The City Literally Built On A Thousand Dead Bodies: Disgusting Facts You Didn't Know About Edinburgh

The history of Edinburgh, Scotland, is full of dead bodies and human waste—literally. There are more than half a million corpses inside the city walls, and one of those scenic hills is actually a mass grave. The city's history is almost as gruesome as the baby skeletons discovered under a Scottish orphanage

When was the city of Edinburgh founded? It dates all the way back to the Roman era, but Edinburgh became a crowded, modern city in the 18th and 19th centuries, as tenement buildings stretched 14 stories high, long before indoor plumbing could whisk away all that waste. And yes, Edinburgh's thousands of residents all dumped their urine right into the streets. Alongside the city’s spectacular beauty comes Edinburgh’s dark history, which helped earn it the nickname “Auld Reekie.”

Take, for example, the ways the Black Death shaped Edinburgh, when victims were walled up in their homes to die. Or the disgusting Nor’ Loch, a lake filled with human feces and dead bodies. And then there’s the Edinburgh vault’s ghost stories, not to mention the ghost bagpiper under Edinburgh Castle. Does Edinburgh win the prize for most gruesome history? Keep reading and decide for yourself. 

  • The City Dumped Waste And Bodies Into A Scenic And Stinky Lake
    Photo: John Slezer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The City Dumped Waste And Bodies Into A Scenic And Stinky Lake

    Meet Nor’ Loch, the scenic lake at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. But don’t get too close—the lake was used as a dumping ground for human waste and dead bodies for 600 years. And Nor’ Loch wasn’t just used for dumping chamber pots: it also contained waste from dozens of slaughterhouses and every other form of animal waste imaginable. Plus, murderers used the lake to dispose of bodies, and the city even executed people by throwing them into the stagnant, fetid water.

    In short, it was an enormous cesspit in the middle of the town. No wonder they called Edinburgh “Auld Reekie.”

  • Streets Paved With Gold? More Like Blood, Feces, And Animal Corpses
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Streets Paved With Gold? More Like Blood, Feces, And Animal Corpses

    In old Edinburgh, people literally dumped their chamberpots on the street. They tossed dead animals outside their doors. Slaughtered animal parts might follow, along with massive amounts of blood. Before indoor plumbing, the streets were an open sewer, literally. Sure, someone was supposed to clean the streets, but especially in the poor parts of town that rarely happened. Instead, streets were covered with human feces, urine, food waste, blood, and animal corpses.

    Many cities faced the same problems before the modern era, but it was even worse in Edinburgh, where the poor lived in tenement buildings that could be as tall as 14 stories. Just imagine 14 stories' worth of waste pouring down on the street and you'll get a good idea ow how disgusting life in Edinburgh was. 

  • Before Modern Plumbing, You Had To “Watch Out For The Water”

    The streets of old Edinburgh were a dangerous place—and if you heard someone yell “garde loo,” you better watch out. The phrase came from the French prenez gardez l’eau, or “watch out for the water,” and it meant that someone was about to empty a chamber pot out of their window. Unsuspecting strollers could be doused in urine and human feces if they weren’t paying attention.

    And when people tossed the contents of their chamber pots from 10 or more stories up, the splash back could be as high as the second floor. Things got so bad that the city passed the "Nastiness Act" in 1749, which decreed that waste could only be tossed between 10 pm and 7 am—but that didn’t do much for the smell.

  • Edinburgh Was Called "Auld Reekie" Because It Stank
    Photo: Louise Rayner / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Edinburgh Was Called "Auld Reekie" Because It Stank

    Most cities have pleasant nicknames: The Big Apple. The Eternal City. The City of Lights. Edinburgh’s nickname is . . . different.

    Edinburgh has been called Auld Reekie for centuries, and the reason is pretty disgusting. First, the city had a certain odor because of Nor’ Loch, the open cesspit filled with feces and corpses. There was no place in the city that people could escape the wafting scent of death and waste. Second, Edinburgh was so smoky from all the coal fires that it made the entire city full of smoke, adding to the famous stink. In 1819, Robert Southey declared,

    "Well may Edinburgh be called Auld Reekie! The houses stand so one above another that none of the smoke wastes itself upon the desert air before the inhabitants have derived all the advantages of its odor and its smuts. You might smoke bacon by hanging it out of the window."

  • Edinburgh's Black Dinner Inspired The Red Wedding In Game Of Thrones
    Photo: Thomas Hosmer Shepherd / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Edinburgh's Black Dinner Inspired The Red Wedding In Game Of Thrones

    It happened in November of 1440—the young Earl of Douglas, who was only 16, and his younger brother David, were invited to dinner at Edinburgh Castle. Their host was the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II. But the event was orchestrated by the Chancellor of Scotland, who wanted to make sure that the Douglas clan didn’t grow too powerful.

    In the middle of a splendid dinner party, the head of a black bull was dropped into the middle of the table—and that was the signal for the slaughter to begin. The two young Douglas boys were dragged outside for a mock trial and both were beheaded. Not surprisingly, the gruesome so-called Black Dinner was one of George R.R. Martin’s inspirations for the infamous Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.

  • Edinburgh Tossed Criminals And Witches Into An Open Cesspit
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-4.0

    Edinburgh Tossed Criminals And Witches Into An Open Cesspit

    More than 300 people were tried for witchcraft in early modern Edinburgh. Many of those victims were tied up and thrown into Nor’ Loch, the open cesspit in the middle of town. If the accused witches sank to their death, it proved their innocence, but if they floated, it was clear proof of the devil’s influence. Either way, they were taking a bath in a filthy lake full of blood, feces, and corpses.

    The city also tossed three criminals in the lake in 1628. Mr. Sinclair and his two sisters were accused of incest, and Edinburgh decided to punish them by locking all three into a chest that was dumped into Nor’ Loch. And it definitely wasn't just a myth: in 1820, workers found a large box containing the remains of three people embedded in the mud.