Underneath Edinburgh

I can clearly recall how stories of subterranean Brighton fuelled my initial interest in local history.

Whether it was tales of tunnels around the Pavilion or the myriad of underground chambers belonging to Southern Water, I was always keen to learn more. In fact, it was the famous tour of Brighton’s sewers that really sparked my curiosity.

It is indeed true that there is a tunnel leading from the Pavilion to the Dome, that there are all sorts of vaults beneath the coastal roads, and that Europe’s largest stormwater storage tunnel (20 ft high and 3 miles long) runs beneath the seafront. For every story that turns out to be true though, there is another that has, well, no foundation. I suspected that the same would be the case with Edinburgh’s legendary underground city.

On my latest trip to Scotland’s capital, I set out to see for myself what really exists below ground. I knew that its subterranean areas are said to be in the area of the Old Town; in particular, in the vicinity of the Royal Mile that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. The Royal Mile runs along a ridge between two valleys and, from it, a great number of passageways ran off it steeply down each side. The ground floors of the buildings on the Royal Mile obviously fronted the street but were high up above ground at the backs as the structures extended backwards over extremely steep terrain. It is here that the underground city is still evident.

I visited Mary King’s Close (essentially a tourist attraction) which extends beneath Edinburgh’s City Chambers. The Chambers were designed by Robert and James Adam in 1753 as the Royal Exchange and built directly above several old streets, including Mary King’s Close. The old network of streets was forgotten but it is ever so easy to imagine now what the warren of slim tunnels and tiny dwellings must have been like 400 years ago. The tour invites further curiosity and is both frightening and exciting in equal measures.

Subterranean Edinburgh is said to be evident in other places too, such as the vaults beneath the South Bridge which dates back to 1785. The network of rooms was rediscovered quite by accident during the 1980s by Norrie Rowan, the former Scottish rugby internationalist, whilst refurbishing a pub.

Who knows what else exists underneath Edinburgh and, indeed, below Brighton?