The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the bubonic plague - the "Black Death" - has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close off High Street, a lively, busy thoroughfare of pubs, shops, and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death the aroma of tea and scones.
The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh's most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a re-creation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago.
Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s Famous Royal Mile Lies Mary King’s Close
It is a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery -- and misery.
Launched in 2003, The Real Mary King’s Close breathes new life into this underground world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then - though of course without any contagious aspects - the provides amazing insight into a period of history with which many are totally unfamiliar, and it’s been preserved in an authentic environment and the historically accurate depiction that defies most “commercial” historical reproductions.
Lighting Heightens the Spooky Feel as Much as Does the Narrative
Only “practicals” –- original methods of lighting the dwellings –- are used, re-creating the actual lighting conditions of the 17th and 18th centuries. Candlelight illuminates one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A single low-watt light bulb brings others into hazy focus.
The dark hallways are lit by lantern-like “bowats,” providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants –- no more or less than was available to the tenants at the time. The concept of atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.
The Tragedy of the Plague
Amid this atmospheric backdrop, costumed actors (above) portray some of the Close's historically documented residents. Rounding one curve reveals a large window, lit by a gloomy, sickly ,greenish light. A doctor emerges, tending to bedridden figures covered with sores, boils, and diseased skin. It’s the home of John Craig, a grave-digger who has already succumbed to the “visitation of the pestilence,” his body awaiting “collection.”
His wife Janet and three sons suffer from varying stages of the deadly malady. The doctor is lancing a boil on the eldest son, Johnnie, with a hot iron to seal and disinfect the wound. Repellant odors arising from the family chamber pot of vomit provide a little more “real” than even today’s cable TV has prepared me for. By the door, there is bread, ale, and coal delivered to the quarantined family. The townspeople want to ensure the afflicted stay in their homes, so the healthy have good reason to give generously.
And therein lies the tragedy of Mary King’s Close -– much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck its residents fiercely; as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside to be carried away by those designated to perform the loathsome task. Mary King’s Close was a pariah in the neighborhood –- and ultimately fell victim to its own diseased fate: It disappeared. With more than two dozen stops along the tour path -- each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history –- I became intimately acquainted with the residents who lived there.
Mary King Has some Spooky Stories to Tell
Mary King herself (depicted above), of course, moved here in 1635 with her four children after her husband passed away; and died herself in 1644 before the plague struck; a half century later, the city council named the Close after her due to her stature as a respected merchant as well as council member (very unusual for a woman at that time). You’ll get to meet her personally and boy, does she have some good stories to tell! Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre –- all authenticated by original documentation –- abound as we wend our way around the windy, up-and-down corridors. Shifts in lighting reflect the various circumstances.
Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard discovery. “This really brings to life all the stories I’ve heard over the years about this part of the city’s history. It’s hard to grasp that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops.
There was a lot of life lived within these buildings – and a lot of lives lost.
As one of the most fascinating and unique walks through history I’ve yet to tread, the unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, and serpentine alleyways remained with me afterward even as I explored the many other, more traditional sites of historic Edinburgh. The Real Mary King’s Close is open daily, with tours at 15-minute intervals. For more information, contact Visit Britain at 877/899-8391 or visit www.RealMaryKingsClose.com.