Are you feeling adventurous? I hope so because I would love for you to join me on a little trip below the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Below the Chambers, you ask? Yep! We’re soon going to head underground to visit The Real Mary King’s Close. So, if you’re game and not too afraid of the dark, come on! I promise, I won’t jump out and scare you (although I can’t promise no one else will…).
Deep below ground, beneath the tourist hustle bustle, the souvenir shops, pubs, performance artists, and busking bagpipers, there lies a hidden labyrinth of narrow alleyways and abandoned dwellings. It is an utterly fascinating and well-preserved peek into what life was really like in Edinburgh’s 17th century past. But to understand it more clearly, I need to tell you a little bit about how the city of Edinburgh grew. That’s what we are going to focus on today.
You might recall that the city of Edinburgh had its beginnings outside the walls of Edinburgh Castle and eventually spread east along the sloped stretch of road called the Royal Mile. Because the city was surrounded by a wall meant for protection from invaders, Edinburgh’s residents (who coped with extreme overcrowding) were unable to expand the city outward and were therefore faced with no other alternative than to build up. What they ended up with was a web of narrow alleyways (called closes) that led off of the Royal Mile, with buildings that grew many stories high.
The closes were often named for the notable people or the types of businesses that were located there. For example, you might have purchased your bread in Bakehouse Close. Or your seafood in Old Fishmarket’s Close. Mary King’s Close took its name from Mary King, a widow and prominent cloth merchant who lived and operated her business there in the 1600’s. By day, the closes bustled with the business of residents who lived, worked, and played there. And at night, gates could be locked up to keep out undesirables.
Life was extremely tough for the people of 16th and 17th century Edinburgh. There was no sanitation, crime and infestation were commonplace, and pestilence was rampant. If you were wealthy, you at least had the luxury of residing in the building’s upper floors, away from the noise and the stench. But citizens of the poorer set found themselves relegated to the lower floors, near to the penned up cattle, the cacophony of city life outside their windows, and open sewers than ran right in front of their buildings. For many in Edinburgh, life was dirty, uncertain, and in many cases, short.
So how did this portion of the city end up underground? Excellent question. As the city walls began to come down in the mid 18th century, the wealthy began to move north into the newly built New Town. By this time, many of the closes were in a ruinous state and out of concern for losing commerce to the New Town, city officials proposed that a new place of exchange (the Royal Exchange) be built. Interestingly, the site they chose was the location where Mary King’s Close and other homes sat. Instead of completely demolishing the structures, they instead cropped off the top floors of the buildings (which sat on a slope) and created a series of vaulted ceilings within them that would become the foundation of the new structures. They then built the new Royal Exchange over Mary King’s Close and the other nearby closes, effectively swallowing them into what is now the basement. To this day, this original section of the city remains intact and frozen in time under the earth. It is absolutely fascinating!
If (and when!) you visit Edinburgh, I highly recommend taking the tour down into The Real Mary King’s Close. You won’t be disappointed.
Myth, legend, fact…ghosts…these are just a few of the things I can’t wait to share with you as we go underground in my next post. I’ll see you again in a few days!