What lies beneath Edinburgh’s Old Town?
First of all, what is a ‘close?’ In Scottish vernacular, a close is a vennel or narrow alleyway, dividing up houses and shops in ancient Royal Burghs. Also known as burgher plots, they separated each merchant’s business and premises in towns designed for trade and taxation as decreed by David I of Scotland. Their origins are 12th century and many have survived until the present day, albeit dramatically shortened due to modern development. In Edinburgh, conditions in these closes were dire. Overcrowding, lack of sanitation and hygiene ensured that the plague pathogen swept through Edinburgh’s Old Town like wildfire. Mary King’s Close was no exception with its dark forboding hovels and narrow street. The buildings were up to 8 storeys high ensuring little sunshine and fresh air, allowing disease to flourish. In the area of what is now known as the Royal Mile in the city, 30000 souls lived and died in poverty and dirt. In the 17th century, this was what constituted Edinburgh, a mile long burgh whose inhabitants lived short lives, bearing many children because only a few lived to adulthood.
Mary King – Businesswoman
In the 17th century, the Old Town of Edinburgh was home to rich and poor alike, neither having sanitation, therefore the plague was a great equaliser. Rich merchants succumbed just like the poorest of Edinburgh’s poor. Mary King was not poor, but comfortably off, documented evidence showing that she was a prominent businesswoman in the 1630s. She sewed for a living and traded in fabrics, which ensured a decent enough income. Mary’s standing in the town was high, which was unusual for a woman and the close in which she lived was named after her. As well as her business acumen, Mary was a widow and had four children to bring up by herself.
The Fate of the Close
The close now lies deep beneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, frozen in time for three centuries, until it was opened as a visitor attraction in 1996. It was evacuated and closed in 1644 – 46 due to the plague. The Royal Exchange was built over it in the 19th century and it has subsequently housed the City Chambers. The close was discovered in the 20th century when work done in the basement of the City Chambers revealed a hidden town beneath the present city of Edinburgh. Today, it is a learning experience for everyone interested in medieval history. The close is dark, dimly lit and gloomy, with guides in period costume leading the tours. There are several houses under the Royal Mile, each of which used the close as a common entrance. Ghostly presences have been reported and a well known ghost busting team have investigated the close and its houses.
It’s well worth a visit.