Above ground the streets of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile are a mass of tourists, souvenir shops, pubs and busking bagpipers. A walk across the Old Town is a journey through history, from Edinburgh Castle at one end to the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the other. But not all of Edinburgh’s history is on the surface. Deep below ground there’s a network of narrow alleyways and abandoned houses that have been standing there since the 17th century. It’s the source of many a ghostly tale – but who really lived there and how did the street come to be buried? I headed into the gloomy depths of The Real Mary King’s Close to discover underground Edinburgh’s secrets.
Read more: Alternative things to do in Edinburgh
Mary King’s Close history
During the 17th century, Edinburgh’s Old Town suffered major overcrowding. The city walls which had been built to protect its residents meant there was no space for it to expand outwards. So instead houses were packed in more and more tightly, and grew upwards to eight stories high. A web of narrow side streets called closes led off the Royal Mile, which could be locked up at each end at night to keep the undesirables out.
The richest people lived in the top floors where the buildings got the most light – and the least stench of sewage. And the poorest lived in the dark, squalid ground floors, penned in with cattle and with open sewers right outside their front doors. Most closes were demolished or redeveloped into offices or apartments over the years, but Mary King’s Close had a different fate.
The 17th-century city authorities were worried about losing trade to Edinburgh’s New Town, so they decided to build a grand new Royal Exchange. And they found the perfect spot opposite St Giles Cathedral. There was just one small problem – the streets of houses that were already there. But rather than knocking these houses down, they took the top floors off and used the lower floors as the foundations for the Royal Exchange.
Mary King’s Close was covered over and swallowed up into the building’s basement. The sloping ground meant the houses fronting onto the Royal Mile were destroyed. But further down the close whole houses were buried in tact. Even though it was underground, the close wasn’t totally abandoned. Some residents didn’t want to leave and carried on running businesses in this strange half-buried world. You could go underground to buy your tobacco or get a wig made.
Saw-makers the Chesney family were the close’s last residents. They hung on in there until 1902 when they were finally forced out as the Exchange building – now the City Chambers – was extended and the last of the close was sealed up. In 2003, Mary King’s Close was opened up to visitors after archaeologists and historians analysed all the evidence they could find to uncover what life had been like for underground Edinburgh’s 17th-century residents.
Visiting The Real Mary King’s Close
Accompanied by a costumed guides (ours was poet Robert Ferguson – aka John), we headed down a dark staircase from the visitor’s centre and emerged into a labyrinth of underground streets connecting buildings with claustrophobic low-ceilinged rooms. The street angles steeply down towards the old Nor Loch at the bottom of the hill.
Today it’s the Princes Street Gardens, but originally it was a marsh turned sewage dump turned spot for dunking witches. With each close being just a few metres wide, you can imagine how dark and oppressive it must have been at the bottom with buildings towering up on either side.
The tour took us through a series of rooms, and along the way we heard the stories of the close’s residents, from gravediggers to murderous mother-in-laws – and including Mary King herself. Closes were named after prominent local citizens and in the 1630s Mary was a fabric merchant who set up her own business after her husband died. Impressive for a woman at that time.
There were also plenty of gory details of what life was like on the close during the 17th century, lots of them involving the not-too-sanitary ways of disposing of sewage that were used at the time (lets just say you really didn’t want to loiter outside a window for too long). Life in the close was tough, and things got a lot tougher when the plague reached Edinburgh in 1644.
The wealthy city residents fled but the poor were left behind, and the final death toll is estimated at between a fifth and a half of the city’s population. A gruesome legend has it that the gates at the ends of Mary King’s Close were locked and plague victims were left to die. But in reality the area was quarantined with food and water brought in, until finally the last residents left – one way or another – and the close was abandoned in 1645.
After 40 years, people started moving back in to the close, but there were many tales of spooky sightings, from disembodied floating heads to a woman dressed all in black. Could it be the ghosts of plague victims who refused to leave home? Or maybe it was just hallucinations brought on by clouds of methane rising from the Nor Loch? Either way, many ghost hunters have been lured to the close to search for spirits over the years, including a Japanese psychic who claimed to have met a young girl called Annie in one of the rooms.
She’s said to be a plague victim abandoned by her parents who wanted a doll to stop her feeling so lonely. Since then, guests from around the world have donated toys for her, and a slightly creepy pile of dolls and teddies (and bizarrely US police badges) has built up in ‘Annie’s Room’.
Visitors have reported hearing footsteps in empty rooms and feeling unexplained chills. The infra-red camera that’s used to capture pictures of visitors has even caught a translucent figure in the background late at night after the building was closed. Though as the tour ended we emerged back into the light without spotting any ghostly apparitions. But we did get a few laughs, a few shocks and a warts-and-all insight into one of the darker sides of the city’s history and 17th-century underground Edinburgh life.
The Real Mary King’s Close is just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, opposite St Giles’ Cathedral and a short walk uphill from Waverley station. It’s normally open 10am–9pm (until 5.30pm on Sundays to Thursdays from November to April) with tours every 15 minutes. Entry costs £16.50 for adults, £14.25 for students/seniors and £9.95 for children aged 5–15. Children under 5 are not permitted. It gets busy at peak times so it’s a good idea to book tickets in advance online.
Please note: photography isn’t allowed inside so all images courtesy of The Real Mary King’s Close.