To the unsuspecting eye, Edinburgh is a cultural and diverse city on the surface, but dig a little deeper (literally) and you will notice the Georgian New Town and the medieval Old Town with neoclassical buildings and a sinister past. Much like the Paris catacombs, there too is history hidden right beneath Edinburgh’s streets waiting for you to discover.
Mercat Tours is a company which runs historic tours around the centre of Edinburgh. The company was first started by four history teachers back in 1985 after realising the gap for regular guided walking tours around a city packed full of history. The four of them began researching and created four initial tours – two of which still run today! Over time, one of the teachers became the sole director and left teaching to entirely commit to Mercat Tours.
A Mercat Cross is the Scot’s name for a market cross, a place to trade and seek information, found throughout Scotland’s cities with a royal unicorn or lion statue, symbols of the Scottish monarchy and prosperity, atop a shaft. Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross, found at the heart of the city, is the meeting point of all tours and is how the company name was incepted.
With 14 different tours to choose from, there will definitely be something that will grab your attention, with an interesting selection related to Edinburgh’s history and some ghostly tours.
Labelled as ‘the perfect introduction to Scotland’s capital’, one of the most popular and longest-running tours is the Secrets of the Royal Mile. For all those completely new to the city, you will find yourself exploring the wynds, closes and points of history that some of Edinburgh’s infamous characters were associated with. Not only will you hear the gripping stories of crime and everyday life of town dwellers back then, you’ll also be provided with the chance to tour Edinburgh Castle. It’s easy to see how this is their most popular tour!
Busiest times of year
The Edinburgh Fringe helps keep Mercat Tours busy during July and August, however, oddly enough, the Ghost Tours are incredibly popular around Halloween each year, drawing people in to hear of the paranormal happenings with some trying to catch a glimpse of something unexplainable.
Mercat frequently sees many walk-ins off the street asking which tour is recommended while their team are brilliant at making sure you book onto a tour that would align with your interests. For both a tourist visiting the city for the first time and to a local who has lived in Edinburgh for most of their life, a few recommendations are:
Historic Underground – surrender your sight and venture down into the dark and damp Blair Street Underground Vaults, discovering the astounding feats of engineering that helped accommodate Edinburgh’s businesses and rapidly growing population.
Treasure of the Old Town – this tour explores the lower half of the Royal Mile, leading you down the cobbles, hearing about the architecture, literature, crime and politics before finding yourself at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Tour & Whisky Tasting – because what else says ‘welcome to Edinburgh’ besides a wee dram. One of their newest tours you will learn how the 19th century paved the way for Scotland’s whisky production and those that created their own whiskies to export globally. Finish up with a whisky tasting in Megget’s candlelit cellar with a specialist.
Assisting in recommendations, their team will consider the fluency of English of a tourist, also offering select German and French alternative tours, and whether they would prefer a history walk or a ghost tour.
Blair Street Underground Vaults
Mercat Tours have exclusive access to the Blair Street Underground Vaults, accidentally discovered in the 1980s when former Scottish rugby player, Norrie Rowan, was renovating his property on Blair Street and swung an axe through a wall only to discover the Vaults. Back then the laws essentially were ‘finder’s keepers’ – after some research on the vaults on Blair Street, it led to Mercat Tours expanding their selection of tours.
History of the Old Town & the Vaults
In the 18th century the Old Town had a population of 80,000 – to put that in perspective there are approximately 20,000 residents currently. Back then, everyone was reluctant to build outside the city walls out of fear of attacks.
Because of space restrictions, buildings were built storey upon storey while rooms were excavated below street level to pack as many residents in. It is speculated that Edinburgh had the first ever skyscrapers, with some buildings exceeding 10 – 14 stories high.
The North and South Bridge were built to facilitate the expansion of Edinburgh’s growing population in the late 18th century. In 1763 the Nor Loch was drained and the first stone of the North Bridge was placed to gap the New town to the Old Town. South Bridge was initially built to span the Cowgate gorge linking the High St with the Southside. The bridge was constructed with 19 arches and only one arch is still visible in current times, the Cowgate arch. The other 18 are hidden behind tenement buildings used as a commercial district. But that wasn’t enough; floors were even built in the hidden arches to provide extra space for the industry, with a total of 120 ‘vaults’ beneath South Bridge.
For 30 years these vaults were used as workshops for cobblers, taverns, other trades, as well as space to store merchants’ goods. Over the years, the vaults soon became the slums and the red-light district of Edinburgh – with brothels, illegal gambling taverns and were rife with crime – supposedly body snatchers even stored bodies overnight. Conditions deteriorated and businesses left in the 1820s – however, this didn’t stop Edinburgh’s poorest and homeless moving in and being greeted with no running water, natural light or sanitation.
There were no written records of when the vaults were closed and filled with rubble to make them inaccessible until Norrie Rowan broke through and found them. He excavated and removed all the rubble by hand and invited Mercat down in 1996. After some research on the Vaults, it led to Mercat Tours expanding their selection of tours.
Ghostly Underground Tour
I have always had a great fascination with the history of the Old Town ever since I found out there is a city under our feet. I was kindly invited to join one of Mercat’s tours and obviously I jumped at the chance, and in hindsight, having chosen the Ghostly Underground Tour it was definitely wise that I didn’t go alone… but I definitely didn’t choose to go on the ghost tour during the day to not freak out as much – definitely not… fine, I did and I was still left with goosebumps.
Making the tour more sinister, you’re led you through the narrow closes and dark vaults by a cloaked guide. Starting above ground you’re told the history of the Mercat Cross, the narrow closes, the plumbing issues back then and an eerie ghost tale leaving you never wanting to walk through Edinburgh alone again. You’re then led two levels underground and instantly hit with an old stale damp smell with only the flicker of a candle to show the way.
The vaults themselves are very well preserved with our guide easily setting an ominous atmosphere, creatively telling tales within each room and building suspense. Back when these vaults were used, written records were never kept – instead, all of the stories have been pieced together by stories from families that have reached out from all corners of the world.
It’s surreal to stand in the Vaults, thinking to yourself about what happened in this spot hundreds of years ago; the type of people that walked where you stand; the lives they led; and how different things are now.
But not everyone may have moved on… all of the Vaults in Edinburgh are renowned for their paranormal activity, attracting the likes of paranormal investigators. Visitors have reported hearing children’s crying, rocks tossed across the room and pronounced footsteps approaching them – some people have even claimed to have had their clothes tugged on and felt breathing on the back of their neck before hearing a deep voice telling them to leave…
I couldn’t possibly give away too much from this tour, you will just have to book yourself onto a tour and find out for yourself who haunts the vaults and see if you can catch a glimpse of one of them.
I cannot recommend Mercat and the Underground tour enough. It was an exceptional experience, learning about parts of Edinburgh I had no idea even existed. The guides are very professional and full of energy leaving you hanging on every word. I will definitely be back in the future to try one of their other tours.
I’m sure there are still secrets hidden beneath the streets and buildings of Edinburgh, waiting to be discovered, but if I haven’t managed to convince you enough to book a tour right this second, there’s a chance to win a tour for two people at the bottom of this newsletter.
Tour and Whisky Tasting
A guide or the Watcher?
Narrow passageways connecting the Vaults
Don’t look in the corner…
Edinburgh Town Walls: Orange – King’s Wall; Red – Flodden Wall; Purple – Telfer Wall; Blue outline – estimated extent of the Nor Loch
A depiction of the Vaults built between the arches of South Bridge
Built-in storage units in one of the Vaults
What used to be two Vaults