Historic Edinburgh: Mary King’s Close

It was a return to my roots last week with a few days of a visit to Edinburgh over a long weekend. It seems I often tend to visit Auld Reekie at this time of year, I can only suppose that historically this is because it coincides with the early clashes between Hibs and their opponents at Easter Road. I love Edinburgh in Autumn as I love it in Spring, I love it all the time it has to be said. The early crisping of leaves in Princes Street Gardens reminds me of coming of the harsher winter days so familiar from past times, mid-winter celebrations and good company.

mary kings

The story of Mary King’s Close first came to my awareness during my school ‘daze’ via some dusty library tome. The tale fascinated me then and still does. My interest was rekindled some years ago by Billy Connolly on his ‘World Tour of Scotland’ series when he plunged down into the close with the aid of a guide and camera crew to re-tell the story of the infamous wynde. His story it seems was inaccurate however, more on that later.

Fairly recently, Mary King’s Close has evolved into a genuine tourist attraction and visit. In the old days, private tours had to be arranged through the council until one or two Edinburgh ghost walks started broaching into a small part of the subterranean street. I had my own historical appetite whetted by the latter and had always wanted to go back now that access was more fully available.

There are countless accounts of the history of Mary King’s Close and rather than offer a detailed historical time-line my preference is to rather give an account of my visit and the personal feelings surrounding that. Suffice to say that the City Chambers situated on the High Street above opposite the austere and imposing St. Giles Cathedral in the heart of the old town now sits above the close. What were formerly tenement buildings of up to seven stories along the close (the world’s first skyscrapers anyone?) were demolished down to three stories in order to make way for the chambers sitting at street level among the granite sets of the Royal Mile. The present day remains are not troubled by daylight where once a little sun filtered into the deep, dank depths of this part of the ancient city. Latterly it seems there was little metaphorical sunshine either.

After a short wait, our excellent young guide in the 17th Century garb of a local merchant ushered us through the entrance to the head of the steps leading underground. After a short, spoken introduction we descended into 1635AD, a time of much poverty and deprivation in the area. Edinburgh’s old town in those days was a filthy, unsanitary environment with open sewers running down the middle of the street and into the old Nor’ Loch, the infested body of water that was drained to give us the splendour of the present day Princes Street Gardens. In those days the loch was used as a handy place to duck ‘witches’, in fact it was used for dumping practically anything that was unpalatable to your world. Unsurprisingly disease and ill-health were not uncommon in those dire conditions, the worst curse of all being the rapid spread of Bubonic Plague or ‘Black Plague’ as it was known due to its unfortunate sufferers’ skin turning that hue upon the greater progress of its awful grip.

Here’s where the stories of Mary King’s close differ. I had always believed that the poor, wretched inhabitants had been barricaded alive in the close by fearful neighbours and local authorities due to the belief that this was the epicentre of the disease. I also believed that the corpses of the dead were left down there for many years as authority workers refused to handle the dead as they were too smitten with fright of the plague. Not so according to our guide. Apparently people stayed there and died there – there was little place superior for them to go elsewhere it seems. This to my ears is a reasonable enough story though of course a tad less romantic (and gory) than the former version.

The tour takes the visit through several homes and places of work. At times the architecture is unstable and various ancient wall stencilling is under threat from the regularity of visitors down there. Perhaps a memorable moment for some was the visit to a small vault with the lights turned out! The guide bade us all to sit on long chests as he announced a ghost story of severed limbs and other 17th Century niceties. Perhaps not for the faint of heart…

The story of little Annie who died in the close is a touching one which should be saved for the actual visit. Beside the vast pile of toys left for her ‘ghost’ lays a collection which nourishes the Edinburgh Sick Kids Hospital to the tune of thousands of pounds, happily.

Alighting into the actual close towards the end of the tour was the most evocative scene for me personally. Interesting enough were the various vaults and workshops, one owned by the local saw-doctor but I felt like I wanted to stay there balanced against a wall of the steep old wynde for a while longer. It was easy to drink in the atmosphere and feed from the hard lives of these former people of Edinburgh, part of the people who I descend from indeed. Peering down the narrow, eerie close was an unforgettable and unique experience, opening a page into Edinburgh’s history. I will go there again one day and pay my respects.

If you find yourself in Edinburgh one bright day, go to Mary King’s Close, you will not forget it, nor have experienced anything at all like it.

18 thoughts on “Historic Edinburgh: Mary King’s Close”

  1. Excellently written (as always Stu) – I’ve not been down there for many years but you’ve whetted ma appetite. Maybe next time my BB is back in Auld Reekie we can book a trip

  2. This is relly cool, I’m doing a report on Mary King’s close, and it looks creepy already. I’m into haunted things, so this was perfect, my goal is to visit there atleast once in my life, I hope I can!

  3. Hi Petra

    ‘The Real Mary Kings Close’ is a private company that runs the tour down there. No other people have access to it as far as I know.

    Tel: 08702 430160


    Please take my advice and book ahead. Friends of mine were disappointed last time as it’s a very popular tour.

    For other tours such as the similar Edinburgh Vaults walks, try Mercat Tours


    Best wishes.


  4. We were very disappointed too! All tickets were sold-out 😦

    Very well written Stuart, I’m happy I found this site!

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Di. It’s very much mutual as I’m really enjoying reading the travel blogs on your site too!

    Another option in Edinburgh is ‘The Edinburgh Vaults’ in the old town – a series of old arches in which local people used to live and sometimes trade in spite of the terrible conditions. There are tours there too.

  6. visited the close this week, not much people i guess during the winter. had a guide called agnes (real name kate) – great details information gather from her. Kinda of creepy when she off the lights, darkness where you can see your own hand. The cowhead still had smell….and i almost vomit when she said black pudding was made from cows blood which I had that morning.

    Highly recommend when visit edinburgh.

  7. A fairly quiet time of year, yes Sue. I’m sure it would have been a very different story over the New Year period! Good to see that you enjoyed your visit, it’s rare that I’ve heard anybody not impressed with it. It sounds like your visit was one where several of the senses were stimulated!

    Best wishes


  8. Hi Stuart

    You have captured the essence of May King’s Close admirably.

    My wife, Elizabeth and I had the pleasure of visiting the Close on 12th January 2010 and our guide was ‘Stephen’ the Merchant. He told the story with passion and colour. Our tour numbered 7 only but thoroughly enjoyed the time.

    It is atmospheric in the extreme and although the weather was hovering around 0 to plus 1 degree C it felt a lot colder underground and with unexplained drafts wafting across our faces. In rooms with no chimneys or windows or any access to the outside world yet there was a daft!

    We also visited the Dungeons directly after Mary King’s and they enhanced the legend of locking up folk for fear of spreading the Plague – ‘Will see thee in Hell’ was one woman’s cry…

    Will go to Mary King’s again on our next visit to Edinburgh and will visit the vaults as well.

    Neil & Elizabeth

  9. Thanks Neil, I’m glad you and Elizabeth enjoyed your visit so much. It’s easy to pick up on the atmosphere down there isn’t it! I’ve not visited the dungeons as yet but mean to. The Edinburgh Vaults are another must-do. There are so many secrets down under the ground in Edinburgh and I wonder in future how many more of them will ultimately be revealed. It’s fascinating stuff isn’t it.

    Haste ye back!

  10. Hi Stuart

    The story is still unfolding by all accounts. If what we have read on http://www.realmarykingsclose.com is correct, the research is continuing in the archives and archaeology. Hopefully, the next time there will be more to discover. More characters with fascinating stories to tell. Mary King’s is one of many Closes with a rich and bloody history. The truth will out in the end – so they say. Lets hope so.

    The Vaults are another fascinating site. As you say the atmosphere is electric. We just had very cold spots and drafts wafted upon us in the centre of the complex. No stones thrown or door rattling, maybe next time, fingers crossed.

    For those who just want to experience the history of those days long past then Mary King’s is a MUST, if its for the ‘psychic’ or paranormal then how can you let this tour pass you by?

  11. I’ve not managed to visit the Vaults as yet Neil but look forward to doing so. I have a friend who is a surveyor in Edinburgh and he mentioned a time that he went down there on business, way before it was opened up, lit and tours began there. Though not being a particularly fanciful person he claimed that the atmosphere was extremely creepy down there and couldn’t wait to get out! I remember another aquaintance tell of his days down there practising under one of the old arches with his rock band. With the damp he wondered how they had never been electrocuted!

  12. Just a fair warning that if you are claustrophobic you may not be able to do this. I started down the 44 initial steps and had to turn back. I couldn’t imagine being down there fro one hour!!! Shame my husband liked the tour. I walked back out the entrance!!!

  13. Sorry to hear that, Margaret. I have mild claustrophobia myself but didn’t suffer by going down there. I can understand it may be difficult for some though. I hope you got your husband to treat you to a different attraction!

  14. I have also been listening about the stories assoiated with the famous Mary King’s Close, since the school days, and have visited there twice, along with my friends. The place does not look that horrible, as I was told, but it certainly has some mystery behind it. People from different places gets attracted towards this historic site, and everybody gets different experiences about this place.

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