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.
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.