Oct. 2007: A Night In the Vaults

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A Night in . . .
the Vaults

By Silke Schmidt
Freelance writer Silke Schmidt finds more than she bargains for on a tour of haunted Scotland.

A gusty wind is drawing thick fog from the sea into the narrow streets of Edinburgh’s old town as I leave the small apartment overlooking Greyfriar’s Cemetery. Passing the iron gates, I think of the night before, when I took a tour across Greyfriar’s. At the graveyard, there used to be a valley where now there is a mound — a mound that over the centuries was built up of hundreds of thousands of corpses, many of them victims of war and the plague.

As if that wasn’t enough for a good spook, Greyfriar’s is said to be home to the McKenzie poltergeist. The young man who guided the graveyard tour did a great job telling spine-chilling stories about the mean spirit knocking out, scratching, biting or burning visitors of the Black Mausoleum in a locked-up section of the cemetery known as the Covenanters Prison. This time, of course, nobody passed out or got bitten by old McKenzie, who must have been out poltering somewhere else. Of course.

Walking past Greyfriar’s, I notice the small witchcraft shop in Candlemaker Row is closed now. At quarter to midnight, witches and wizards don’t go shopping for potions anymore, obviously. Not even in Edinburgh, where the weird usually seems quite normal. After all, the city is said to be Britain’s most haunted. The other day, for example, a friend got hugged by a zombie. Dressed-ups are not for me, though — I want the real thing. If it exists, that is. Which is why I decided to set out for a hunt for ghosts in Edinburgh’s South Bridge Vaults tonight.

The very history of the Vaults should be enough to give even the most reasonable person the shivers. Built in the early 1800’s, at a time when once again Edinburgh’s old town was overcrowded with people, the Vaults became a place were folks lived and worked. Ordinary people at first, but too soon only the poorest. And those who feared daylight. Disease was common, crime thrived. People killed and got killed in the Vaults. Every day.

The large bells of St. Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile strike midnight just as I reached the entrance to Edinburgh’s underworld. The Ghost Finders Scotland team is already there — Mark Turner, Lisa Lundie, Paul O’Brien, Jonathan Sutherland and Linda McCann, the medium. They lead us in, me and about 20 other people.

“Anyone sceptic here?” Mark asks. A few raise their hands, some have not yet decided on their opinion. Iris and Susan from Aberdeen, for their part, are true believers. “We already were on a ghost night at Leith Hall near Aberdeen,” says Iris. As a birthday gift. Even before the ghost hunt had started that night, Iris claims to have seen a ghostly rope and noose hanging from an old tree on the premises. “I later learned someone was hanged there a long time ago. It was spooky.”

Meanwhile, Mark has divided the group in two. “Group one goes down with Linda now,” he says. The uneven steps leading into the Vaults are narrow and dark. The Ghostbusters theme pops into my head as I take the first step down. I imagine myself as cool “Peter Venkman” — and the slightly cross-eyed guy in front of me in a wobbly encounter with Slimer, the green blobby ghost — and find the idea quite funny.

As everyone walks from room to room, Linda the medium passes on to the group what the spirits she senses in each room report to her. “There is a woman in this room,” she says in one of the bigger places in the still well-lit Vaults. “Her name is Rosie. She says the man who killed her is in this room also. Over there in the corner.” Linda points over, then pauses, listens, nods her head. “Why did he kill you?” Again, she nods. “She says he slit her throat because she couldn’t give the coins back. She borrowed three coins from him, and when he came and wanted the money, she couldn’t pay it back. He got angry and killed her.”

When Linda was nine years old, she started sensing, hearing and seeing spirits. “I always used to tell my mum what I saw, but she would tell me to stop making up things,” she recalls. “So eventually I didn’t talk about it anymore. But I did not stop sensing and seeing them.”

“Them” are spirits, stuck somewhere between this world and the next, for some unknown reason. To Linda, they appear as translucent figures. Some are aware they are dead, she says. Others aren’t.

“The ones who don’t know — it’s better not to tell them, as they can become quite violent towards you. It is like a shock to the system. If you want me to put it this way, some will ask for your help, whereas others can turn aggressive, as if it is our fault they have passed on,” Linda explains. That’s why she avoids the “d”-word in some places. “D” standing for “death.”

After half an hour, Mark and Paul take over the group. “We’re going to the corridor now,” Mark says as he walks on to the very back of the Vaults. “This is reportedly the most active place down here.”

Someone switches the lights off. Only flashlights now break the pitch black. It is Mark’s voice which breaks the silence: “If there’s anyone here with us now, can you please make yourself known?”

Tension fills the air, but there is no sound. Suddenly, a loud knock. Once, somewhere to my left. Again — now to the right. Knock… Knock… Knock… The regular tapping circles three sides of the narrow corridor.

“It’s growing terribly cold.” The woman next to me shivers. While I tell myself it’s just a draught, I feel the cold creep up my legs. Icy. Others begin to feel it, too. Then, a nasty smell. Someone unseen is breathing right into my face, without moving the air. It’s a nauseating breath, like a mouth full of decayed teeth. Another woman mentions a strange smell. As the night goes on, I get a whiff of the foul stench three more times — each time in the corridor.

Paul has taken out an EMF meter. The little device measures electromagnetic fields. At first, Paul doesn’t get any readings in the corridor. As it grows cold and the smell appears, he runs the meter up and down in front of the group — all of a sudden the device blinks heavily and continuously. Strangely enough, the measured field seems to be moving. As do the cold and the stench. The Ghostbusters tune is still in my head, except thoughts about slobbery Slimer have meanwhile become much less funny.

Mark rewinds the digital recorder and lets his ghost hunting guests hear the recordings he just made in the corridor. “Did you die in these vaults?” the little device repeats the question Mark posed just a minute ago. Though the group held their breath at the time of the recording and not a sound was heard, there now is an answer. Deep-toned, it seems to be a soft “yes.”

Marks voice inquires: “Were you murdered?” Once more, an answer is digitally frozen on the small recorder. Deep-toned as before, but much louder and a lot more energetic. “Murdered, yes.” The sound is noisy, but words can be made out.

Halfway through the night, groups switch once more. Lisa and Linda are trying out “trigger objects” with the would-be ghost hunters. They place a bottle on the floor, tell the group to form a circle and join hands. The bottle remains unmoved. I follow Linda, Lisa and the group into yet another, rather narrow room. It’s what the guides of Mercat tours, to whom this part of the South Bridge Vaults belongs, call “Mr. Boot’s room.” Boots is known to be somewhat of a hateful spirit. He has scared hundreds of visitors down in “his” vault, Mercat guides insist — preferably blonde women in their twenties, while men seem to be fairly safe.

Standing to the right of the doorway, I quietly listen to Linda, who indeed seems to be having quite an unpleasant discussion with whatever spirit haunts the vault. Suddenly, there are hands. Two large, strong men’s hands in my back. Someone pushes me gently, but with a lot of power. Insistently. The hairs on my arms rise while I am forced to follow the push and take one step forward. I turn around, scanning the wall with my flashlight, but there is nothing to be seen. No hands. Just a solid stone wall.

It is early morning as I step out of the Vaults again into the emerging daylight. Six hours ago, I set out to hunt for something I was sure I’d never find. Obviously, it found me.

For More Information:

Ghost Finders Scotland Team

Ghost Nights with the Ghost Finders Team

Edinburgh’s South Bridge Vaults

Tour of Greyfriar’s Cemetery