How to Survive Your Sentence At the Edinburgh Dungeon
I never thought that my dad was a cross dresser called Shirley who had pranced about our neighbour’s garden in underskirts. Actually, there are a lot of things I don’t know. For instance, I don’t know exactly how many litres make up all the oceans and seas of our world, or what the scientific term for parsnip is, or that I’d be sitting in court watching my dad make his decision between getting hanged at the gallows or incarcerated in Glasgow. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.
What I do know, however, is that we were in the city of Edinburgh, commonly known in the 19th century as ‘The Athens of the North’ for its position as a centre of knowledge and education. Teeming with culture, arts and a captivating history, it is no surprise that the city is the second most popular tourist attraction in the entire UK, falling into step just after London. Home to mesmerising architecture, gorgeous greenery, and many friendly locals, the welcoming melody of Edinburgh was evident the moment we stepped outside of the airport doors.
However, the second we entered within the city walls, as passengers in an UBER car, driven by our new-found friend Alan, something shifted within our bones. We all felt it. The sun was suddenly obscured by the clouds, the tires of the car against the stone road of The Royal Mile seemed to echo with an ancient clang, and behind the stone closes and looming cathedral walls, there was a tantalising air of intrigue. Of shadows and stories of a time long since gone. In static blinks, I glimpsed a darker history. One of murder and mystery and blood. My eyes spied a steel black staircase leading down the slip-slippery slope of one searching for answers. It was time to dive into Edinburgh’s murky past.
The descent was more mystifying than expected. Green and gold lanterns lit our way down into a catacomb of gargoyles and rust tinctured axes, the tunnels beckoning and yet ominous in the same glance, coaxing us forwards like an entranced moth to a deadly flame. A faint cry echoed up the stone entrance way, a red light blinking madly like an insane beast at our imminent doom. By the time we reached the final gate to the underground, our stomachs were like a storm-tossed ship, unsure of whether to draw back out of the hurricane or plough forth into the eye.
Now, I’ve always been one to try new things at the drop of a hat. I was always the first in our family to taste a new dish, or try out a suspended obstacle course, or jump two meters down from a tree onto a trampoline. But I suppose you’re thinking ,“Well Réka, trying your dad’s eggplant curry or being the first to climb across a swinging rope can’t really be compared to the current situation.” And you’re probably right. But the truth is, every adventurous decision makes your heart pound that little bit harder and your palms sweat that little bit extra. It’s all in how you accept the anxiety that may come with taking a leap of faith and trying something new.
In 2012 when we set off to travel around the world, it was undoubtedly the biggest decision we had yet made, together as a family. The courage that my parents had, to sell our house and almost everything we owned and set out with two 11-year-old children and nothing but the suitcases in our hands and the backpacks on our backs is tremendous. I like to think that that same intrepidity has, in turn, passed down to my brother and I, and so without thinking much about the shallow moans emanating up from below the stone floor, we entered through the wooden gate. There was no turning back now.
“Fear is a funny thing.” The Judge’s voice echoed throughout the courtroom. Behind me, I could hear my peers shifting across the wooden pews, restless for a verdict. “You are all guilty. The question is what of? Are you guilty of the charge of witchcraft?” Our eyes flitted across the room to a poor woman accused of the treasonous crime. “Or perhaps cross-dressing?” My dad struggled to stifle a smile, standing in the Dock. “Or of manipulation, forgery and robbery!?” The Judge’s voice rose in anger, as our gaze came to rest on a smug man standing before the court. “What have you to say for yourself, Mr Deacon Brodie!?”
The man smiled. “Not much.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself. Robbing from the rich after they let you into their homes to mend their cabinets, only for you to return late at night with a replicated key to steal their money and family heirlooms. You’re no Robin Hood, sir! The very incarnation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde!”
Deacon Brodie smiled. “Marvellous wasn’t it?”
I could see The Judge was close to climbing down from her podium and strangling Deacon herself. But she regained her composure. “However, you are not alone in committing your heinous crimes. In fact, all of you, sitting in those pews are guilty by association!”
A gasp ripped through the courtroom. I felt the colour drain from my face.
The Judge smiled wickedly. “Arrest them all!”
Suddenly the doors swung open knocking the advancing guards off their feet. A voice rang out. “Go! Run! I’ll hold them off.”
The entire accused leapt to their feet, me included. For a second, everyone was silent, shocked by the turn of events. Then we were running. Downstairs, past torturer’s lairs and dungeon cells and doctor’s operating theatres until at last The Judge’s cries were a distant croak and we came to a stop on a swaying wooden dock, a grey boat’s sails limp in the stale, underground air.
“What do we do now?” I heard my brother ask.
“You get out of here as fast as you can!”
Our entire group whipped around to face a man, his face drained of all colour and wide with terror. His coat was ripped, a last reminder of his status as one of The King’s Men.
“Turn back! Get out before Sawney Bean and his family catch you!”
“Sawney Bean?” I asked. “Who’s that?”
“You mean you haven’t heard the warnings!?” The man was close to hyperventilating.
We all shook our heads.
“I’ll do you a favour and tell you now, but then, I’m out of here quicker than you can say God Save The King.”
Our group gathered around the man and with the most intense fear flashing through his eyes, he began the tale. I will warn you. This is not a story to read to the children at bedtime.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean. Now Sawney Bean was the head of an incestuous, cannibalistic family who oversaw a 25-year reign of murder and robbery from a hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire/Galloway coast in the 15th Century. Having no means to make a living, they set up home in a sea cave in Galloway supporting themselves by robbing and murdering travellers and surviving on their victims’ pickled and salted flesh. In time their family grew to an incestuous gang of 46 sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. Over one-hundred people went missing over the years and the Beans became so skilled and successful at their butchery that they began to cast unwanted limbs into the sea.”
The man telling the story ran a shaky hand through his hair and without another word towards us, ran in the opposite direction. In a few moments, he was gone, swallowed by the fog rising up off the water.
A woman in our group spoke up. “The man’s mad. Sawney Bean’s been dead for ages. He forgot to tell the end of the story.”
We gathered around the woman.
King James IV was so enthralled with the case that he took a personal interest and sent 400 men to track them down. The Beans made no attempt to escape. All were caught alive and brought to Edinburgh in chains, where they were incarcerated into the Tollbooth. Sawney Bean and the male members of the family were executed by having their hands and legs cut off and then slowly bleeding to death. Women members were forced to watch the execution of the men and then were burned alive themselves. They all went to death without the least sign of repentance but continued cursing and vending the most dreadful of imprecations until the very last gasp of life. The End.
Nice story huh?
Now chances are, you might be feeling faint of heart (if you weren’t before, you probably are now), and because of this I have decided to share with you My Top 5 Tips on how to survive The Dungeons without expiring somewhere along the way. Follow these guidelines to the N’th degree and you may just survive.
1. Do not draw attention to yourself. Dress in a black coat or sweater, preferably oversized and wear bone white face powder so you can fade into the darkness. Talk in a whisper or better yet, don’t talk at all. If anyone should happen to take notice of you, do as the possums do. Drop to the floor and play dead. You will be surprised to find how well this actually works.
2. Don’t split up from your group. Most of us probably learnt this when we were 6 years old and watching Scooby and Shaggy get chased by monsters while the rest of the gang gathered clues. Bring along a large scarf or shawl and attach yourself to the nearest family. You know that saying “the family that braves the dungeons together, stays together.” It’s your new mantra.
3. Choose your weapons. Garlic, tomato juice and a sharp wooden stake should do. While not entirely proven to work on Vampires, these items will prove useful in The Dungeon. Use the garlic and tomato juice to barter with Sawney Bean’s hungry children and/or any ravenous ghosts that you happen to cross paths with. As for the wooden stake, you could probably use it to cut up the tomato and make yourself that extra little bit more endearing towards whatever evil you encounter but just remember, some entities might be allergic and so a quick stab to the heart should solve the problem.
4. Wear comfortable shoes. When butcher-hook wielding torturers and grave digging murderers come your way, the best thing to do is get out of there and fast. No cute boots with heels or open toe sandals. To avoid anything unwanted grabbing you around the ankle, I would recommend shoes with sharpened spikes.
5. Visit with a high school nemesis or annoying neighbour who cannot run faster than you. If neither are available, your local coffee barista will do. That way, should any of these previous guidelines and/or the garlic and tomato juice fail you and you are about to be eaten by Sawney Bean and his deranged children, you will have someone to throw under the bus. Remember, it is vital to be able to run faster than whoever you have brought with you, because when you are being chased by an incestuous, cannibalistic family, you don’t have to outrun all of them. You only have to outrun your barista.
Now then, back down in the dungeon, nothing was truly as it seemed. As I blinked, the fog clouding through my eyes, I found that the entire group and I had been spirited away from the mentally unhinged man and the soggy caves of Galloway and were now being escorted inside a house and its sumptuous parlour. The young woman guiding us stopped at the door and as each party member entered the room, handed out a rose tinted vial diluted with ice.
We took our seats, the vial eerily warm against my cold hand. My eyes darted towards a desk in the middle of the room, the only object upon it, a copy of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. “Welcome to the house of the incredibly talented Robert Louis Stevenson. Now he’ll be out to meet you in a moment but until then just wait here. The storm is growing quickly and I need to close all the shutters.” The young woman hurried away, leaving us in black silence. Our tranquility only lasted a few seconds before a bolt of thunder ripped through the room. A sharp prick pierced my neck and suddenly the world was tipping and turning. When my eyes stopped spinning in their sockets, I realised with horror where we had arrived. We were inside the book. And Dr Jekyll was about to become Mr Hyde.
I watched Dr Jekyll’s eyes widen with terror as he noticed a group of unwanted travellers fill his laboratory.
“Oh, the inner battle!” Dr Jekyll’s eyes widened with fear. “There is only one thing that can save us now! Quick! The potions! Drink them!” The words were barely spoken before Dr Jekyll fell to the ground, convulsing as another thunderous burst of lightning shattered a window. I saw frightened glances echo throughout the room as we all unscrewed the lids of the vial. To my right I watched with a glimmer of amusement as my brother struggled to get the cap off and when he couldn’t, he simply pretended to drink along with everyone else. The cool, sweet liquid rushed down my throat as the lights suddenly dimmed. A deafening roar erupted from Dr Jekyll and we all screamed. The previously human figure in front of us was now hunched over and malformed. Dr Jekyll had been fighting the battle for as long as he could. But Mr Hyde had won. Across the room, a wooden door swung open. It didn’t take another clash of lightning before our entire group was racing out of the room, the frenzied cries of Mr Hyde reverberating behind us.
We ran blindly through a graveyard, past droves of Tudor style homes and streets littered shakily with the red cross of the plague until at last when we could no longer draw breath, we came to a skidding standstill and almost careened head first into a woman waiting with a lantern. She smiled, showing a full set of rotten teeth. She waited until we stopped gasping for air. “The name’s Margaret but you can all call me Half-Hangit Maggie.”
We nodded in acknowledgement.
Maggie checked her pocket, her eyes scanning an imaginary watch. She sighed. “Well… your time is up. You’ve been running but unfortunately, you haven’t run far enough and now beyond this door, hundreds of bloodthirsty Scots are waiting to watch you hang.”
Mixed reactions swung through the group. Disbelief, anger, anxiety and fear. So much fear.
Maggie leaned in close. “What? You didn’t think The Judge would let you off that easy now did you? It’ll take a little more than a pathetic game of ‘chasey’ to stop her from hanging you crooks.”
Suddenly, I could hear the swarming crowds behind the next door, the distant tolling of a bell pealing for our execution.
Maggie smiled. “You might get lucky like I did. Half-hanged and buried when I awoke, knocking on my casket like the walking dead. I got off then. They had to let me go. I’d already ‘hung’. Wasn’t my fault they didn’t do it properly. But whatever happens to you lot, there’s no need to worry. I’m sure your executioner will be much more competent than mine was and gladly show you the ‘ropes’.”
A few in our group began to scream and tried to make a run for it but the doors we had arrived through were now nothing but cold stone walls. The room around us began to shrink smaller and smaller until there was no choice but to follow Maggie’s cackling laughter out onto the gallows. As our feet pounded against the hollow wood, the crowd’s screams and jeers growing more murderous with every step we took, I realised with a start, that Maggie had lost the blood in her cheeks and now stood silently to the left as we filed past, nothing but a ghost. The deadly grip of a rope fastening around my neck brought me back to reality. To our right, the executioner’s black mask glistened in the night. I could hear the mumbled words of a priest somewhere close, praying for our safe passage to heaven. This was it.
The executioner’s hand whipped out, flicking the lever holding the trapdoor to the gallows like an annoying fly that had finally met its match.
We swooped downwards, our screams chilling the air. Then all went black.
I suppose you all want to know if we made it out alive. Well, the confusing answer is ‘sort of’. You see, I have been writing this entire blog post from the dark, dank, depths of The Edinburgh Dungeon cells; a prisoner. The sad truth is I have been arrested for the heinous crime of handling salmon in suspicious circumstances. After the floors of the gallows dropped underneath us, we were suddenly falling through a black bottomless void, for how long none of us are entirely sure. When the horrid sensation finally ceased, we found ourselves in the very midst of a mirror labyrinth. We wallowed around aimlessly in this narcissistic limbo, our own images giving us hope of escape, only to have us trapped again by a dead end. This lasted for what seemed like an eternity when finally, pity had been taken on us and we were pardoned.
We made our way back onto Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, where we were suddenly surrounded by large barrels filled with Salmon, breathing the air as free people. I was only trying to set their poor fishy faces free, but in some cruel trick of fate we ended up unsuspecting victims of 18th-century Scottish law and it’s easy to be caught out. You see, no one understands what a Vegetarian is… so now I’m to be tried as a witch. I’ll let you know if I survive my sentence, which is to have my fingers tied to my toes before being rolled down the waste encrusted city streets into the loch. If I float on the water, I’m undoubtedly a witch. However, if I drown, it means I was innocent. You know, now that I’m thinking about it… I don’t think this logic is 100% completely and totally sound.
Anyway, I want to do all that I can to stop you from suffering the same fate as I, so here is a list of some of the most ludicrous laws (that remain on statute today) that you do not want to break unless you want to lose a limb or a life. Once you read this final list you will be ready to brave The Edinburgh Dungeons. The only question is… Will you dare to?
It is against the law to carry a plank of wood along a pavement.
It is illegal to fly a kite or slide on snow or ice whilst in the street.
It is illegal not to tell the tax man anything you do not want him to know but legal to tell him information you do not mind him knowing.
It is an offence for a pub landlord to allow drunkenness in their pub.
It is illegal to keep a pigsty in front of your house – unless duly hidden.
It is illegal to beat or shake any carpet or rug in any street. However, beating or shaking a door mat is allowed before 8am.
It is an offence to be intoxicated and in charge of a horse or a cow.
It is illegal to enter the houses of parliament in a suit of armour.
Any dead whale or sturgeon found on the British Coast automatically becomes the property of the monarch.
If a person comes to your house and asks to use the commode, you must let them enter.
A licence is required to keep a lunatic.
Any person found breaking a hard boiled egg at the sharp end will be sentenced to 24 hours in the village stocks (Enacted by Edward VI).
Attempting to commit suicide is a capital offence. Offenders can be hanged for trying.
A big thank you to all at the Edinburgh Dungeon who made our visit so wonderfully bone chilling!