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Dungeon doom and gloom

If you like to be frightened, Douglas Blane knows just the place to go. It's history but beware, it's horrifying down there

Disease, treachery, torture, blood, putrefaction, death - it isn't easy being a teacher, but this isn't last period in the classroom on a Friday. This is Edinburgh Dungeon, a place that describes itself with some justification as "Scotland's worst attraction".

Why anyone would choose to descend from the lime tree avenues, fuchsias, courting couples and summer sunshine of one of the world's most beautiful cities to the dark, horror-filled depths of the Dungeon is anybody's guess. But they do. Following its opening on April 13, it drew 14,000 visitors in its first two weeks. The target is to entice 200,000 a year through the Gothic doorway, where a rattling skeleton hanging in a cage offers a small taste of the macabre delights below.

Constructed at a cost of pound;5 million, the Edinburgh Dungeon follows the pattern of those already built in London, York and Hamburg. Scotland, like every country in the world, has seen its share of the horrors and cruelty humans inflict on each other, and most of them can be found in Edinburgh Dungeon, described, depicted or acted out in detail.

The children on a day out from Castlebrae Community High school begin their visit cheerily enough but by the end, as they wander around the gift-shop looking at the postcards and polished stones displayed incongruously among rats, bats and severed limbs, some of them have grown distinctly green.

It is bad enough reading in textbooks about the hideous deaths, prolonged for the entertainment of the perpetrators, that were meted out to alleged witches, inflicted on criminals and prisoners of war, or dealt by the Vikings on early Christian monks. It is much worse having to examine exhibits that re-enact these horrors while they realistically seem to drip blood, writhe in torture or scream with pain.

"The metal instrument called the peach was inserted into one of the orifices of the body," reads English teacher Ann Braidwood, "and then slowly opened up, tearing apart I" "Aw, Miss," young Julie interrupts, "for heaven's sake shut up."

Life in the Middle Ages was nasty, brutish and short, and not rendered so just by refined instruments of torture like these, but also by diseases such as cholera, syphilis and the Black Death. The entertainment value of these is exploited to the full in the Dungeon: a cholera victim retches a stream of vomit into a bucket, and a bubonic plague sufferer's explosive sneeze showers an unwary teacher, who sincerely hopes is the sickness is simulated - life expectancy after being sneezed on by a pneumonic plague carrier was 24 hours.

Bodily fluids feature prominently in the Dungeon, especially blood. It pumps from the severed arteries of suspended prisoners, spurts from the decapitated neck of a victim of the sharp blade of the Maiden and oozes from the irreparably damaged bodies of the tortured and dying.

Some of the tableaux enacted by the actors employed by the Dungeon are highly entertaining, such as the grey-cowled judge in the dusty courtroom meting out a mixture of mordant wit and condign punishment to the visitors. And the anatomist Dr Robert Knox extracting the internal organs of a corpse, supplied by the Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare, that unexpectedly comes to life and wrestles with him before eating his sandwich. But the final scene, in the cave of the cannibals, is genuinely frightening.

Taking the Ballad of Sawney Beane as her starting point, Ms Braidwood has been working on the story of the 17th-century mass murderer and his savage family in her English classes, and each of her pupils has composed a newspaper report of the case. But the youngsters' imaginations are unlikely to have pictured anything quite so horrible and moving as the hungry granddaughter or as deeply disturbing as the knife-wielding, demented wretch who re-enact the tale of the 48-stong family that lived in the Galloway hills and preyed on passing travellers. They are thought to have killed up to 1,000 people over 25 years before being tracked down and executed in Edinburgh.

Back out in the daylight, the sun still shines on the castle battlements, while a white-smocked artist seated among the flowers in Princes Street Gardens paints the soaring spire of the Scott Monument. But the warmth has gone from the day and a passing tourist, startled by the reaction to her hay-fever, clearly wonders why these strange Scots jump so nervously and move quickly away when she sneezes.

If she had been down in the Edinburgh Dungeon she would know.

The Dungeon, 31 Market Street, Edinburgh EH1 1QB, tel 0131 556 6700.Open daily except Christmas, 10am-8pm summer; 10am-5pm winter. Reduced admission for school groups: pound;3 each, 10 paying to 1 free. School bookings, tel 0131 240 1001

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