There are streets and alleyways in Edinburgh that no longer echo with footsteps; where broken pieces of wood snapped from holes in the walls are the only indication that traders once set up stalls. A place that was once overground now shut away from the open skies, entombed below buildings.
Mary King’s Close was just one of many streets running down from the Royal Mile that became buried underneath the city, turning into the foundations for The Royal Exchange in 1753 (now the City Chambers). The close had been inhabited during the 16th and 17th centuries, but was abandoned after being hit by the plague in 1645. With rooms of the tenement buildings and walkways left frozen in the 17th century, it is the perfect place to step back in time.
Standing waiting for my guide, I reminded myself that children as young as five can go on this tour. Being ever so slightly scared of enclosed underground spaces I was a bit apprehensive about journeying into the dark rooms of The Real Mary King’s Close (ok, and also a tad squeamish to boot). But I was keen to explore such a hidden part of Edinburgh and learn more about the city’s fascinating history. And, I thought, if I get really spooked perhaps the guide will hold my hand…
Said guide introduced himself as Walter King, whose rather grim job title was Plague Cleaner. The guides lead you round the rooms and alleys of the close in character, based on those who lived or worked there. Walter (aka Lloyd) was fantastic at bringing the past to life, with just the right amount of humour to lighten the situation for delicate souls like me. (And when I swayed slightly in the ‘plague room’ while listening to tales that really do turn your stomach, he made me feel infinitely better by reporting that men have fainted in there – I, dear reader, am pleased to say did not). Our guide seemed genuinely fascinated by the underground world before us, pointing out 400 year old imprints on a wall (a poor man’s wallpaper) with visible awe.
Stories of former residents were woven into the tour (I particularly enjoyed the talking gallery) along with horror stories, historical fact and ghost stories from the more recent past. As we entered one small room I suddenly felt it so much colder than in other parts. Our guide explained that it is rather famously said to house the lonely ghost of a young girl called Annie, who made her presence felt to a Japanese psychic in 1992 and ever since has received gifts from the public. It is thought that Annie was a plague victim and abandoned by her family.
For me, the ghost whose presence I really felt – that which hid behind corners, lurked under arches and followed my every step – was the ghost of Edinburgh’s past. As I stood on the close at the end of the tour, we were invited to reflect for a moment on what it would have sounded, looked and felt like 400 years ago – when my eyes would have been gazing up at sky instead of stone. I tried to imagine a bustling market street, my minds’ eye creating a scene of 17th century life: washing flapping overhead; the close lined with stalls and overflowing with people; the air full of noise and shouts and cries of ‘Gardyloo!’ as waste was slung out of tenement doors and ran down to the loch below in a slimy stream. And then we moved on, following Walter King towards the exit and leaving the silent ghost street to its memories; its secrets and stories settling like dust behind us.
If you want to experience hidden Edinburgh for yourself, you can book a tour at www.realmarykingsclose.com.
I would like to thank the staff, particularly my guide Lloyd, for my time at The Real Mary King’s Close – my tour was complimentary but my opinions are my own.