Travel tales

Underground Edinburgh: The lost streets of Mary King’s Close

The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh

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 find out.

The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh

The close’s 17th century residents

During the 17th century Edinburgh’s Old Town suffered major overcrowding. The city walls built to protect its residents meant it couldn’t expand outwards, so instead houses were packed in 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 they 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 decided to build a grand new Royal Exchange. And they found the perfect spot opposite St Giles Cathedral, with just one small problem – the streets of houses already there. But rather than knocking them down, they took the top floors off and used the lower floors as foundations. Mary King’s Close was covered over and swallowed up into the building’s basement. The sloping ground meant the houses fronting the Royal Mile were destroyed but further down the close whole houses were buried in tact.

The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh

Cobbled streets in the close

The close wasn’t totally abandoned though. 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, get a wig made or your saw sharpened. Saw-makers the Chesney family were the close’s last residents, hanging on until 1902 when they were forced out as the Exchange building – now the City Chambers – was extended and the last of the close was sealed up. In 2003 it was opened to visitors after archaeologists and historians analysed all the evidence they could find to uncover what life was like for its 17th century residents.

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 claustrophobic low-ceilinged rooms. The street angles steeply 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 eight-story buildings towering up on either side of you.

The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh

Ghost hunting

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 citizens and in the 1630s Mary was a fabric merchant and property owner who set up her own business after her husband died. An impressive feat for a women at the time. There were also plenty of gory details of 17th century close life, lots of them involving the not too sanitary sewage disposal methods of the time (lets just say you 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 residents fled but the poor were left behind, and the final death toll is estimated between a fifth and a half of the city’s population. A gruesome legend has it that the gates at the ends of the close were locked and plague victims were left to die. But in reality the area was quarantined but food and water was brought in, until finally the last residents left – one way or another – and the close was abandoned in 1645.

The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh

The buried streets

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 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 was a plague victim abandoned by her parents and 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 rather more bizarrely US police badges) has built up in ‘Annie’s Room’. Visitors have reported hearing footsteps in empty rooms and unexplained chills. The infra-red camera 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 17th century Edinburgh life.

The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh

Annie’s collection of – not at all creepy – dolls

The details

The Real Mary King’s Close is open from 10am–9pm (until 5pm on Sundays to Thursdays between November and April) with tours every 15 minutes. Entry costs £14.50 for adults, £12.75 for students/seniors and £8.75 for children 5–15. It’s a good idea to book in advance online as it gets busy at peak times.

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Head underground in Edinburgh's Old Town to discover the lost 17th century streets of the Real Mary King's Close, buried beneath the Royal Mile – ontheluce.com

Please note: photography isn’t allowed on the tour so all images courtesy of The Real Mary King’s Close.

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    anneharrison
    April 28, 2016 at 9:58 am

    What an amazing discovery – thanks for sharing your tale!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      April 29, 2016 at 9:41 pm

      You’re very welcome – really glad you enjoyed it.

  • Reply
    Danielle
    April 28, 2016 at 11:31 am

    I’d never heard about this before! I’m going to Edinburgh in September – maybe if I’m brave enough, I’ll make a visit (I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to ghost stories haha!)

    • Reply
      Lucy
      April 29, 2016 at 9:50 pm

      It’s not too scary honest! There are a couple of bits that might make you jump but it’s not really a ghost tour so you shouldn’t get too spooked.

  • Reply
    amaatk123
    April 28, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Oh I’ve been to those years ago. It’s cool.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      April 29, 2016 at 9:51 pm

      Fascinating isn’t it – a great bit of Scottish recycling to just use old buildings as foundations!

  • Reply
    Darlene
    April 28, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    This sounds so cool! Would love to visit someday.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      April 29, 2016 at 9:51 pm

      It was really unusual but so interesting – amazing how it’s still there after all these years!

  • Reply
    Cristina
    April 30, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    Awesome, I lived in Edinburgh for a year but never did this tour. Did you do the Greyfriar’s Graveyard tour? So scary. After doing that tour I came back by myself one day. I looked into a crypt and I (seriously, literally) ran out of the cemetery.

  • Reply
    Vlad
    May 4, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    This sounds so creepy, yet so interesting, I’d love to do the tour when I visit Edinburgh this summer 😀

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 6, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      It was really good fun – funny as much as scary, and tons of gross details!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    May 4, 2016 at 10:21 pm

    I chickened out of this tour when we were in Edinburgh – too spooky!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 6, 2016 at 3:20 pm

      Honestly it’s not too scary! I might try out the spooky late-night version in August though if I’m feeling brave enough.

  • Reply
    thebritishberliner
    May 8, 2016 at 12:33 am

    Nice one Lucy! ‘Love Edinburgh. Have been a million times and have also been on this tour as I like ghost walks. We also went to the Jack the Ripper walking tour in London but I was a little anxious that our son might find it gruesome, but the guide assured us that older kids (he was 11 then) don’t find it scary, but fascinating! A bit like the “Horrible History” books.

    Disturbing but really quite hilariously funny!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 13, 2016 at 11:14 pm

      I still haven’t done the Jack the Ripper walking tour – one for next time in London though as I love this sort of thing!

  • Reply
    theitalianrover
    May 10, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    Love it! I’m visiting Edinburgh in June, can’t wait! I’ll surely go on this tour, thank you!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 13, 2016 at 11:14 pm

      That’s great – have an amazing trip!

  • Reply
    Noelle
    June 1, 2016 at 9:41 am

    I am heading to Edinburgh this weekend and remembered reading this article, so I just booked a ticket to visit St Mary’s Close. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    Angela Cowell
    June 19, 2017 at 10:19 pm

    Great post Lucy. How did you manage to take photos as we couldn’t when we visited?

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 20, 2017 at 6:38 am

      Hi Angela, the photos are all from Mary King’s Close that they kindly let me use – wish I could’ve taken my own though as it’s such a fascinating place!

  • Reply
    Mayling
    July 18, 2017 at 8:48 am

    It was fun to read this post. Thank you so much for sharing. I first heard about Mary King’s Close in 1986 when my new husband took me to Edinburgh to meet his family. The Vaults had been recently discovered and they told us about the Close as well. We really wanted to see it, so we headed to the Council Chambers the next morning, only to learn that there were no regular tours, there was only a gentleman that one could write to make arrangements, and he was only available a few times per week. We were given a tab of paper with an address.

    Since we had already made plans to bicycle to Iona for a week, we were hoping that there would be sufficient time for us to make the tour upon our return when we had a three day window before catching our flight home. Not being used to twice daily mail delivery, we were absolutely stunned to receive a response the following morning with an invitation to piggyback onto a tour that he was giving the next day for another group. We were thrilled to delay our departure to Iona by one day and join this group of six!

    Our gentleman guide, probably in his late 80s, had only been giving these tours for about six years. He said that he replaced the man who had conducted them for the previous 26 years, after he passed away. Like his predecessor, he was a lifelong avid amateur historian and happy to share that passion with us. He wore a jacket and tie.

    Even though it was strictly forbidden for the group to separate, he discretely looked the other way when I slipped into a few of the rooms that he did not take the group into but which seemed to be calling me. It was lovely that he allowed me those moments of quiet so I could get a “feel” for where I was.

    We were allowed to take photographs back then, but mine weren’t very good (dingy & dark), and no interesting anomalies appeared in the prints. You didn’t have to be psychic to pick up the vibes though, lots of energies were still hanging about. I think there might have only been one doll at the time; “Annie” had not yet collected a lorry load of them. Our guide shared the story of the Japanese psychic and Annie, but even at the time I was unable to decide whether the story was his or one from his predecessor’s days. He himself had no interest in the paranormal…”Unlike you,” he said, wagging his finger at me. At then end of the tour, he said that the psychics always gravitated to the same places, even if the rooms were closed (and many of them were).

    I no longer remember the name of our guide, but we spent a wonderful two hours that on a leisurely tour that was so non-commercial the City didn’t even charge admission. Our guide would not permit us to tip him either, believing that it was his privilege to be guiding us.

    I am suddenly stuck by the changes in 30 years, grateful that I got to take a tour that really doesn’t exist any more, but the place looks so much smarter now; it would be great to see it if I make it back to Scotland. Thanks again.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      July 25, 2017 at 7:59 pm

      What a great story! It’s definitely changed a lot now but it must have been so interesting to see it like that before it was commercialised and you could really get a sense of the place’s atmosphere.

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