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

Underground Edinburgh: The lost streets of Mary King's Close in 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 – head below the city streets and you can uncover the secrets of underground Edinburgh at The Real Mary King’s Close.

Buried deep below ground, this network of narrow alleyways and abandoned houses has been lying beneath the Royal Mile 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 underground?

Read more: Alternative things to do in Edinburgh

Actors at The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh
The close’s 17th century residents

Mary King’s Close history

During the 17th century, Edinburgh’s Old Town was suffering from major overcrowding. The walls which had been built around the edge of the city to protect its residents meant there was no space for it to expand outwards. So instead as the population grew, 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 were locked up at each end at night to keep 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 open sewers outside their front doors.

Underground street at The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh
Cobbled streets in the close

Most of Edinburgh’s 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 which were already there. But rather than knocking these houses down completely, they took the top floors off and used the lower floors as the foundations for the Exchange.

Mary King’s Close was covered over and swallowed up into the basement of the Royal Exchange. The sloping ground meant that the houses fronting onto the Royal Mile were destroyed. But further down the close whole houses were buried in tact.

Ghostly apparitions in Edinburgh
Ghost hunting

Even though it was buried underground, the close wasn’t totally abandoned. Some residents didn’t want to leave and carried on running their businesses in this strange half-buried world. So you could head 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 Royal Exchange building – now used as the City Chambers – was extended and the last of the close was sealed up.

Then in 2003, Mary King’s Close was opened up as a visitor attraction once archaeologists and historians had analysed all the evidence they could find to uncover what life had been like for underground Edinburgh’s 17th-century residents.

Sign for Edinburgh's Real Mary King's Close
Mary King’s Close sign

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, with stories of the close’s residents, from gravediggers to murderous mother-in-laws – and including Mary King herself.

Underground street of Mary King's Close in Edinburgh
The buried streets

Edinburgh’s closes were named after prominent local citizens and in the 1630s Mary was a fabric merchant who lived in the close. She set up her own business after her husband died – an impressive feat 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.

Buried streets at The Real Mary King's Close, Edinburgh
Edinburgh underground

A gruesome legend has it that Mary King’s Close’s gates 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 – from TV spook hunters Most Haunted to a Japanese psychic who claimed to have met a young girl called Annie in one of the rooms. She was said to be a plague victim abandoned by her parents who wanted a doll to stop her feeling so lonely.

Paranormal activity at Mary King's Close in Edinburgh
Spooky sights at Mary King’s Close

Since then, guests from around the world have donated toys for her, and a slightly creepy pile of dolls and teddies (and more 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.

Creepy piles of dolls at 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 just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, opposite St Giles’ Cathedral and a short walk 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 £17.95 for adults, £15.95 for students/seniors and £11.25 for children aged 5–15 (children under 5 not permitted). It gets busy at peak times so it’s a good idea to book tickets in advance online.*

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Head beneath ground to underground Edinburgh to discover the lost 17th-century streets of The Real Mary King's Close, buried beneath the Royal Mile | Things to do in Edinburgh | Edinburgh history | Underground Edinburgh | The Real Mary King's CloseUnderground Edinburgh: The lost streets of Mary King’s Close, a buried 17th-century street hidden away beneath the Royal Mile | Things to do in Edinburgh | Edinburgh history | Underground Edinburgh | The Real Mary King's Close

*This article contains affiliate links where I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Photography isn’t allowed inside so all images courtesy of The Real Mary King’s Close.

Mair Davies

Tuesday 4th of January 2022

I visited Mary King court whist in Edinburgh for my 60th birthday. we live in Cardiff.

I was a bit worried about doing this tour as I can get a little claustrophobic under ground but I didn't feel that way at all.

I love the Tudor period of history and this tour is fascinating and I am glad I went. Well worth a look if you like historic buildings. Didn't feel spooky either just amazed how its been preserved after so long. Fascinating to see how people lived in those times.

I would defiantly do it again. Thank you

Bert Patient

Sunday 13th of December 2020

My wife and i went there three years ago and a young lady dressed for the tour was excellent My relations live in the city and have never been there I would say any visitor to the city would find it most interesting to take a visit We watched the tv progamme on hidden city secretss and was very much amazed that this was not visitted at the time of the Edinburgh showing A thank you to all who keep it going

Melanie Chadd

Monday 26th of March 2018

I only live in Perth and this has been on my list of things to do in Edinburgh for some time now. I have heard lots of really good things about it and it sounds fascinating.

Great post


Wednesday 28th of March 2018

Thanks, it's a fascinating place – so unusual!

Diana Thorneycroft

Friday 23rd of February 2018

I have just been reading some of the "Rebus" books, set in Edinburgh and in one of them he mentions the underground streets that were built over. I was fascinated by the idea and so thought I'd do an internet search. How glad I was to find your site. It is so well written and interesting to read. I can't wait to go and see it. One day soon I hope. Thank you so much for sharing this. I'm off upstairs to share it with my son. Very best wishes to you and very happy wanderings. Remember "All who wander are not lost" Diana


Sunday 25th of February 2018

Thanks Diana, I haven't read any Rebus books for a long time but this is a great reminder to check them out again! Fascinating place, and so interesting to visit, hope you get there too someday.

marianne mcdougall

Tuesday 13th of February 2018

Fabulous post Lucy, this now makes me want to go on my next trip to Edinburgh.


Tuesday 13th of February 2018

Thanks! It's such an interesting place, well worth a trip.