Many thanks to The Real Mary King’s Close, who were so kind as to permit me to use their awesome photos. All photos in this post are credited to them.
In my previous blog post, I gave you a bit of history of how Edinburgh, Scotland began; how it expanded eastward from Edinburgh Castle and how Mary King’s Close and other nearby alleys came to be frozen in time underneath the Royal Exchange. In light of that, today I would like to take you to see The Real Mary King’s Close, one of Edinburgh’s most compelling visitor attractions.
Who was Mary King?
Born in the late 1500s, Mary King was a wife (widowed in 1629), a mother, and a successful fabric merchant and seamstress. Historians say that she was a woman of at least some means and reputation, as does the fact that the close (narrow alley) where she lived had been named for her.
What was life like in a close?
For many that lived in Edinburgh’s closes, life was not as “grand” as Mary King’s (I use that term loosely). While the likes of doctors, lawyers, and wealthy merchants called the ‘high’ houses home, many others lived in the ‘low’ houses – apartments that were often small, dark, and uninviting. Open sewers, which ran directly in front of homes toward the Nor Loch (the sewage lake which also doubled as a place of execution by drowning), meant that sanitation was abysmal.
Plagues were common occurrences in Scotland. The last significant outbreak – likely the Bubonic plague – occurred in 1644. Presumably brought to shore by a sailing ship from mainland Europe, it wreaked havoc on the lives of the people of Edinburgh for at least a year and a half. It claimed a substantial portion of the population and a great many people living in Mary King’s and adjoining closes. Contrary to myth, plague victims were not locked in the closes and left to die. They quarantined and received daily delivered rations of bread, ale, coal, and even wine.
Dr. Jon Paulitius was the first to be appointed as the official plague doctor, charged with looking after those suspected of having ‘the contagion.’ Little could be done to treat the ill. To add insult to injury, doctors visited their patients wearing an herb-filled bird-like mask (think of a face mask with a giant bird’s beak). They believed it would protect them from contracting the illness. That must have been a frightening sight in an already beak bleak situation!
The story of Annie
Mary King’s Close has been the subject of paranormal activity for years. Stories abound of people who have felt odd sensations or witnessed ghostly sightings and other strange apparitions. Perhaps the most well-known story is that of a little girl named Annie, who once lived in one of the closes.
Several years ago, a Japanese psychic named Aiko Gibo visited Mary King’s Close because she was involved in the making of a film about haunted places in Britain. Aiko was overcome with strong feelings as she approached a room off of Allan’s Close. At first, she said she was unable to enter the area due to the extreme pain and unhappiness that she sensed. Finally, able to go in, Aiko claimed to communicate with a child’s spirit. The child – Annie – supposedly asked Aiko why her mother had left her. She said she didn’t know that she had the plague and claimed her mother had left her to die. Annie also said that she had lost her favorite doll and asked if Aiko could bring her a new one. Aiko obliged, and Annie was reportedly ‘absolutely delighted.’ After her experience, people from all over the world have taken toys to Annie. You can see the (somewhat creepy) heaping pile of toys for yourself when you take the tour.
Taking the tour of Mary King’s Close
In my opinion, no visit to Edinburgh is complete without a tour of The Real Mary King’s Close. On the one-hour tour, a fully costumed guide will lead you and your small group down into the maze of hidden underground streets. You will hear the personal stories of the folks who lived, worked, and died in the closes. You might even feel their presence for yourself along the way.
Walking down the original cobbled streets and visiting the dark, dank rooms that Edinburgh’s 16th-century people once called home is a thrilling experience. The tour itself is not at all meant to be frightening like a traditional haunted house tour, but I won’t lie and say the experience of it wasn’t just a bit eerie.
Do I believe the stories about spirits and apparitions? Well, they certainly make for good storytelling. I don’t know. Nothing is impossible, I suppose. Did I feel anything in Annie’s room? Probably not.
Then again…maybe I did.
Note: All views expressed in this post are my own and no compensation was received for the publication of this article.