Every day in Edinburgh, a group of children and adults disappear into a haunted layer within South Bridge, enveloped in the crevasses of the city. Within they discover a small slice of its history, brought to them in a few dank chambers, through the medium of storytelling. This is billed as a haunted tour but, as our cloaked guide Amy Currie assured us, there won't be any costumed pretenders jumping out from dark corners. Instead it's all about conjuring ghosts in the imagination, and, in doing so, helping us to connect with Edinburgh's past.
Auld Reekie Tours run this experience all year - it might even be the most well-rehearsed show at the Fringe – and the benefits are visible. Even the functional stuff, like getting from the meeting point on The Mile into the Bridge, contributed usefully to storytelling, clarifying the geography of the city and building excitement for our underground adventure. Currie is an able storyteller, with plenty of big gestures, sound effects and a little (unintimidating) audience participation. She can make a lot out of small details, knowing how big the world can seem to the under tens.
We were not merely asked to gawp at the torture instruments in the tour's first room, but to actually imagine ourselves into the lives of the people who might have received the torture. It's not too explicit but enough to get the point across, to help us feel, rather than just observe, the history. There's also plenty of Horrible Histories-style gore to get us interested, which is popular with the younger members of the crowd.
The tour’s centerpiece is three chambers that a group of Wiccans once claimed were full of evil spirits. Currie asserted that the ghosts are now imprisoned inside a stone circle, which is imbued with a commanding, silent power. Whilst this story is exciting, it does seem a little thin to justify the bridge as the site of a 'haunted' tour. I have similar doubts over whether three damp, empty rooms and a few artefacts in glass cases offer an experience rich and extensive enough for the ticket price. But there is still plenty to learn: all sorts of detail about sanitation (or rather, lack of it), the plague and state punishment.
The real ghosts haunting these caves are the poor families and persecuted witches who once inhabited them in the tour's ambiguous 'Old Edinburgh' time period. I would have liked a few asides about when things actually happened, and I'm sure older children would have benefited from the same. Though for the most part, Children's Haunted Underground Tour is a good family history lesson: fun, clear and informative, with just a touch of pantomime horror to spirit it along. Wear sensible shoes.