Before Covid, one of the places I was excited to visit in Edinburgh, Scotland was the Real Mary King’s Close.
Located under the Royal Mile, in the historic Old Town area, the Close (a Scottish term that means “alleyway”) is Edinburgh’s only preserved 17th century street underground. According to my research, it is one of the only Closes to ever be named for a woman. Mary King was a successful merchant who sold fabrics on high street.
As time went on, most of the Closes were demolished or redeveloped, although a number still remain. Mary King’s Close suffered a different fate. It was partially demolished when the Royal Exchange was built in the 18th century, leaving only the lower storeys underground. It remained open at one end and some intrepid traders continued to ply their businesses (selling tobacco, making wigs and supplying a variety of goods and services), but at the turn of the twentieth century, it was finally closed to the public after the last inhabitant left.
Not only is the place steeped in history, it’s shrouded in myths and urban legends. Tales of the Close being haunted started in the 17th century, and it has appeared on several paranormal investigation shows, including Most Haunted.
Since I never got to go (but I’ll definitely visit once it’s safe again), I’ve asked British author Catherine Cavendish to tell us what it’s really like in the Close. She loves the place so much, her novel The Haunting of Henderson Close was inspired by it.
Touring the Close
“The first thing that hits you is the eerie stillness. The next is the claustrophobic closeness of the properties. You could have leaned out of your upper storey window and shaken hands with the person opposite. The rough stone ground beneath your feet is dry now, but back in the 17th century and for a couple of hundred years after that, you would have been walking on what amounted to an open sewer.
The screech of “Gardy loo” would have sent pedestrians scurrying out of the way of the contents of the night-time chamber pot splashing down from an upstairs window. There it would join the rest of the detritus of mixed animal and vegetable waste being washed down the steep hill into the infamous Nor’ Loch far below. When you’re down in Mary King’s Close, it’s not difficult to imagine.
The guide will lead you along narrow streets. Although called “The Real Mary King’s Close,” the excavations have taken in parts of adjoining Closes as well. Contrary to popular belief, people didn’t actually live underground here (although that’s not to say they didn’t elsewhere in Edinburgh – that’s a whole other story).
Originally, the buildings would have towered upward – the world’s first true skyscrapers – as Edinburgh, restricted by its position at the top of a granite hill, faced no alternative but to build ever upward.
In the 18th century, the Closes, including Mary King’s Close, were evacuated and the upper storeys literally sliced off, sealing the streets below, save for access to businesses, which continued to ply their trade for many years to follow. Brand new, imposing council offices were built in neo-classical style – the City Chambers you see today.
Disease and Destruction
Prior to the construction of Edinburgh’s prosperous New Town in the 18th century, there was a definite hierarchy in where you happened to be living in the Old Town. In the “heigh” (high) houses dwelt the rich and prosperous – living in several storeys, with servants to cater to their every whim.
In the “laiche” (low) houses, lived the poorest, at street level, in overcrowded, insanitary conditions where disease was rife and rapidly took hold. Plague, cholera and all manner of horrible disfiguring and fatal epidemics and diseases were rife. The guide will tell you all you need to know as you stand in a small, vaulted cellar room that would have housed an entire family.
As you listen, in stunned silence – with the occasional nervous giggle from someone in your group – you can feel them all around you.
Crime was rife too, including some infamous murders.
The spectral figure of Mary King herself appears (okay, it’s a projection, but it’s a convincing one). She is an inspirational figure for women as, unusually for her sex, she was a 16th century merchant – rare in itself – who had a Close named after her – rarer still.
In sparsely furnished, low-ceilinged rooms, you will see astonishingly real figures who come to life in the low, flickering light. In one such room, a man lies, dying in bed. No doubt, all his family will soon follow for he has…the plague. Attending to him is a fearsome-looking creature, dressed in an ankle-length leather coat, sporting a face mask with a massive crow-like beak.
This is Dr. George Rae, the famous plague doctor. The beak is filled with herbs to keep the ‘miasma’ away. He did his best, but this was 1644, when between a fifth and a half of the entire population of Edinburgh succumbed and died from plague. This outbreak didn’t abate until 1646.
When you see the tragic figure of Janet Craig and her baby, already suffering the effects of the onset of plague, you cannot help but feel transported back in time. It feels as if you are a witness to what is happening. The ghosts of the past have made contact…
Then, for some, the most poignant stop on the tour. Annie’s Room. Many sightings have occurred here and there is a certain atmosphere. It is a small area, literally strewn with toys of all kinds – teddy bears, dolls, and even money. So, who was she?
According to a Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, she was a small child, separated from her parents. She died, unaware that she had the plague. Her mother probably brought her there to die, quarantined from the rest of the family in an effort to protect them.
Annie (a name that has been given to her) lost her favourite doll and couldn’t find her anywhere. Aiko bought her a Barbie-like doll from a local shop to comfort her. This seemed to work and, for as long as it remained there, Annie’s spirit would be at peace, Aiko assured the owners. Since then, many other people have brought other toys to join it. And the original doll?
It’s missing. So, if you feel an insistent tugging at your leg, and sense a ghostly child’s presence…
On none of my visits have I experienced being touched, breathed on, shoved, pinched or any other negative action, but there is no denying the unique atmosphere of the place. It does bear down on you and you do feel you are being watched. I felt this most when we stopped at the doorway of the last resident of the Close – Andrew Chesney, a sawmaker.
He was forced out firstly as a resident by compulsory purchase and then as the last person to ply his trade there in 1902. His original toilet – a “thunderbox” – is still there. It was his pride and joy and, leaving his front door open, he would wave at passers-by while he sat on it. I always get a creepy feeling as I stumble past there, and past other locked and shuttered dwellings adjoining it. What secrets lie behind those closed doors?
Up above, along the Close, lines of washing stretch from one side to the other, just as they would have all those years ago. Your eyes are drawn upwards into the gloom. Was that a movement you saw? Or just your eyes playing tricks on you?
Relief and Loss
At the end of the tour, each person or party is invited to come forward to have their photograph taken. There are occasions when orbs and other phenomena have reportedly shown up on the finished picture. I always live in hope that one day something will appear on ours. Will it be this time? Sadly not.
Back in the 21st century gift shop, the instant feeling I always get is a mix of relief and loss. I can’t explain it any better than that. You have to visit and experience it for yourself, but it draws you back. One day, I will return to the Real Mary King’s Close.
It affected me so much, I wrote a book where much of the action takes place in a tourist attraction very similar to The Real Mary King’s Close. I call it Henderson Close.”
The Haunting of Henderson Close is available from:
Have you ever visited the Real Mary King’s Close? Do places like this call to you? I hope someday to be able to go, and see the spirits for myself.
Thanks to Catherine Cavendish for taking us along on her tour.