vaults became a slum
Businesses exiting the Edinburgh Vaults created space for the influx of poor, homeless, and destitute folk. The influx was associated with the deterioration of the entire Cowgate area and the emergence of a slum.
The living conditions of the people in the Vaults and the Cowgate area were poor even by 19th-century standards. The Vaults were dark, damp, crowded, and filled with garbage and filth. Open sewages made the environment grossly malodorous and unsanitary.
Criminals also moved into the Edinburgh Vaults
The area also became notorious for all forms of vice and crime. Criminals took advantage of the discrete spaces in the Vaults to engage in various illegal activities, including gambling, moonshining, violent crime, and murder.
It also had a red-light district with seedy brothels and pubs.
In the 1800s, before the Anatomy Act of 1832, body-snatching was a thriving underworld business in Edinburgh. According to folklore, bodysnatchers operated in the Vaults and the Cowgate area. They used the hidden spaces to conceal corpses before delivery to cadaver buyers.
Legend claims that the notorious serial killers and bodysnatchers Burke & Hare hunted for victims in the Vaults.
The authorities eventually closed down the Vaults sometime in the mid-1800s. They remained inaccessible for a century until the 1980s.
Burke and Hare hunted victim in the Vaults
Folklore alleges that the serial killers and bodysnatchers William Burke and William Hare hunted for victims in the Vaults. They allegedly picked up many victims there.
Some say bodysnatchers kept bodies in the Vaults before delivering them to buyers. Although historians say there is no evidence to back that claim, some paranormal investigators believe the spirits of the victims of bodysnatchers haunt the Vaults.
Who were Burke and Hare?
Burke and Hare were two notorious 19th-century serial killers accused of murdering about 16 people in Edinburgh in 1828. They murdered people and sold their corpses to the Scottish anatomist Robert Knox.
Knox, a native of Edinburgh and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh (1814), was an expert in human anatomy. He conducted public and private lectures during the 1820s. He worked with his former professor John Barclay (1758-1826), who ran a private anatomy school at Surgeons’ Square.
Knox took over the private school after Barclay died in 1826. It was a period of increasing demand for private tuition, and Knox became a popular figure among anatomy students due to his teaching style. He quickly acquired a large following. It meant he needed a reliable source of cadavers for his lectures and practical demonstrations.
Body snatching in the 1800s
In the era before the Anatomy Act of 1832, cadavers for anatomy class dissections were in short supply because the laws restricted the legal sourcing of fresh corpses. The shortage led to the emergence of an underworld trade in cadavers.
Body-snatching involved stealing fresh corpses from morgues or digging them up after burying Bodysnatchers (also known as resurrection men) forced people whose relatives just died to be vigilant because the corpses could be stolen and sold without their knowledge and used in anatomy class dissections.
The Anatomy Act of 1832
Scottish law before the Anatomy Act of 1832 did not prohibit stealing corpses but forbade disturbing graves, grave robbery (taking the valuable possessions of the dead), and dissecting bodies obtained from sources not approved by the law.
The law severely restricted the availability of bodies for anatomy demonstrations by limiting dissections to the bodies of executed murderers. Thus, the issue of body-snatching was a legal gray area but universally held to be a morally reprehensible act.
The Anatomy Act of 1832 expanded access to bodies for dissection by allowing licensed professionals access to unclaimed bodies of people who died in hospitals, prisons, and workhouses. It also allowed people to donate bodies.
However, Burke and Hare obtained bodies by murdering people.
The West Point murders
William Hare managed a lodging house on Tanner’s Close, Edinburgh. In November 1827, a lodger who owed Hare a sum died. He consulted with his old friend Burke who suggested he could recover the debt by selling the body to an anatomy teacher who happened to be Knox.
After arranging a burial using a filled coffin, Hare delivered the body to Knox and received seven pounds & ten shillings in payment. Knox did not ask questions. Instead, he hinted that he was open to future transactions with them.
Seven pounds & ten shillings was a substantial sum in those days. The temptation was more than the men could resist. Weeks later, they conspired to murder a lodger who was sick with a fever by smothering him with a pillow. They delivered the body to Knox for £10.
There followed a series of cold-blooded murders involving other lodgers and random people (usually women) they picked on the streets. The victims included poor folk such as Abigail Simpson, Mary Paterson, and Janet Brown.
They murdered the stouter victims by plying them with alcohol until they fell into a drunken sleep. Hare would then smother the victim with a pillow while Burke placed his weight on the torso to pin them down.
They murdered the weaker ones with a hand pressed over their nose and mouth. A mentally disabled young man, Daft Jamie, put up a fight, but they managed to overpower and murder the 18-year-old.
Knox paid them £8 to £10 per body without asking questions. He expressed delight over the bodies they supplied warm.
The trial and execution
The law eventually caught up with them after lodgers who became suspicious found the corpse of their last victim, Margaret Docherty (also known as Margery or Marjorie Campbell), and reported it to the police.
A court found Burke guilty of murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. Hare escaped the hangman by accepting an offer of immunity from prosecution if he would flip on his accomplice.
Knox escaped prosecution, but the disclosures ended his career.
The section of the Edinburgh Vaults on the north side of Cowgate Street is now open to paranormal tours, while those on the south, including The Caves and The Rowantree (formerly Lucky Middlesmass’s Tavern), are used as event venues.
Many operators offer guided tours of the Vaults.
Local legends claim that the ghosts of people who lived and died in the Vaults in the 1800s, including those of Burke and Hare and their victims, haunt the place.
Investigators for TV paranormal shows, including Ghost Adventures, reported strange noises and occurrences in the Vaults. They attributed the phenomena to the spirits of people who died there.
Some investigators recorded phantom voices. Paranormal investigator Joe Swash recorded strange voices for a BBC production in 2009. The recordings sounded like people, including young children, yelling at the top of their voices.
Skeptics suggested that the microphones might have picked up the sound of people partying in nightclubs.
According to legend, a ghost nicknamed Mr. Boots haunts the Edinburgh Vaults. He manifests as a tall gentleman in a coat and big leather boots. He is hostile to visitors and orders them to leave his space.
Burke and Hare’s ghosts
Some claim that the ghosts of Burke and Hare still roam the Vaults looking for victims to murder and sell to Robert Knox for dissection.
A ghost named Jack
Visitors say the spirit of a boy named Jack sometimes accosted visitors.
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Top image courtesy of Kjetil Bjørnsrud is used under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.5.
|South Bridge Vaults
|30 South Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1LL, United Kingdom (Near Royal Mile)
|Evil Spirits, Haunting, Shadow Figures
Where to find
In the media
https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Edinburgh-Vaults/, “Historic U.K.: Edinburgh Vaults,” accessed on April 30, 2023.
https://ghostmag.com/edinburgh-vaults/, “Ghosts of Edinburgh Vaults,” accessed on April 30, 2023.
https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/Burke-Hare-infamous-murderers-graverobbers/, “The Story of Burke and Hare,” accessed on April 30, 2023.
https://randomscottishhistory.com/2021/06/22/chapter-31-the-cowgate-pp-238-249/, “Random Scottish History: Chapter 31 – The Cowgate., pp.238-249.,” accessed on April 30, 2023.
https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/2940#:~:text=Knox%20was%20the%20leading%20teacher,victims%20to%20Knox%20for%20dissection., “Dr. Robert Knox, 1791 – 1862. Anatomist,” accessed on April 30, 2023.
https://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst19419.html#:~:text=An%20almost%20forgotten%20square%20now,Surgeons’%20Hall%20here%20in%201697., “Surgeons’ Square,” accessed on April 30, 2023.
Last modified on July 10th, 2023 at 2:24 pm