by Jane Carnall
"It wasn't a rock, because Ankh-Morpork was on loam. It was just some huge remnant of mortared masonry, probably thousands of years old, from somewhere in the city foundations. Ankh-Morpork was so old now that what it was built on, by and large, was Ankh-Morpork." Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett, 1989
From the east end of Princes Street, you walk up North Bridge to the Royal Mile. Across the Royal Mile, North Bridge becomes South Bridge, but if you turn left, down the Royal Mile, you'll find the first street running south is Niddry Street, a narrow cobbled lane running down to the Cowgate. (You pass the Edinburgh Psychic Centre on your right going down Niddry Street, by the way: it has a sign on the door to tell you that outside opening hours appointments can be made by calling this phone number, but no timetable for opening hours - if you don't know when they open, you're not psychic.)
At the bottom of Niddry Street, on your right, there's Bannermans. Tours for the Niddry Vaults meet there, and, incidentally, it's the second door off the street as you go downhill: I went in the first door and stood around for five minutes buying a drink until I realised that it was quarter to seven and if I recognised no one, the tour group must be meeting in the room on the other side of the bar.
Across the Cowgate, Niddry Street runs uphill a little way, tenements on both sides of the road (though the ones on the right are a lot older) and ends. (Infirmary Street runs the other side of the houses at the end of Niddry Street.) Ian Wilson, our guide for the evening, stopped us halfway up Niddry Street and began the tour.
I've lived in Edinburgh all my life, and I've vaguely wondered, a few times, why the street called South Bridge was called South Bridge for so much of its length when it seems to be a fairly short bridge: North Bridge crosses the valley where Waverley Station was built, but South Bridge seems to have just one arch, the one right over the Cowgate. But the whole street named South Bridge is a bridge, and you can't see it because it was, quite deliberately, walled up and hidden.
Ian Wilson isn't a professional historian. For many years he was on Edinburgh City Council, and twenty years ago, out of pure inquisitiveness, he started poking around in the cellars of the City Chambers. From the Mound, you can see that the buildings on that side of the High Street go down fourteen or fifteen storeys. From the High Street, the City Chambers is about four or five storeys up and, inside, you can go down another four or five storeys until you reach the cellars.
And underneath the cellars, as everyone now knows, there is a street called Mary Kings Close that was walled off and built over and forgotten. Ian Wilson found it. But the thing I find most extraordinary is that the City Chambers had used the rooms nearest the cellars as storage. One room was fitted up as an air raid shelter during WWII. It was one of those things that people knew about and didn't think about. Ian Wilson doesn't run the tours under City Chambers any more: the Council awarded those to the Mercat Tours company, which is something I regret, because Ian Wilson has a fund of enthusiasm and is a real raconteur; he's not a historian, he's someone who's passionately interested in old Edinburgh, and I don't think you could ask for a better guide under Edinburgh. And that's where we were going. Under Edinburgh.
So we stopped halfway up the back end of Niddry Street, and Ian Wilson gave us a quick sketch of the local geography, about the first Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, which was built just about where the High School Yards are now - the Infirmary Baths swimming pool is where the old Infirmary wash house was.
Then, rather worryingly, Ian Wilson mentioned we'd need torches, and went back to his car to collect them. (Someone remarked that she hoped he didn't mean sticks of wood wrapped in oil-soaked rags...) We went up right to the end of Niddry Street, and through a door that looked like an ordinary tenement door. Down a passageway, through another door - this one had Rowan Close over it. (I asked Ian Wilson about this later, and he said that it was recent: the man who owns the vaults is surnamed Rowan, and following an old tradition, the close is named after its current owner.)
Inside that door, there's a rough and dusty-floored room. Behind us, an ordinary stone wall. Before us, four stone arches, made of rough white handworked stone.
Ian Wilson stopped us here and showed us his map of old Edinburgh, the one that looks rather like the skeleton of a fish. The backbone is the Royal Mile, and it was at this point that I suddenly understood that the shape of the hill Edinburgh was originally built on was actually quite different from what I'd thought.
I knew, of course, the basic geography, Around the last Ice Age, glaciers ground their way along the valley and all they left standing was a volcanic rock and behind it a long trail of rocky debris - protected from being ground away by passing glaciers by the Castle Rock itself. Because what you can see today, walking down the Royal Mile, is a broad flat hill curved like a n, that's what I'd assumed was always there. But in reality, what Dunedin, the town that later became Edinburgh, was originally built on must have been a sharp ridge of rock, like Striding Edge in the Lake District. Because what Edinburgh has been built on, very largely, for many centuries... is Edinburgh.
We got a helping of medieval statistics. While Edinburgh was the capital of the nation, roughly between 1200 and 1700, the town grew in population - at its peak thirty thousand people lived crammed into the city - but not in size. People built up, and the only street of any size within the City of Edinburgh was the High Street. Down from the High Street ran narrow little closes, the width of a hallway. They ran down very steeply, and they were very narrow, and if you lived on the ground floor (a visit to Mary King's Close makes this very clear, and Mary King's Close was one of the open closes) you'd be lucky if you ever saw daylight. And there was no sanitation, there were five wells for the whole city, and notoriously, Edinburgh citizens dealt with their "nuisances" by chucking them out of the window with a cry of "Gardy loo" (which is very bad French for "Watch out for the water!"). Apparently if you were walking below and heard someone call "Gardy loo!" you called back "Haud yer haund!" which requires little translation, and if someone called out the warning simultaneously with chucking their "nuisances", so that you had no chance to duck, you'd call back something that would probably require no translation at all.
In the eighteenth century, the Lord Provost of the time proposed a pair of bridges that would lead from the High Street directly across the steep valleys either side to the top of Leith Walk at the north side and to the Old College of Edinburgh at the other. In order to build these bridges, they demolished some tenements (and a house belonging to the rich and influential Adam family, of which more later), but they didn't demolish them all the way down to the ground. The old stonework was still sound, and they used the first two or three storeys as foundations for the bridge.
We were standing in a dusty old room with uneven flooring, looking at four stone arches that were part of the chapel of the house built by the Bishop of Dunkeld in the fifteenth century. These arches were made of stone quarried from Salisbury Crags - most of the old stone buildings in Edinburgh were built from there, the Craigleith quarry didn't come into use till about the seventeenth century - and the stone is whitish-grey. This is what old Edinburgh would look like if the Industrial Revolution had never happened: if the stonework we see around us hadn't been grimed by nineteenth-century factories and twentieth-century engines and then forcibly cleaned. This is what you can see in Niddry Vaults: because this stonework has been walled away from the outside air for two centuries.
Atmospheric, Ian Wilson calls his tour. That's just it.
Then we went through into the close proper. Exactly as in Mary King's Close, the narrow all, the steep dry dusty dirt underfoot - the old closes weren't paved for centuries. (The man responsible for paving the streets of Edinburgh was so impressed with his work that he asked that when he died he should be buried under the paving stones, and he was. Now that's what I call job satisfaction.)
Mary King's Close was an open close, though of course it's long buried now. But the close that we stood in that evening had been roofed over. It wasn't an open street when people lived there, though it was a public thoroughfare - but about eight feet up, you can see the places in the stonework where the joists for the wooden floor across the close would have been inserted. Three centuries ago, you would have come in from the Cowgate, into a narrow tunnel maybe five feet across and seven or eight feet high. (There was an open stair at the far end, in the Cowgate, which connected the levels.) It would have been lit by candles and oil lamps. There were candles burning as we came in, and Ian Wilson went down the close and switched off the electric lights for a few minutes, so that we could stand in candlelight and look around at the close lit as it would have been, day and night, for several hundred years.
The first place we went into was a low-arched room (no more than seven feet high at the centre) which was originally a stable. Ponies, as someone suggested, rather than horses. Ian Wilson pointed out that your average Scot tended to be five foot four or so: Mary I and her second husband Darnley were freaks, at six foot plus. When they no longer used it as a stable, for a good many years it was a wine cellar. Whisky was the traditional Highland drink. Lowland Scots drank porter (a very strong beer) or wine, mainly claret from Bordeaux. At least it was called Bordeaux claret until it was landed at Leith, at which point it became Leith Claret. (I won a bottle of champagne in the company Christmas prize draw last year - and the label said Leith Champagne.)
Then down the hill a bit, and into another room with the arched roof a little higher that was once a laigh - a pub. Ian Wilson describes it vividly, how Edinburgh tradesmen shut up shop at eight in the evening, and then went to their Club: a group of friends who'd meet at the local laigh and drink porter for a couple of hours until after the "nuisances" were thrown into the street at 10pm. There's a number of journals written by visitors to Edinburgh in the 1700s, around the time of the Act of Union, and our guide quoted a few choice samples - mostly the English being extremely rude about the lack of civilisation in Auld Reekie.
We looked into a craftsman's workshop, a dusty stone bench still standing on one side of the room, a table on the other side covered with things dug out of the rubble and dirt that filled these rooms when they were first opened up (and every bit had to be sifted and shovelled into barrows by hand, and wheeled out to skips in Niddry Street). Animal bones and teeth, oyster shells (oysters were a cheap food in those days, and thousands of shells were found in the guddle that filled the vaults), a child's shoe, bits of worked leather, broken pottery, the detritus of lives long ago.
Down at the foot of the hill, the kitchen of the house where John Adam lived, the younger brother of Robert Adam the famous Edinburgh architect. (Adam House in Chambers Street is up a bit and across the road from where we stood, right under South Bridge.) The kitchen still has some of the original tiles. You could look up and see the arch of the bridge overhead, and in the torchlight you could even see the stalactites hanging from the ceiling like strange thick grass, two centuries of water dripping through lime that mortars the bricks together. It's not often that you see stalactites inside a building, but it's not often that you stand in a room which has been walled off for two hundred years.
You could see quite plainly how the vaults had been built, in the room behind the kitchen. About fifteen feet up, the brickwork of South Bridge started, using the old walls as foundation. The bridge arched high above our heads, and, just as Ian Wilson had promised before we went in, though we knew traffic was roaring by above our heads, maybe even a bus or two passing overhead, we couldn't hear a thing. It was silent and quiet and chilly down there.
After the bridge was built, some enterprising local landlords (probably the direct ancestors of some landlords I remember when I was a student) built floors across the archway under the bridge, and rented that space out to people who couldn't afford anything better. The City Council and other worthies felt this looked messy, and so they sold off the land either side of the bridge for tenements. That's why the tenements on the west side of Niddry Street are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on, not evens on one side of the street and odds the other, as they are almost everywhere else. The land was sold off and the tenements were built to hide the bridge, as one unit. And the back wall of the new tenements (we're talking a couple of hundred years ago) was the wall that had been the east side of the old close. The old close and the old rooms under the bridge were walled up, blocked off, and forgotten about, until a couple of years ago someone bought the tenements and started investigating what he had title to, underneath and behind his lands.
At the very foot of the old close, we went into another old room and Ian Wilson told the story of Burke and Hare, who supplied the anatomists at the old Royal Infirmary with bodies of defaulting tenants (Edinburgh landlords really can be rough if you owe them rent!) and the homeless. Edinburgh schoolchildren have been regaled with this story for a long, long time, and I knew all the gruesome details (Up the close and down the street, Burke the butcher, Hare the thief, Knox the boy who buys the beef) but there was a certain chilly thrill in hearing the story there, in a room very like the place where Burke and Hare must have lived, not a hundred yards from where they delivered the bodies to Doctor Knox (the anatomist who was their best customer, and who was never prosecuted).
And then out into the open air, after an hour and twenty minutes under Edinburgh. It was drizzling a little, and I think we all had cold feet. Sooner or later, a place like this lost close will be tidied up and become a proper tourist attraction*, with a gift shop and qualified guides explaining how people lived. But I'll never forget the first time I saw it, dusty and battered and centuries buried, these forgotten rooms under Edinburgh.
We went back to Bannermans for our buffet meal, which included hot winter vegetable soup, very welcome, and plenty of sandwiches and samosas. The popularity of samosas in Edinburgh is an example of the fact that the Scots will take to their hearts and gullets with unqualified enthusiasm any kind of food in the world, so long as you can deep-fry it. We sat around and drank hot soup and looked at the map someone had brought along, working out where we had been and whose basements are on the other side of the walls we had seen. Edinburgh is built on Edinburgh.
Afterword: I went with a party from work, and one of them, Shirley, had brought a friend. The friend, apparently, is psychic: and Shirley tells me that he saw me followed by a large yellow dog all night, and I was surrounded by loving spirits. This is a nice thing to have said about one, but decidedly weird. (I don't even like dogs.)
February 1999Feedback: e-mail me.
*Why, yes, it has. Mercat Tours will now show you round in their usual glib style and then usher you into the gift shop.