Mary King's Close,
Edinburgh, Scotland: 400 Years of History
Where the Plague Comes Back to Life
Though No Longer Contagious
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs courtesy of The Real Mary King's Close Consortium
he year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has
immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half
the city's population. The area hardest hit: Mary King's Close on High
Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs,
shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly
chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.
The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected
as one of Edinburgh's most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and
historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit,
the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection
of what already existed so many centuries ago.
Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh's famous Royal
Mile, lies Mary King's Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets
with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has
been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings
were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the
lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of
dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery
The exhibit breathes new life into this underground
world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then though
without any contagious aspects the Real Mary King's Close provides
amazing insight into a period of history with which many are totally
unfamiliar and it's been preserved in an authentic environment
and historically accurate depiction that defies most "commercial"
It is eerie meandering up and down along dark, circuitous
unpaved passageways, beaten down earth floors (good walking shoes are
a must; wheelchair accessible it is not) past room after room,
each with its own story to tell a projection of people who lived
in the Close in the mid-16th-19th centuries. I almost feel an intruder,
the subtle lighting enhancing the effects of a shadowy past.
The inhabitants ranging from those gracing a
grand 16th century townhouse to plague victims of the 17th century to
the third-generation saw makers who departed in 1902, when the last
section was finally interred are not composites of might-have-beens;
the lives recounted are based on real people gleaned from primary documentation
(written at the time) and preserved in the Scottish Office of Records
and its archives.
Lighting conveys the supernatural nature of the attraction
as much as does the narrative. Only "practicals" original
methods of lighting the dwellings are used, re-creating the actual
lighting conditions of the 17th-18th centuries. Candle light illuminates
one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A
single low-watt light bulb brings others into hazy focus.
The dark hallways are lit by lantern-like "bowats,"
providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at
night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight
its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants no more
or less than was available to the tenants at the time. The concept of
atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.
Rounding one curve reveals a large window, lit by a
gloomy, greenish, unhealthy light. A doctor emerges, tending to bed-ridden
figures, covered with sores, boils and diseased skin. It's the home
of John Craig, a grave-digger who has already succumbed to the "visitation
of the pestilence," his body awaiting "collection."
His wife, Janet, and three sons suffer from varying
stages of the deadly malady. The Doctor is lancing a boil on the eldest
son, Johnnie, with a hot iron to seal and disinfect the wound. Repellant
odors arising from the family chamber pot of vomit provide a little
more "reality" than even today's cable TV has prepared me
for. By the door there is bread, ale and coal delivered to the quarantined
family. The townspeople want to ensure the afflicted stay in their homes,
so the healthy have good reason to give generously.
And therein lies the tragedy of Mary King's Close
much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck
its residents fiercely; as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside
to be carried away by those designated to perform the loathsome task.
Mary King's Close was a pariah in the neighborhood and ultimately
fell victim to its own diseased fate. It disappeared, as well.
With more than two dozen stops along the tour path
each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history I became
intimately acquainted with the residents who lived there.
Mary King herself, of course, who moved here with her
four children in 1629 after her husband died. You'll get to meet her
personally and boy, does she have some good stories to tell!
While listening to the story of another early dweller,
the narration is interrupted by a scream from across the way. We quickly
run to see what happened. The widow Allison Rough, murder weapon in
hand, is standing over her son-in-law Alexander Cant, a prominent Burgess
of Edinburgh, whose body lay on the floor the dowry agreement
over which they have been fighting still in his hand. Events leading
up to the murder, as well as its aftermath, are wound into a true-to-life
rendition of Allison's memorable life.
Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre
all authenticated by original documentation abound as we wend
our way around the windy, up-and-down corridors. Shifts in lighting
reflect the various circumstances. Not to mention the assorted ghosts
(the only residents not authenticated by original documentation) who
are said to inhabit the property.
Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard
discovery. "This really brings to life all the stories I've heard
over the years about this part of the city's history. It's hard to grasp
that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops."
One of the most important and saddest
among a multitude of rooms that witnessed much sadness is one in which
eight-year-old Annie died of the plague in 1645. A Japanese psychic,
visiting in 1992, could barely enter the room because of all the misery
she felt there. As she turned away, she claimed to feel a tug at her
leg. Annie, in rags with long dirty hair, was standing by the window,
crying because she had lost her family, her dog and her doll. The psychic
brought Annie a doll to comfort her and people from around the
world have been leaving trinkets and toys ever since.
Key chains, jewelry, dolls, stuffed animals line the
walls as a shrine to the sad little child who has long since passed
away. "What a sad story," laments 10-year-old Harriet Peterson,
visiting from London. She slowly adds the small stuffed teddy bear she
is hugging to the other offerings.
There was a lot of life lived within these buildings
and a lot of lives lost. As one of the most fascinating and unique
walks literally through history I've yet to tread, the
unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, the serpentine alleyways
remained with me, even as I explored the many other, more traditional
sites of Historic Edinburgh.
The Real Mary King's Close is open daily, with tours
at 15-minute intervals. Price is adults, $23; children 5-15, $13; seniors
and students, $20. For more information, please contact: VisitBritain
at 1-877/899-8391 or visit www.realmarykingsclose.com.
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