Blair Street Underground Vaults

Edinburgh Vaults - South Bridge Vaults


Useful Information

Location: Mercat Cross, High Street
(55.949444, -3.187222)
Open: Al year daily 14, 16.
[2020]
Fee: Adults GBP 15, Children (5-15) GBP 10, Student GBP 13, Seniors (60+) GBP 13.
Group GBP 150.
[2020]
Classification: SubterraneaCellar
Light: electric.
Dimension:  
Guided tours: D=75min. Minimum age 5.
Photography:  
Accessibility: no
Bibliography:  
Address: Blair Street Underground Vaults, Mercat Tours, Edinburgh, Scotland, EH1 1RW, Tel: +44-131-225-5445. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1775 construction first proposed.
AUG-1785 work started.
1788 bridge completed.

Description

The Blair Street Underground Vaults are the largest system of underground caverns in Edinburgh. They were built in Georgian times during the expansion of the city and abandoned since the 18th century. The tour starts at Mercat Cross, High Street, and ends at Blair Street, off Hunter's Square.

The vaults were a result of the construction of South Bridge. The growing Edinburgh in the late 18th century needed space, and expansion was only possible on the other side of deep gorges, as the city was built on a lenghty hill. As a result North Bridge and South Bridge, known locally as The Bridges, were built. The South Bridge spans the Cowgate gorge between High Street and the University of Edinburgh on the Southside. Its construction was first proposed in 1775, work began August 1785, and ot was completed in 1788. But the bridge was not only a road, it was a shopping street, and as such it was quite wide. The huge nineteen arches of the bridge were used to house taverns, workshops for cobblers and tradesmen, and as storage space. But the air was damp and of poor quality, and so the businesses left in the 1820s.

Then the space was used by homeless and for criminal activity such as illegal gambling taverns and an illegal whisky distillery. According to legend bodysnatchers stored corpses there overnight. Some even say the serial killers Burke and Hare used the vaults. But around 1860 even they left the vaults and they were abandoned. They were filled with waste and finally sealed.

In the early 1980s they were accidentally rediscovered and an 1985 archaeological excavation the middens of the former inhabitants were found. They contained toys, medicine bottles, plates, and other signs of human habitation. But more interesting is a story about Norrie Rowan. The former Scottish rugby internationalist rediscovered the vaults. In 1989 he used the tunnels to help Romanian rugby player Cristian Raducanu escape the Romanian secret police and seek political asylum. This was weeks before the Romanian Revolution of 1989. In the 1990s he excavated the vaults with his son Norman Rowan. They removed hundreds of tonnes of rubble by hand and discovered several interesting artifacts.