Beneath a portion of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile lies a hidden labyrinth of narrow alleyways and abandoned dwellings. This “secret” underground world is a fascinating peek into 17th-century life. To understand why it exists, however, we first need to take a look at how the city of Edinburgh grew.
Edinburgh originated with a community of people that lived and worked outside the walls of Edinburgh Castle. As its population increased, the city spread east along the sloped stretch of road called the Royal Mile. Overcrowding eventually became a serious issue, but because a protective wall enclosed Edinburgh, residents were unable to expand the city outward. They had no other alternative than to build up. What resulted was a web of narrow alleyways called ‘closes’ that led off of the Royal Mile, and buildings that sometimes grew multiple stories high.
Closes were commonly named for the people or the types of businesses located there. For example, you might have purchased your bread in Bakehouse Close. Or your seafood in Old Fishmarket’s Close. The popular 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 1600s. By day, the closes bustled with the activity of residents who lived, worked, and played there. At night, gates were locked to keep out undesirables.
Life was 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 had the small luxury of residing in the building’s upper floors, away from the noise and the stench. The poor found themselves relegated to the lower floors, though – near the penned up cattle, the cacophony of city life outside their windows, and open sewers than ran right in front of their buildings. For people in Edinburgh, life was dirty, uncertain, and in many cases, short.
Once Edinburgh’s defensive walls began to come down in the mid 18th century, the city had room to expand, and the wealthy began moving north into the newly built New Town. By this time, many of the closes were in a ruinous state. Out of concern for losing commerce to the New Town, city officials proposed building a new place of exchange (the Royal Exchange). Interestingly, the site they chose was the location where Mary King’s Close and other homes sat.
Instead of completely demolishing the buildings (which sat on a slope), architects instead cropped the top floors off. That created a series of vaulted ceilings within them that became the foundation of the new structures. They then built the new Royal Exchange (now the City Chambers) over Mary King’s Close and the other nearby closes. It effectively swallowed them into what is now the basement. To this day, the area remains intact and frozen in time under the earth.
In my next post, I will take you to The Real Mary King’s Close visitor attraction, where we will take a closer look at this compelling part of Edinburgh’s history. I hope you will join me! Until then…