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Like snapping photos from the Vennel and walking along Circus Lane, it took four visits to Edinburgh to do this activity…touring Mary King’s Close.
On my first visit, my cousins and I toured underground vaults instead and didn’t make it to Mary King’s Close.
Two visits ago, while in Scotland with my mom, sisters and niece, we tried to book a tour of this famous close. They were booked up beyond our stay date.
Last visit, my sister and I didn’t even try. We stayed busy with the Maitland Clan Gathering.
This trip, I felt determined to finally see what this popular attraction on the Royal Mile is all about. I’m glad I did!
What is a Close?
Closes are narrow covered alleyways that branch off the Royal Mile. The city of Edinburgh is built on an extinct volcanic, with the Mile moving down the spine of rock. It’s a wide, beautiful street.
When the city first grew, beyond the cluster of small houses near the castle, closes and wynds fell away from the Mile, connecting the main thoroughfare with other sections of town. Businesses and tenements, as tall as eight stories, sprang up along these narrow closes.
All classes of citizens worked and lived in these stone townhouses. The wealthy occupied the top stories while merchants lived and worked in the middle levels. The poorest in the city lived at ground level, where sewage and waste, mud and muck were real problems.
Who Was Mary King?
Closes were often named for the activities along that lane. Bread was baked in Bakehouse Close. Lawyers lived and worked along Advocate’s Close.
And some closes bore the names of influential people who lived there.
Mary King was born near the end of the 1500s. Her marriage to Thomas Nemo is recorded in 1616 and together they had four children. Thomas died in 1629, leaving Mary to raise their four offspring alone. She moved her young family into what was known then as Alexander King’s Close or simply, King’s Close.
After Alexander King died…he was not related to Mary at all…and his heir did nothing with the property or close, the name gradually changed to Mary King’s Close.
She became a merchant, to support her family, selling fine fabrics and sewing garments for others. Mary now occupied a house near the top of the close. She also rented a small shop on High Street, the upper section of the Royal Mile…a very desirable location, so we know she did well.
When Mary died in 1644 she left a will. Her belongings included silver spoons, gold rings, furniture, cushions and pillows, fabric, sewing supplies, velvet trousers, bedsheets, cloth napkins, wine and beer, tartan plaids and ruffs.
A Foul Pestilence Strikes
Three months after Mary’s death, plague erupted across the city. Outbreaks were common during this time in history, with the sickness carried from port to port on ships. Flea infested rats inhabited those ships and those tiny parasitic insects carried the plague.
This pestilence became the last great plague outbreak in Scotland. The city elected a plague doctor to try and control the spread of the disease. Wealthy city dwellers fled to the country to escape however the poor and working class had no where to go. And in their crowded and unsanitary living conditions, many died.
Contrary to myths, the sick inhabitants of Mary King’s Close and the other closes were not walled up to starve to death. The city did what it could to care for people, creating quarantine houses and providing families with food and drink.
It’s estimated that at least a fifth of Edinburgh’s citizens died during this plague. Some push that estimate closer to two-thirds. Councilmen died as well. Merchants and bankers and children died. Doctors dressed in long coats and gloves and wore bird shaped masks with herbs in the beak portion for protection. And yet, doctors died too until the disease finally ran its course.
By the 1750s, many of the closes needed repairs. Rather than improve the area, the city built an enclosed building over several closes, including Mary King’s, in hopes that merchants would move their businesses there.
The plan didn’t work. People preferred living and working in the now covered over closes. By 1850 most of Mary King’s Close lay in ruins. One family chose to stay in the close, operating a saw shop and living there. The city began buying up the property that included the hidden closes and finally, in 1930, that last family was bought out.
During World War II, Mary King’s Close became an air raid shelter. Although it was used infrequently, there’s still a generator and equipment in one of the below ground rooms of the close.
The Ghosts of Mary King’s Close
Of course such a historical and ancient place houses a few ghosts. After the plague residents of Mary King’s reported ghosts of the unfortunate dead roaming the closes.
One story published in Edinburgh in 1685 told of a haunting in a couple’s home in Mary King’s Close. Apparently they were terrorized by a disembodied, floating head, a small child and a variety of spooky creatures. A few short weeks later, after reporting the haunting, the husband died.
A worried looking man and a woman dressed in black are still seen today, wandering the closes. Is the woman Mary?
And the most famous ghost in the close is Annie. Years ago, a Japanese physic found a room off of Alan’s Close troubling. She reported the ghostly presence of a sad little girl named Annie, who couldn’t find her family. And the wee girl had lost her doll as well. The physic had a doll brought into the room for Annie, to keep her company. Today that somber room is full of dolls, stuffed animals and toys as visitors from around the world bring Annie gifts, to show her love and respect.
My Experience Touring Mary King’s Close
I enjoyed this delightful, educational tour. First, I deeply appreciate the ongoing research being done at Mary King’s Close. As the researchers learn more about the inhabitants of the close, and the city itself, they flesh out the stories told.
And second, the tour is fun. Costumed tour guides lead visitors through the labyrinth of underground closes. Although the pathways and rooms are well lit, the floor is uneven in places and there are quite a few stairs to climb up and down. Walk with care.
Displays set up in rooms and computerized presentations make this tour unique and interesting. I learned a great deal about life during Edinburgh’s younger years.
As an intuitive, I felt that familiar tingle of energy across my back and scalp several times. And when we entered the home that contains Annie’s room, I felt a very strong presence there before I realized where we were. There is sadness and grief in Annie’s room, in spite of all of the dolls and toys.
If you plan on touring Mary King’s Close, book online HERE or purchase tickets as soon as you arrive in the city. It’s likely you’ll have to book a day or two in advance. Tour groups are purposefully small because those rooms and tunnels are small with low ceilings in many areas.
I highly recommend a tour of Mary King’s Close. Would you visit?
Traveling to Scotland this year? I highly recommend a lightweight waterproof jacket like this one. Click photo to order.
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