The Ghost Pimp of Edinburgh

In Depth

According to family legend, my great-grandmother defended her home against banshees in the West of Ireland. The banshee’s wails caused the windows to crack and her blood to curdle. Decades later, grandmother is convinced that my mother and I have similar fey blood running through our veins, so I suppose it’s no wonder that I eventually saw a ghost.

One spring, in lieu of visiting the family ancestral homestead in County Roscommon, Ireland I opted to fly to Scotland. Scotland was a place that I had always wanted to visit. I was quickly drawn in by the sweeping landscapes and adorable little lambs dotting the countryside. Eventually, my travels lead me to Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a city that has a long and storied history of violence and bloodshed, from Roman and Viking incursions to the Scottish Wars of Independence.

One day during this trip, I found myself nursing a hangover when I received a phone call from my mother. Her side of the family is notoriously superstitious and, like them, she harbors an obsession with ghosts and aliens, spending what little free time she has watching television shows about specters or extraterrestrials. Because my mom had logged in so many hours surveilling various haunted places, she knew that Edinburgh was a ghostly hotspot. My mother begged me to go on a ghost tour to the notoriously haunted Edinburgh vaults, and report what I learned back to her.

The Edinburgh Vaults, or the South Bridge Vaults, are chambers that were forged in the nineteen arches of the South Bridge, the construction of which began in 1785. Eventually the bridge served as a shopping street and the vaults below were first used as workshops and eventually served as living quarters for Edinburgh’s poor. As you can imagine, vaults under a bridge are dark and damp. Living conditions were akin to a slum, overcrowded with no light, running water, or sanitation. The vaults became a haven for violent crime and prostitution. According to one description, it was “a place to die, not to live.” As such, the authorities cleared out the vaults and shut them down just thirty years after the bridge’s opening. After being rediscovered and reopened to the public in the mid 1980s, the vaults have become a major tourist attraction.

With my mother’s urging, I signed up for a ghost tour. Like my longtime hero, Scully, from The X-Files, I am a notorious skeptic that values science over superstition. Any evidence of my “intuitive nature” or “fey blood” could be explained by luck or logic. As the tour guide briefed us on the vaults’ haunted history, I rolled my eyes. Tales of torture, of murder, of serial killers (William Burke and William Hare) entered one ear and went right out the other. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, I told myself.

This all changed when we actually made our descent into the vaults. The air changed down there; it was heavy and fetid. The vaults are not a place for the claustrophobic. They are not cozy. Being there is not like being wrapped in the warm arms of history so much as caught in the grasp of a frenemy. Entering an underground world, where people lived, loved, fought, and died, is an experience that to this day I find hard to articulate. You are drawn in. You are simultaneously repulsed.

I refused to be spooked, but then something bizarre happened.

During a particular part of the tour, I became very, very cold. I brushed it off. I was underground. I was hungover. These things happen. Growing tired of the theatrics of my tour guide, I went to check my phone. Despite having worked underground in earlier parts of the tour, my phone had completely died. This puzzled me, as I’d fully charged it before the tour. The tour guide droned on. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man. The chap was about my height (I’m a smidgen over six feet). His presence put me unease. He was dressed in historical garb; it was as if I was staring at an extra from Gangs of New York. This man looked me up and down. I turned away, desperately surveying the faces of those around me, fellow tourists and the guide, to see if they were seeing what I was seeing. No one seemed to notice him or, if they did, they weren’t as unsettled as I was. When I turned back to check to see if the Bill the Butcher knockoff was still being a creeper, he had seemingly vanished. I heard no footsteps signaling his departure. Nonplussed, as I thought the man was a tour company employee, I continued along the tour.

When the tour was completed, I asked the guide if there were any male employees in period costume wandering around the vault. If there was, I continued, management should tell them not to lewdly stare at female customers. The tour guide looked confused, then broke into a huge grin and started laughing. Confused, I asked her what was so funny about my comment. In her lilting Scottish accent, she looked me dead in the face.

“It wasn’t a living man you were seeing. That’s Finnegan. He used to price the girls down here in the mid 1800’s.”

It was at that moment I realized that I had been evaluated for sale by a known ghost pimp in the Edinburgh Vaults. I was unnerved, but also disappointed to see that the male gaze had not changed, even after death.

I never told my mother this story. When she pressed me for details of the ghost tour, I simply smiled and said that she would have to go visit Edinburgh’s underground one day. I have no doubt that Finnegan will be waiting for her.

Image via Simon Li/Flickr.

When Amanda is not reading horror, she is mulling over how she would rather be in Scotland. She blogs on “The Powder Room” under her pen-name, AmandaOfHappiness, and in hindsight she is deeply embarrassed about behaving so curmudgeonly towards that tour guide.

Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tips for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.

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