Edinburgh’s Old Town is riddled with small alleys, singly called “a close,” too narrow for vehicles, that can take pedestrians from one street to another. Sometimes they are a direct route, sometimes they bring you to an open area, a square, or small plaza, and then out the other side through another close, and sometimes they bring you to a courtyard, but you have to go out the same way you came in. Sometimes they are fairly level, sometimes they have steps, sometimes a lot of steps. It just depends.
“The Real Mary King’s Close” is a tour worth taking if you have the opportunity. It is mainly underground, and it is designed to show you how the not-well-off people in Edinburgh lived during the 1600s and The Plague. It wasn’t pretty.
Edinburgh of the 1600s had become terribly overcrowded as people moved to the city, but the city walls held them in. Houses had no room to spread out, so they spread up, sometimes as high as eight stories. Existing houses were absorbed into the new houses as foundations, or simply ground floors. The closes themselves were only a few meters wide – with the tall buildings on either side, daylight rarely made its way in.
There was no indoor plumbing. People used buckets for sewage, which was then dumped into the gutters. The people living on the bottom floors had to live with open sewers outside their doors. Obviously, the higher floors were most desirable – they had windows, after all – and those went to people with some money. The ground floors went to the poorest, who lived there with few windows (and sometimes none,) the sewers, and the occasional cow living in the next room.
And then, 1644 rolled around and brought the plague with it. The rich left the city, but the poor had nowhere to go. Edinburgh lost almost half of its population. Gruesome stories circulated of people being locked into the close, left to die of the plague, but the reality was that they were quarantined and food and water was brought to them. Mary King’s Close was abandoned by 1645.
Our guide, dressed in period costume of the 1600s – 1700s, talked about the plague itself, carried by the flea-infested rats, and the different ways it developed. He also talked about Mary King. She was a widow and therefore able to own property. She established herself as a fabric merchant, and became a person of local prominence, which is why the name Mary King’s Close. The tour is called “The Real Mary King’s Close” because the developers of the tour wanted to emphasize that Mary King was a real person in 17th century Edinburgh, not a made-up character.
Eventually, people moved back in and were living there when city authorities decided to build a new Royal Exchange in order to stay competitive for business, which the New Town was threatening. (“New Town” was close by, more of a neighborhood name than a new city. Things in Edinburgh are still identified by these terms. As the city grew, new area names were added.) The location they wanted was across from the St. Giles Cathedral, where Mary King’s Close is located. They tore down the upper floors and used the lower floors as foundation, where people continued to live and work – people ran businesses from these low-ceilinged rooms.
The last to leave, in 1902, was a saw maker, Mr. Chesney. He and his business were forced out when the Royal Exchange Building, which had become City offices, was extended, and the last buildings were sealed off. These buildings had survived because of the steep grade that they had been built on – as upper floors were developed, the lower floors still had access to the close.
The tour was a couple of hours. To observe the social distancing requirements, there were letters A, B, C, and D painted in specific places in the rooms we visited so that we had two meters separating us. Again, the distance meant that getting to know others on the tours wasn’t possible. Also, photographs are not allowed because we were walking through the foundations of the government buildings above.
As I emerged after the tour, I was standing across from St. Giles Cathedral, blinking into the daylight.
Edinburgh’s St. Giles’ Cathedral was founded in the 12th century, but this building was begun in the 1400s and completed in the 1600s, although significant changes were made in the 20th century. The church began as a Catholic church, but became part of the Church of Scotland in 1559 during the Reformation. John Knox was its minister, and is buried in the church, along with other notables.
Ah, the Anchor Close. Anchor Close is named for a tavern that used to be here, which was best known for hosting the “Chochallan Fencibles,” an 18th Century drinking club. The drinks fueled the intellectual debate, or so the guides would have you believe. Maybe it’s so: the club was founded by William Smellie, who edited the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Intellectual debates or not, I’m sure the drinks fueled the volume. And, of course, Robert Burns was a member.
The inscription above and the plaque pictured below are the same place. David Hume lived here in 1751. He was an economist and philosopher, a major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. Two of his best known works are “A Treatise of Human Nature” (1740) and “An Enquiry into Human Understanding” (1748). He challenged the then-current beliefs, and was considered a radical. “I have written on all sorts of subjects,” he wrote, “yet I have no enemies, except all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.”
Riddle’s Close is even with the street face on Lawnmarket Street, but when you walk into the short tunnel, you are underneath a building constructed in 1727. Emerging from the short tunnel, you are in a courtyard that has been there since 1587, and used to be the front building. There is yet another courtyard to be found behind that, but there was no additional date given for that, so it may be contemporary to the 1587 buildings.
James VI attended two banquets here, both honoring Queen Anne of Denmark’s brother, Ulric, Duke of Holstein. Queen Anne was James’ wife, and Ulric was the envoy of the Holy Roman Empire. This was in 1598, before Hume’s time, and a few years before James VI of Scotland became James I of England (1603.) The house belonged to a wealthy merchant in Edinburgh. It’s been restored and is now available for hosting events, if you are so inclined.
Riddle’s Close is notable for another visitor as well. “Fringe Festivals” began in Edinburgh, and have become widely known. They are artistic events, mostly performance arts, organized outside of traditional performance organizations. Riddle’s Court became a Fringe venue in the 1950s, and this is where Maggie Smith gave her first public performance. The rest, as they say, is history.
A person could spend the better part of a month exploring the collection of closes that are part of Old Town, and discovering their history. Someday, maybe.