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