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Plague, pestilence, buried alive and butchered....just another day in Scotland's rich history
Mercat Tours (Edinburgh)
Member Name: proxam
Mercat Tours (Edinburgh)
Date: 30/07/02, updated on 30/07/02 (211 review reads)
Advantages: A spine-chilling trip through the very bowels of Auld Reekie.
This opinion is not recommended for those of a nervous disposition.
MARY KING'S CLOSE was a 17th century street in the old town of Edinburgh. Much of the Close is still intact and in its original state. Shops and houses can be inspected - and some ghostly figures have been experienced over the years in this 'Street of Sorrows.'
The Close runs from the High Street northwards underneath the present City Chambers. Before Cockburn Street was built, the close used to continue on down to Market Street where the northern-most exit is marked, these days, by the Hebrides Bar.
Mary King's Close (formerly Alexander King's Close and Touris Close) is thought by some to be named after the daughter of Alexander King, owner of the property and Advocate to Mary Queen of Scots.
Then again, in 1644 a woman called Marie King died there and left a will and inventory of her possessions.
There are a number of tour guides who escort people round Mary King's Close and when we took the tour the guide was very knowledgeable and entertaining. We entered by a rear doorway with the towering City Chambers soaring above. The stonework of Mary King's Close are now the foundations for the City Chambers.
Once we were off the 'street' of Mary King's Close, we were in a rabbit warren of interconnecting rooms. When they were occupied back in the 17th century, one room would have housed a large family, perhaps 10-12 people.
This was where the guide's description of life in this environment brought the bare, whitewashed walls to life. With no running water or sanitation life was pretty grim. The graphic description of the chamber pots which were filled during the course of the day and the mass emptying of them into the street at 10pm with shouts of gardez lui (French for "look out!") was, er... colourful!
The refuse from the windows of the many floors above a
ccumulated on the pathways below until it was swept up the next day. The stench would be unbearable; it was a haven for vermin and the spread of disease was inevitable. But the cause, so obvious today, was unknown then.
The Local Tavern
One of the rooms we entered (empty now of course - pity) had been a local tavern. The pubs and taverns of bygone Edinburgh were very different from the ones we know today. Tucked away down a dark alley you would enter a room with a low ceiling, lit by candles.
On wooden tables, in front of a roaring fire, you would be served plates of oysters, tripe and haddock washed down with jugs of claret. A favourite tipple was the famous Younger's Edinburgh Ale which almost 'glued the lips of the drinker together'.
Members of Edinburgh's legal profession were often to be found in this part of the city from early morning. It was not unusual "to find two or three most honourable Lords of Session mounting the bench in the forenoon the worse for wear."
One eminent judge, Lord Newton, "considered himself as only better fitted for business that he had just imbibed six bottles of claret..." And it was certainly not strange for judges to take their bottles of wine into court with them.
The Black Death - and Ghosts!
The close was a thriving community of shops and homes and was occupied by the usual cross-section of city society.
1645 was the year of the worst visitation of the pestilence, which we know today as the Bubonic Plague, in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. The arrival of black rats from ships in Leith docks brought the plague or Black Death.
Picture if you can, this swill of raw sewage seeping down the steps of the city, imagine the smell. Rats inhabited this environment as well, enjoying the festering conditions and the tasty morsels, b
ut these rats carried the fleas which carried the pestilence. The pestilence was not a nice disease, not pretty or pleasant by any stretch of the imagination. Sufferers would become very ill and huge pustules and boils would break out all over them and they would be racked with pains and vomiting until they died an agonising death, whereupon they would turn a purply black, hence it's other name The Black Death.
The Government of Edinburgh decided to quarantine all Edinburgh's plague victims into Mary Kings Close. A barbaric and ultimately futile measure as one third of the population of the city eventually died of the Plague that year.
Another example of local government getting it right...NOT!
So into the Close they were herded, where they were locked in and left to die. For weeks their screams and cries for water and food and mercy could be heard, but gradually it grew quiet.
The foul smell of decaying corpses soon began to fill the streets of Edinburgh and two butchers who themselves had survived the Plague, were sent in to the Close to rid it of the bodies. These two butchers took those 400 corpses and cut them into sections, so that they could be neatly stacked into carts, sorted into arms, legs, torsos and heads.
The Close had been cleaned up, but the souls of those 400 people were not at rest, and many maintain they still haunt the Close.
Today stories of ghosts continue and there have been reports of cold spots. One visitor reported the appearance of a poorly dressed young girl accompanied by a dog. Tour guides say that in the area where the apparition of the little girl had appeared, a doll miraculously appeared overnight - and more toys and trinkets have kept appearing.
In 1752 the architect Robert Adam drew up plans for a grand, much enlarged Royal Exchange, which eventually became today's City Chambers. Adam decided to incorporate the upper part of the close into the west side o
f the new building. It is thanks to him that we still have this reminder of what life was like in Edinburgh of old.
Anchor Close is just a few streets along from Mary Kings. It shows what Mary Kings Close may have looked like until the 19th Century.This way you can see how narrow and claustrophobic these old closes are.
I can highly recommend the tour, but make sure to prepare yourself for the sometimes overwhelming feeling of despair and claustrophobia. You'll have to go there and decide for yourself whether lost souls are still haunting the Close, and you'll get a lot out of the tour in terms of history.
Mercat Tours run hour-long daily tours of Mary Kings Close at 11.30 am and (for the very brave) 9.30pm. The cost is £5 per person.
You will need to ring and book as this is a popular tour and meets at the Mercat Cross in the Royal Mile.
Edinburgh has since cleaned itself up a bit and visitors to the Auld Toon are almost certain not to have the contents of a 'chantie', or chamber pot - emptied on their head from above.
I cannot guarantee this of course.
Thanks for reading and sweet dreams!
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