Haunted in Edinburgh: A Story of Humanity in the Medieval City

I’ve heard many sad stories. More than I care to entertain. But this had to be one of the saddest I’ve ever heard. The worst part is it’s true.

On a cool July night in the medieval city of Edinburgh, I happened to be on a haunted tour. For a little while, maybe 30 of us walked around the city with our guide telling stories that were probably scary but not memorably so. That is, until we went underneath the streets into the underground vaults.

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To my recollection, these vaults were built back in medieval times when disease plagued the city. The bodies were put out onto the streets and so the rich people lived up, in apartment buildings, and the poor had to live underneath the city in stone rooms, underneath the streets. These rooms were packed with families and when day turned to night, the rooms became so dark that you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face, or a scary man standing right behind you.

And so there was a fire that rolled through the city. Most of the men ran up from the vaults to the streets to help tame the fire, while the women and children stayed behind. What hadn’t been anticipated was that the stone vaults would essentially become ovens as the fire rolled across the streets above. So it was that the elderly began to die first from the heat. It is said that, since it was so dark in these rooms, that some of the adults would come up behind the children and slit their throats thinking it was a faster and less painful death than basically being baked alive.

Our guide told us before heading into the vaults that what truly made them unsettling was how it was haunted by human interest, not necessarily ghosts themselves. But there was one spirit whose story kept me up at night long after returning to the States.

It was that of a girl. A younger girl, who died in her early teens, if memory serves. She died in the vaults, assumedly by having her throat slit. While she now haunts a room in the vault, she was originally spotted by a man on the street. The girl had dark hair and a green plaid skirt. She appeared to be young and also crying. He asked her if she was alright, and she screamed a high-pitched wail. Understandably, the man was freaked out. But when he looked back she was gone. In Gaelic lore, she is a specific type of ghost known as a banshee. A banshee is a female ghost whose wail indicates death, either to the person who beholds her or to one of their loved ones. The man’s mother died unexpectedly the next day.

Typically, banshees aren’t violent ghosts, just foreboding ones. But still the thought of this little girl screaming kept me up for weeks to come after this tour.above-an-edinburgh-street

The tour guide was right, though. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts or not. But I do believe in being haunted. Haunted by the past, haunted by ideas, haunted by reality. Despite the ghosts and folklore, the scariest part about those vaults, and actually Scotland as a whole, is that it is a place that reminds you that humanity is truly the most sinister monster of them all.