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.
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.”
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.
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.
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."