Deep beneath the Royal Mile, lies one of Edinburgh’s deepest secrets – The Real Mary King’s Close – a warren of hidden ‘closes’ or narrow streets where real people once lived, worked and died. This underground city lay forgotten and covered over by the City Chambers until in 2003 it opened as a fascinating new visitor attraction.
Emma from Team DC went to check it out…
‘I have always found it fascinating that underneath the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town there’s an even older town – one with lots of narrow streets and almost perfectly preserved town houses dating back to the 1600s.
All the tour guides at Mary King’s Close are ‘former residents’. My guide was Agnes Chambers (looking remarkably young for her 500 years), a maid in the house of a prominent merchant. Agnes informed us that these narrow closes, with houses originally built up to eight storeys high, were used as the foundations for the Royal Exchange (now the City Chambers) which was built directly over the top of the streets in 1753, burying them for over two centuries.
Mary King herself was a successful Edinburgh merchant. Another of the inhabitants, also a wealthy merchant, was Alison Rough. The delightful sounding Miss Rough was condemned to death by drowning in the filthy Nor Loch (now the popular picnic spot, Princes Street Gardens) for killing her son-in-law.
We were not allowed to enter the house of William Chesney, resident saw maker, because the walls had been painted with a substance containing arsenic. We were, however, allowed to look in from the close where we could see the toilet that he apparently liked to sit on with his front door wide open, so proud was he of having a toilet at all!
One of the most interesting sights on the tour was a room containing a chest full of children’s dolls. A Japanese psychic had visited but could barely step into a room due to the strong sensation of a painfully unhappy child clutching at her trouser leg. It is thought that the child, Annie, was upset at being brought here to prevent her passing on the plague to her siblings and at losing her favourite doll. The tradition of leaving a doll in the room for her has been carried on ever since.
By the 1750s many of the buildings in the closes were in a ruinous state and were built over. Luckily for us the site has been developed for visitors…Be warned, though, you might need a wee dram afterwards if you are easily scared.’