Edinburgh mini: Back to Black

The highway to Edinburgh’s hell is called Cowgate and leads directly to Banshee Labyrinth. The Gothic and Metal Club promotes itself as the “most haunted” pub in town, guiding its customers into the gloomy vaults under South Bridge. The location reflects upon one of the darkest periods in local history, when the underground was home […]

The highway to Edinburgh’s hell is called Cowgate and leads directly to Banshee Labyrinth. The Gothic and Metal Club promotes itself as the “most haunted” pub in town, guiding its customers into the gloomy vaults under South Bridge. The location reflects upon one of the darkest periods in local history, when the underground was home to the poor of the Scottish capital.

After sunset the wrecked houses along Cowgate turn as black as black can be. The muddy puddles on the concrete floor mirror only few flickering neon signs. Near the pillars the remnants of a multi-storey building rise against the sky. Banshee Labyrinth lies at the heart of what used to be one of the slums of Edinburgh. Beggars and prostitutes would sleep and die in its catacombs.

Turning down the light
“It is still a bad area today”, Ken, one of the guides tells me. This night I am to enter the “real underworld”, as he puts it. It is 9 pm. Banshee Labyrinth has opened its doors. Live Heavy Metal music is splashing up from the basement. A compact, black-clothed doorman gives way to a set of stairs and corridors leading into the dark. The walls are all painted black. Spider nets are fluttering with the cool, damp air. Downstairs, a group of young people are playing billiards. Two girls with leather jackets are chatting in the corner. The smell of cold hot dog fat and beer mixes into the air.

“Some three years ago this was an average club”, barman Tim explains. “But my boss is a Gothic, so he’s turned down the light a bit, ha, ha.” Tim’s voice is rising softly. His white, delicate fingers stroke a black strand from his cheek. He was born in Edinburgh, he tells me. Before he took up the job in the club he travelled “the world”: Kent, Surrey, London. He excuses himself to prepare a “Blood Kiss” for one of the customers.

As in Banshee Labyrinth, the city has many doors to a world under the cobblestones. “Some people say tour guide Ken says. “I prefer to call it the city underneath – because it was never meant to be an underground city. It is just the way it developed, very organically.” Up to the 19th century, Edinburgh had a constant housing problem. Its city walls allowed only limited space to build new flats. People were forced to use every single gap. The vaults under South Bridge became the bedrooms of the poorest. People started digging holes into the slope of the Castle Hill to create more space for living. So many hollows they dug under the houses in Old Town that the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson described it as a “rabbit warren”.

People living in the vaults had to suffer terrible conditions: The smell of waste and smoke of open fires filled their dark, cramped homes. Many people died of diseases, nourishing myths about an underground ghost town. For that reason, the “underground city” has become a popular tourist attraction and the setting for ghost tours. Every day, hundreds of visitors explore the underground of South Bridge and of Mary King’s Close.

Banshee Labyrinth is supposed to be the only part of the vaults in everyday use. “You can book us for birthdays, funerals, and storage of inconvenient bodies”, a plate announces warmly at the bar. Poor living conditions have been turned into a legend of the lifestyle of the desperate and destitute of the time they were at their worst. The really poor no longer live underground, but many of the streets around South Bridge are still a dwelling area to many of them. And while the loudspeakers in the club are starting off their “Highway to Hell”, the homeless pop into the building of the Salvation Army next door, warming themselves up after a cool November day.

An entombed part of Edinburgh’s historyowgate Street under South Bridge are being turned into an area of clubbing and entertainment.

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CTR Travel Writing Team Edinburgh 2012
Isabel Metzger
image Miriam Steimer

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EIN KOMMENTAR ZUM FAKE

  1. Betty has added a suggestion, note on 16. May 2013 | Permalink

    hi, Edinburgh is a really cool place to be. Looking forward to being back to Scotland in September. LIKE

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