GARRICK SMITH tells of his disturbingly paranormal time in the spooky Edinburgh Vaults
It was the dreary autumnal October of 2004: I was in Edinburgh reviewing a hotel with a bunch of other journalists, say six or seven. It wasn’t a particularly swanky gig, the hotel was the Radisson SAS on Princes Street. But it was free, and a good opportunity to steal soap and towels while getting drunk in a strange city, so I wasn’t complaining.
And besides, as usual when you’re reviewing a hotel or resort, the marketing people put together a package of entertainments/refreshments that you can sample on behalf of your readers. This tends to make press trips quite exhausting, to be honest. On this occasion, one of the attractions the team had prepared for us was a ‘ghost walk’, of the sort that can be found in most historic towns and cities. (York in particular has so many ghost walks going at the same time that they keep bumping into each other).
So we were all to assemble at 7.30pm by an old whipping post. We did so and found waiting for us a rather cadaverous character in a cape, who was to be our guide for the evening. Predictably he was heavy on the sepulchral delivery, but he carried it off rather well, and started by telling us how malefactors of old were whipped at this post, using a volunteer from the pack and a real whip (although no whipping was actually done, which I thought a swizz).
Then we were walked down a terraced hillside (Edinburgh townhouses, not two-up-two-downs) to what appeared to be a bombproof door set in the wall. This, we were informed, was the entrance to the Vaults, reputedly one of the most haunted places in Britain. See here for historical details.
The door was opened and because I was the closest I got in first, right after the guide. Inside was a dogleg staircase, leading down three flights or so. I followed the guide down (I am quite clumsy but paradoxically pretty fleet of foot at times) and got there just a few seconds after the guide and around thirty seconds before the arrival of the rest of the group (who could be heard oohing and aahing their way down the staircase),
At the bottom, the staircase opened out into an antechamber, with a doorway in the facing wall. The guide stood waiting for the rest of the group. I stood looking around, with the doorway to the left. All of a sudden I was gripped by the feeling that I was being stared at. This is a pretty low grade paranormal experience, everybody gets the sense that they are being stared at from time to time, and often it proves right The sense of being stared at came from the left, but I shrugged it off. I knew there was no-one there.
Almost at once it returned, and this time it was so strong that it made me wince and let out an involuntary gasp. The expression “Eyes boring into your head” fitted it perfectly. I stepped to one side under the strength of it.
I whipped round to see who was staring at me. For a moment, or perhaps two, I saw a man. Wearing a long black coat, wearing boots, and with a white shirt front, and perhaps glasses. Then it was gone, but I had just enough time to register the fact that the figure reminded me of someone. I was not alarmed by this. I cannot explain why. The sense of being stared at vanished.
I kept quiet as the rest of the group descended the staircase and gathered in the antechamber. The guide started on with his patter and the first thing he told us was that the area was haunted by the ghost of someone called The Watcher, who resented interlopers and would turn up to stare out any intruders.
All I could think was: “What a wonderful coincidence. First I think I am being stared at and then I am told there is a ghost that stares at people.” Two and two did not go together.
Then we were taken into the first room, where we were told some rigmarole about a ghost child who clutched at the hands of visitors. Perhaps I enjoyed this too much, as the guide gave me a shove so that I fell into a depression in the floor and he warned me lugubriously: “Mind you don’t fall into a hole, sir.”. This chamber had another door in it, opposite the one we entered through.
There was another story associated with this room, but I forget it because I was looking around and taking in my surroundings. I was looking at this patch of wall when all of a sudden it seemed to shimmer. The effect was like sunlight reflected off water. Bright enough to leave impressions on your retina but not bright enough to hurt you. Various patches of ‘sunlight’ merged together and an image came into focus.
This image was of a man, with his back to me, hunched over something. My first reaction was “Rumpelstiltskin”, as it reminded me of the fairy tale figure hunched over his spinning wheel. He had a bald pate, with mid length grey hair, a white shirt and a waistcoat. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but a happy feeling was associated with this vision. I don’t mean I felt happy, just that I got a sense of happiness. Hard to explain.
Then the image disappeared. I was so startled that I can remember my immediate instinctive reaction was to look over my shoulder at the ceiling to look for projectors. But there wasn’t anything there, just the solid stone of the chamber’s roof.
Then we were moved through to the second chamber. As we went, the guide gestured to the piece of wall I had been looking at and explained that this area of the chamber was associated with a ghost called the Cobbler, who apparently worked on his shoes and didn’t bother anyone.
All I could think was:”Well, that’s another coincidence, I see someone hunched over their tools and the guide tells me about a cobbler!” It sounds stupid but I really didn’t think of it any other way. Perhaps if I had I would have gibbered. Perhaps this was some obscure psychological mechanism protecting me. God knows.
In the second chamber we were told some story about a ghost that was seen with its feet up resting on the chimney breast. While this story was being told, the guide’s voice suddenly faded away and I was left with a sort of hissing silence. Then I heard a noise that I recognised – the sound of a leather soled boot coming down on bare floorboards. Ker-THUNK. Ker-THUNK. You could hear the heel and toe come down quite distinctly. This, for some reason, did bother me and I looked anxiously from face to face in the press pack, to see if anyone else could hear it. But their faces all said that they were listening intently to the guide’s narrative. I got quite panicked. The footsteps continued for another four or five paces, then the hissing silence retreated and I could hear the guide again.
Then he took us through to a sort of corridor, where he explained: “It’s around here that people report hearing the footsteps of The Watcher as he stalks them through the Vaults.”
All I could think was: “Well what a coincidence! I hear footsteps and then I am told that people hear footsteps!” I didn’t connect it to any of the two previous encounters, or even think that anything untoward was going on. Nowadays, if I thought I heard or saw something, I would be looking to make an urgent appointment with my GP.
The corridor led into a couple of other rooms. I barely remember the stories that went with them, apart from one room had some story about a witch’s bottle bricked up in the wall. The corridor led to a fire exit and we were soon back outside in the night time street.
There were a couple more stops on the tour, but I don’t remember the details. Burke and Hare figured in them. Then the tour came to a stop outside a three storey house. I forget the story associated with this venue but dimly recalled that it was something about an Earl making a bet with the devil, which I thought ludicrous.
Then the guide said to us (we were all standing round in a horseshoe shape): “Does anyone have anything they’d like to report?”
He turned to me and said: “That’s a very curious expression you’re wearing Sir.”
I checked myself and found that it was true. My face was sort of caught up in a perplexed frown.
I told the guide about the sense of being stared at and seeing the figure. About the golden light and the man with his back to me. About the sudden footsteps (I remember saying repeatedly: “It was so loud I couldn’t hear you speak,” which wasn’t quite what happened). And in each case, I explained how the guide’s explanation had followed the experience.
The guide explained that his tour was devised to as to only tell people what they might experience after they had experienced it. This way, he said, he couldn’t be accused of putting ideas in people’s heads.
I was delighted by all this, and had a couple of drinks after the tour while trying to tell my fellow hacks about the experience. None of them believed me.
I stayed a couple more nights in Edinburgh and had a damn fine time, never thinking about ghosts or suchlike. Then I flew home and on my first night alone had a proper whitey and had to sleep with the lights on. Not that I slept much. I was too frightened.
To this day, I cannot explain why (a) I was not more alarmed by the experience as it unfolded or (b) why I was so scared in a sort of ‘delayed reaction’.
And that’s it. Just words on a page to you, but my attempt to explain something that has affected my life.