As some of you know if you follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook, I went up to Edinburgh at the weekend for a research trip. A visit to its Mary King’s Close attraction back in 2012 gave me the inspiration for the Underground City of The Necromancer’s Apprentice, and I reasoned that a second visit would be handy while I work on the novella’s sequel, The Necromancer’s Rogue, begun during NaNoWriMo. So off I went, along with my travel companion Mummy. She was rather pleased to kick off our journey at Costa Coffee. She’s fond of a strong Americano. Unfortunately the train journey was a bit of a pain, with the train breaking down just outside Morpeth. East Coast demonstrated a stunning lack of customer service, with their train guard giving one reason for the delay, while the website gave another, and everyone ended up having to leave the train, and board another one, well over an hour after the time we should have arrived in Edinburgh! I finally made it to the fair city, some two and a half hours later than planned.
I’d booked into the Premier Inn in Lauriston Place because the company were having a £25 a room sale on at the time, and I’d highly recommend it if you’re ever in that neck of the woods. It’s at the Westport end of Grassmarket, and it’s only about a ten minute walk up to the Royal Mile. The room was comfortable, the staff were friendly, and the breakfast was well worth the money. Wahey! I’m pretty sure this room was bigger than my old flat. I didn’t get a lot of sleep due to the wind screaming outside but there’s not an awful lot anyone can do about the British weather.
First stop was Mary King’s Close again. I’ve blogged about it before, here, but as a quick recap, Mary King’s Close lies below the Royal Mile, and this particular close was named for Mary King, a prominent businesswoman who lived in the close in the 1630s. Originally open to the air, it ran between the Royal Mile and the Nor Loch, now the Princes Street Gardens. It would have been noisy, and filthy, with inhabitants emptying their slop buckets into the close twice a day, in the hope that the rain would wash their sewage down the close into the loch (which was also the city’s water supply). The close was built over during the seventeenth century, and some of its floors now form part of the foundations of the Royal Exchange. Many theories abound as to what must have happened in its murky depths, from plague victims being walled up alive, to rampant murder. Either way, it’s now a tourist attraction, and visitors can explore the weird atmosphere of the four connected closes (Mary King’s, Pearson’s, Stewart’s and Allen’s Closes). As it’s below government buildings, you aren’t allowed to take photos down there, except for a single souvenir photo that they take for you. It’s an infrared photo so it looks a bit weird, but hopefully it’ll give you an idea of how I picture the closes of the Underground City!
One of the things I love about Edinburgh’s Old Town is its closes, narrow crooked alleyways that cut through the buildings along the Royal Mile. Mary King’s Close may now lie beneath the Royal Exchange, but many more are still passable. I took a ridiculous number of photos of them, and these are the narrow passages that Jyx traverses in the Underground City.
Leading to Castlehill.
Last stop for Friday was the famous Greyfriars Kirkyard – I also visited on Saturday so I could take photos during daylight hours. It’s not as beautiful as Highgate, or as neglected as Abney Park, or as vast as Brompton, but it has a majesty all of its own. It’s also the site of a massive plague pit, and my tour guide told me that on exceptionally rainy days, bones occasionally make their way back up to the surface, and they have to store these elsewhere in the graveyard as it’s illegal to remove remains from consecrated grounds – which is ironic considering its importance to the graverobbing trade in the early nineteenth century. It’s the location for the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby, about a Skye terrier who allegedly sat on his owner’s grave for fourteen years, and it would be a lovely tale if it were true. Greyfriars is also notable for being right next to the cafe where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, and her view of the George Heriot’s School provided her with the inspiration for Hogwarts. You can see why!
It’s awe-inspiring even during the day.
I went along on the Friday evening to do the City of the Dead Tour so I could see inside the Covenanter’s Prison. It’s normally out of bounds, having been locked seventeen years ago, and doing the tour is the only way to see it. In 1679 it was a part of the graveyard used to house over 1000 supporters of the National Covenant. This document was signed by those who wanted to oppose the the interference of the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. In a nutshell, the king believed that the monarch was head of the Church, but the Scots believed that only God was head of the Church. Signing the document was considered an act of treason, and those defeated in the Battle of Bothwell Brig were kept here. It’s an important moment in British history and I wanted to pay my respects, but I had another, darker reason for wanting to visit.
The Covenanter’s Prison is also said to be the home of a particularly active poltergeist. I took the photo on the Saturday during the day, but it’s a very different place late at night, when the wind screams through the trees, and shadows flicker and dance across the unlit paths. There’s a tomb partway down on the left known as the Black Mausoleum, and has been the site of hundreds of reported attacks. Having a background in paranormal investigations, I just had to see it for myself. Yes, the graveyard is spooky, and yes, I wasn’t happy going into a pitch black mausoleum, but no, nothing happened. I’ll admit, I was rather disappointed, but who knows, maybe poltergeists don’t like gale force winds either. Anyway, here’s Mummy enjoying the tombstones.
She does love a good cemetery.
The other attraction of Edinburgh, for me, is its vaults, located inside the South Street Bridge. I’d been in the vaults on the Blair Street side with Mercat Tours back in 2012, but this time I wanted to see the vaults on the Niddry Street side with Auld Reekie Tours. I picked one of their daytime tours because I wasn’t interested in having people jump out at me, or over-enthusiastic tour guides waving anachronistic torture equipment about, and it proved to be as fascinating as I’d hoped. The vaults lie in the arches of the bridge, which opened in 1788 – only one of the arches is actually open to the air, at Cowgate, but the others are all hidden behind tenements. They were intended to house taverns, cobblers and other tradesmen, as well as storage space for the shops on the bridge itself, but the structure isn’t watertight so the vaults became damp, the air quality deteriorated, and the businesses left. The destitute moved in, and the vaults became a less salubrious place. No one knows for sure when they were officially closed, though it was some time in the nineteenth century. They lay undiscovered until the 1980s. There are around 120 vaults under the bridge, but each tour group only visits a handful – the Auld Reekie one visits five on one level. I’d also like to point out that the people at Auld Reekie were lovely enough to let me transfer from a tour on the Friday (that I’d already booked) to one on the Saturday due to my troubles with the train!
There was one particular vault I wanted to visit, having been told about it by others who’d done the tour. One of the vaults is used by the Wiccan group, the Source Coven of the Blue Dragon, but it’s not the original vault they used when they moved in. Their first vault lies further up the passage, its stone circle now abandoned after the coven’s founder believed they conjured something less than pleasant. People report paranormal activity in the room, and on my tour, I felt nauseous in the room while another girl got dizzy. While circles are traditionally used to protect those inside them, and to keep things out, this particular circle is believed to hold something in, to protect those outside it, and no one in my group was brave/stupid enough to step inside it! Another vault smelled strongly (to me) of wood smoke, while another, named the Haunted Vault, is apparently the site of many sightings of a young woman in a dirty white dress, believed to be a banshee since one man who saw her suffered a death in the family shortly afterwards. She’s not as well received as the ghostly child, most often seen by women.
When the tour was finished, I went off to the office of another tour group, who have a rather macabre relic on their front desk. After William Burke, he of the notorious bodysnatchers Burke and Hare, was hanged, his body was donated to medical science, but his skin was used to cover a book which is only occasionally on public display. The skin from his left hand was used to make a calling card holder, and it’s this holder that now sits in the office of Cadies & Witchery Tours. It’s a bit macabre, I suppose, but it just looks like regular leather. I couldn’t take a photo, so I took a photo of the White Hart Inn in Grassmarket where the pair are said to have hunted for their victims.
It was with a heavy heart that I returned home, but I’m brimming with ideas and inspiration, not only for The Necromancer’s Rogue, but also a plethora of other stories!
If you’d like to catch up on The Necromancer’s Apprentice while I continue to work on The Necromancer’s Rogue, then you can grab it from Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. There are plenty of reviews over on Goodreads!
If you like the sound of anything I’ve mentioned here, then the links are below – or just leave me a comment!