A cryptical maze: The Edinburgh Vaults


When South Bridge was built around the end of the 18th century, it was not solely constructed in order to connect the Old Town of an expanding community with its Southside, but designated to become the city’s very first purpose-built shopping street. Underneath, embedded in the viaduct’s 19 arches, lie a series of chambers known as The Edinburgh Vaults. Back then, they mainly served as a practical storage area for the shops above.

Business slackened over time, the vaults were gradually abandoned by their former users and the caves developed into an illustrious microcosm of their own right. Within these catacombs, the city’s most destitute sought shelter to lead a pitiful life in appalling conditions, crowded within cold and clammy walls, deprived of sunshine, potable water or basic sanitation. Brothels sprouted, dubious pubs flourished, whisky was distilled, contraband and other thoroughly illicit objects sold or hidden in the gloomiest corners of this grim underground maze. Such as a frequently replenished supply of corpses.

It is said to have been here, where serial killers Burke and Hare committed atrocious crimes, where they stalked and brutally finished their unfortunate victims off. Before lucratively selling them to a certain Dr. Robert Knox, they secretly stashed the bodies of the slain away in some of the pitch-dark arches. Dr. Knox gladly employed the human remains for his medical experiments and to effectively vivify his popular anatomy lectures at the nearby university.

Edinburgh’s underground venues: Caves for functions

Eventually, it was these latest inhabitants’ garbage that rendered evidence of their existence, when middens – dumps for domestic waste – were unearthed during excavations in the 1980s. Surprisingly, these excavations were instigated and pulled through by an entirely private initiative, part of which were the siblings Lisa Rowan-Harney and Norman Rowan, who today own and run Edinburgh’s most unusual venues:

A dinner setting at The Caves in Edinburgh.

Everything but ghastly: A dinner setting at The Caves.

A family-run business receiving accolades galore: The Caves, The Rowantree and Marlin’s Wynd located in the vaults on the South side of the Cowgate arch host private and corporate events, live music sessions and club nights. South Bridge is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Live music sessions become even more special in dimly lit catacombs.

Live music sessions become so much more exciting in the dimly lit environs of catacombs shrouded in history – and mystery.

Boooooh! Hair-raising paranormal activities and ghost sightings

Bearing in mind their mysterious and sinister past, it is not surprising that in these caves paranormal activities and ghost sightings have been experienced by particularly susceptible visitors: Inexplicable occurences like a chilly breath touching their skin or ghastly wailing, groaning and snickering sounds emitting from seemingly lifeless walls scared them stiff. More likely, these voices emanated from the woman cowering in a corner who may have died during childbirth. Or from the treacherous innkeeper who succumbed to his own toxic booze; from the little girl starved to death in gruesome underground circumstances; or even from victims brutally eliminated by serial killers Burke and Hare, who had committed 16 murders in total in a record ten months’ time during 1828!

Find out for yourselves if these caves are haunted! If you have not had the creeps for too long and are looking for some guidance channelling the bitter-sweet thrill: there are expert ghost tours lead by actors talented in making your blood curdle and your heart stop – temporarily.

The recent history of The Caves as described by the owners:„They lay hidden for around 100 years. Until we rediscovered them that is. Our unusual story begins in the 1980s with the discovery of a tunnel leading to the original vaults. This tunnel now has its own place in history as it was the legendary escape route for rugby player Christian Raducanu from the Romanian secret police, allowing him to seek political asylum weeks before the Romanian uprising in 1989!…We spent a huge amount of time excavating the vaults, carefully restoring and preserving their authenticity, with our own fair hands, to retain the original features. The results are pretty special and, in 2002 we opened The Caves … And, in 2006, we (brother and sister team Norman and Lisa) officially took over the business with a clear aim – to create the most unusual and exciting, multi-purpose entertainment venues you will find anywhere in the UK.In 2007, we unlocked more of our vaults with the opening of the Rowantree to compliment The Caves (it’s essentially a mini version) – the ideal space for more intimate weddings and events. Steeped in history, this venue was originally called Lucky Middlesmass’s Tavern, a watering hole frequented by all the figures in the Scottish Enlightenment: Rabbie Burns, David Hume, Adam Smith and Deacon Brodie. James Watt and Benjamin Franklin also stopped by.More recently, we acquired Marlins Wind in 2013 – giving us our current trio of Unusual Venues. Its history ranges from being a bolt-hole for the various occupants of both noble establishments in the 16 th century, to an interrogation centre for Edinburgh’s legendary witch-hunts, and even a (bloody) surgeons operating theatre!“

How to get there:
The venue is „a short walk from Waverley Station, a stone’s throw from The Royal Mile, and a hop, skip and a jump from the Grassmarket.“
The Caves, 8-12 Niddry Street South
The Rowantree, 253-255 The Cowgate
Marlin’s Wynd , 34A Blair Street


All images are courtesy of ©The Caves