One of the most common enquiries I get from visitors planning a trip to Edinburgh relates to the Old Town's reputation for having an underground or hidden city beneath the surface of the streets.
There is a degree of truth to this, although it's worth noting that, in the spirit of attracting tourists, the 'underground' features of Edinburgh are not always quite what they might seem.
Built on a dense rib of volcanic rock, the practicalities of digging deep into the landscape was a problem for even very early settlers - Edinburgh Castle's great weakness was its lack of water supply, with only a relatively shallow well dug into its rock to hold rainwater. So the imagery of an underground city dug into the rock beneath the streets is somewhat inaccurate - as are the descriptions of catacombs or tunnels beneath the Royal Mile.
But here are three 'underground' features in the city that you may find worth exploring.
MARY KING'S CLOSE
Streaming off the Royal Mile down the steep landscape on either side are a series of narrow lanes, the 'closes' or 'wynds' of the medieval city. Mary King's Close was one such lane, that was originally open to the sky with towering blocks of tenement housing rising up on either side of the street. Edinburgh was a vertical city rather than a horizontal one for much of its history, resulting in densely packed structures reaching up to 12 storeys high in places.
During the eighteenth century, plans were drawn up for a Royal Exchange, an area of trade offices and business premises in the heart of the Old Town. Unfortunately, as throughout its history, there was little open land available for development, and so the decision was made to partially demolish the buildings along the line of Mary King's Close, to reduce the structures to the level of the Royal Mile. Having taken the tops off the houses, the Royal Exchange building (today the City Chambers) was built over the structures that survived on the hillside below the level of the High Street.
Mary King's Close thus became 'underground', concealed beneath the newer building, and the street remains there today, cobbled and running down between two lines of structures, where costumed guides will lead you through the buildings to give you an atmospheric sense of Edinburgh's past.
The only genuinely 'underground' attraction in the city is located a little further from the city centre. Beneath the major junction of Gilmerton crossroads is a network of tunnels carved out of the sandstone of the area, and they remain one of the city's genuine mysteries - local historians can't agree on when the tunnels were created, by whom, for what purpose, or even how extensive they are.
Some people suggest they date back to Roman or even pre-historic times, while others suggest they were created much more recently, in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. The scale of the network makes it unlikely one single person was responsible for them, but there's no record or evidence of an organised period of construction and development.
Chambers with what seem to be seating or tables surfaces have been carved from the stone, and narrow tunnels connects them together, accessible only through a small flight of stairs taking you beneath the modern building visible at street level.
Gilmerton Cove is my most highly recommended 'hidden gem' of Edinburgh - take a brief tour with one of the local historians to find out some of the theories and ideas about the tunnels, and then take a torch and a hard hat to explore them further on your own, at your leisure... if you dare!
SOUTH BRIDGE VAULTS
Running over the glacial valley to the south of Royal Mile are two elevated roadways, South Bridge and George IV Bridge, built to improve access into the city in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both bridges run on a series of arches over the landscape, concealed by the buildings constructed alongside each of them, and these vaulted spaces beneath the roadways are still there, and many remain accessible.
George IV Bridge hosts a major festival venue called Underbelly during the summer, with performance spaces in the old arches of the bridge itself. But it is South Bridge, the older of the two developments, which is accessible year-round by visitors on ghost tours.
The bridge was built to cross the Cowgate valley in the 1780s, and following the increase in population in the city at that time, many poorer families moved into the enclosed, subterranean arches to make their homes in these dank, dark spaces. The vaults were forgotten about following efforts in the nineteenth century to move people into better quality housing, when the spaces were closed off to prevent people moving back into them. They were only rediscovered by accident in the 1980s, and have since become popular spaces for ghost tours, nurturing a reputation for being prodigiously haunted...
Explore more of Edinburgh's above-ground history and features with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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