If anyone reading this considers themselves to be something of an armchair archaeologist, as I do, then it probably wouldn’t be unusual for you to stroll about Edinburgh daydreaming about the many metres of history that lie buried beneath our feet at every step.
If you wish to explore this thought further, you have one of two options:
1) Grab a spade, and start digging.
2) Book yourself a guided tour of The Real Mary King’s Close.
We’re pretty sure that Option 1 is illegal, especially on the Royal Mile. But even if it weren’t, we’d recommend Option 2 anyway: it’s less messy, there’ll be fewer people pointing and staring, and you’ll have the option of a presentation souvenir photo at the end. Edinburgh-Flats sent two hardy representatives underground to find out what it’s all about, because it’s quite possible to roam the Old Town daily without knowing the full story of ‘what lies beneath…’
The eponymous Mary King was born towards the end of the 16th century – records of her marriage, widowhood, death & testament (Will) are extant – and rented a house and shop opposite St.Giles Cathedral, a prime mercantile location from where she supported her children through working as a seamstress. In time the area took on Mary’s name, as many other wynds and closes were named in honour of prominent locals or after the activities which took place in the vicinity: Fleshmarket Close and Advocate’s Close are examples still visible today.
Skip forward a couple of centuries and ‘a covered place of exchange’, designed by renowned Scottish architect John Adam, was constructed over the old network of streets including Mary King’s Close. What visitors see today is the City Chambers on the High Street, and Cockburn Street on the north side, which runs down from the Royal Mile towards Waverley Bridge. The main entrance to The Real Mary King’s Close is tucked away through the arch to the left of the City Chambers courtyard, accessible from the Royal Mile or, if you’re feeling fit, up the steps of Warriston’s Close from Cockburn Street. As the sign says, pre-booking is advised, especially during peak times such as the Edinburgh Festival period in August, during school holidays and at weekends.
Part of the appeal of this 5-star visitor attraction is no doubt the fact that The Real Mary King’s Close has several 16th century personages on its staff. Our party was met at the top of the stairs by The Merchant, a well-dressed gentleman of the city who talked us through various potential problems such as low lintels and claustrophobia, before leading us down into the gloom by (21st century) torchlight. Be aware: there are a lot of stairs, slopes, and uneven floors, and it goes without saying that with two hundred years’ worth of construction overhead, there is no natural light. This being the case, The Real Mary King’s Close is nothing if not atmospheric. You arrive face-to-face with a life-size diorama of one of Edinburgh’s most notorious murders: Alexander Cant, done to death with a set of fireplace tongs by his mother-in-law Alison Rough, subsequently executed by drowning in the Nor’ Loch.
Mary King’s own ‘turnpike house’ has been tentatively identified and records show that she rented her laiche forebooth (shop) for £40 Scots a year. Don’t be jealous; this was a high rent for the time, and reflects the fact that Mary King must have been both industrious and successful in her line of work. Of course, Edinburgh’s closes were not only home to affluent retailers but also, at their lower levels, to the poor and the pestilent. While the tale of plague victims being bricked up in their own homes and left to die is a myth, Edinburgh and Scotland more generally suffered greatly from repeated outbreaks of bubonic and pneumonic plague over two centuries, and it is believed that the fleas carrying both strains of this ‘pest’ arrived first in Edinburgh, riding the rats that arrived with ships docking at the port of Leith.
A scene graphically rendered in three dimensions shows a quarantined 17th century family, bedridden and befouled, attended by the ypothecar (apothecary) in his peculiar beaked mask, and maintained only by what supplies and refreshment their friends and neighbours could afford to give. Such a detailed visual retelling gives life and reality to those stories we so often hear of the many social hardships of our past. But if all this becomes too affecting, never fear: you will shortly be invited to take a seat in a darkened room and be entertained by one of the many spooky stories to have emerged from Edinburgh’s underground. And there are many: ghostly dogs, long departed sweeps condemned to clean chimneys for all eternity, and most famously little Annie. Come with a wee doll for her in your pocket and she won’t steal your scarf.
The last stop of the tour also marks the final phase of life for Mary King’s Close, as you pause outside the front door of Andrew Chesney (look closely and you will see the shadow of his name outlined on the wood). A prosperous sawmaker in the late 19th century, Mr Chesney was the last resident to be ousted from the close as Edinburgh’s Town Council completed all the property purchases necessary to completion of their public buildings on the Royal Mile. The state of the house prevents group entry, but your guide will open the front door and allow a long look down the corridor, right into the Chesney family toilet.
Allow roughly a little over an hour for your visit to The Real Mary King’s Close, to include the tour itself and a browse around the well-stocked gift shop, and maybe something extra for an al fresco sit down with coffee and cake in the front yard afterwards. Edinburgh-Flats recommends the special offer on the souvenir photo plus guide book to take home, and perhaps a plague rat puppet as well, if you’re feeling quirky.
Are you visiting the city as a group? If you are 15 or more, you could enjoy some of the benefits available for groups:
– Discounted group admission rates*
– Priority admission – no need to queue
– Free admission for the group organiser
– Free familiarisation visit for the group leader
* discounts may not be available on certain dates due to restrictions and events.
A private tour of the Mary King’s Close is an unique opportunity to entertain guests attending weddings, special corporate events or even a big family gathering in Edinburgh. It’s a special VIP experience that doesn’t cost as much as one would expect! A private tour can be organised for a set price that ranges from between £210 and £259 depending on the season**.
**Prices quoted for 2013.
Address: 2 Warriston’s Close, High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1PG
Tel: 0845 0706 244