A Travellerspoint blog

Mary King's Close, a slice of the 17th century

sunny 57 °F

The sun is shining and the air crisp when Matt leaves for his conference; I make a cup of Nescafe to ease into the morning. I decide to start the day with a trip underground to Mary King's Close, which is an old neighborhood that was completely covered when the Royal Exchange was built directly on top of it.

My tour starts at 10:30 a.m. and the group descends several flights of stairs into the underbelly of Old Town. It is musty and dark, dimly lit by some old fashioned lanterns and the guide's flashlight. The tour takes us down the old streets and into the different homes and shops, giving us historical information about the 1600s and the stories of the families that lived in each house.

Edinburgh in the 17th century sounds like it was an absolutely horrible, unsanitary place. The poorest of the poor lived in tiny stone rooms—sometimes 10 to a room—with dirt floors and low wood ceilings. They had buckets for urination and such, and when the buckets were full, they would dump the contents out into the hilly street. Of course, the streets were extremely steep so all the feces ran down through the streets, mixing with the sewage from other homes and pooling into Nor Loch (today Princes Street Gardens). People would drink that same water and get horrible diseases like cholera, but they didn't have the knowledge about disease and sanitation like we do today, so many died from drinking or fishing from the rancid water of the loch.

These cramped and unsanitary conditions made Old Town and especially the area around Mary King's close a hotspot for the bubonic plague, with the large population of rats that spread the disease. Our guide explains that roughly half of the people who lived in or around the close died from the plague, one of them being Mary King, who owned a few properties along the close.

That is one of the stories surrounding a home we enter; as soon as I walk into what was the bedroom of the home, I recognize it immediately from an episode of “Ghost Hunters International.” There is a large pile of stuffed animals, a tradition that had started about 20 years ago when it was “discovered” that a little girl named Annie allegedly haunts that room and, it's believed, was one of the plague victims left to die. The dolls and toys range from Barbies and teddy bears to Spongebob Squarepants. There are some photographs and even a CD in the mix. The room is extremely cold and creepy; the stuffed animals, covered in dust, leave a haunting impression in my mind as we continue the rest of the tour.

The main streetway of Mary King's Close is really quite amazing to see. It actually looks very much like the narrow closes that are still exposed to the city today. We stand at the bottom of an ancient stone alley with a very steep incline (you would never find something this steep in today's streets), lined with thick stone walls, small doorways, and windows. Looking up, the close extends several stories up until it is cut off by the floor of the building above. The operators of the tours have hung clotheslines across between the buildings, and shirts and pants hang like flags across the close. For a second I forget that I'm underground because the darkness simply feels like nighttime, and it truly feels as if I traveled four centuries into the past. The fact that the entire close is buried beneath the city makes it feel like a fossilized society, completely frozen in time and space. To think that people lived in these streets and even died here in droves is surreal and sad. Those who did survive the plague were eventually forced from their homes when the Royal Exchange building was built in the mid-1700s, the walls of their family home used as the building's foundation.

I'm glad I decided to take this eerie tour because it gave me deeper insight into the history of Edinburgh and its people. Although pictures were not permitted on the tour, I found the Ghost Hunters International episode in which Mary King's Close is investigated. It gives a good visual to accompany the things I've described; the only real difference is that today there are a lot more dolls and stuffed animals for Annie than there were when the GHI episode was filmed.

GHI Part 1

GHI Part 2

After spending an hour underground, the bright sunlight is startling and intense. I walk back toward Cockburn and stop at a cafe called Cafe Marina and buy an Italian panini to munch on before I continue my day. I decide that it would be a good day to go to the beach resort town of Portobello, which is about three miles from the city center. Three miles is a little far to walk one way, so I figure out the bus schedule and hop on the 26 toward Portobello and Seton Sands. It takes a little under 20 minutes with all the stops; I sit on the second level of the double-decker bus and grab the very first seat, which is interesting because you basically get a picture window in front of you, and it feels almost as if you are driving.

I hop off the bus at the Portobello High Street stop and walk straight down to the beach. This beach is much different from the beaches at North Berwick. While North Berwick had expanses of sand strewn with rocks and drying kelp, Portobello is a typical sand beach that would be great for swimming or skimboarding. What I can't figure out though is why anyone would want to swim in Scotland to begin with. The average temperature in the middle of summer is 59 degrees, a far cry from Ohio's 90-degree heat waves.

I follow the promenade along the beach, lined on one side by hotels, town homes and a sailing club. There are a lot of dogs playing fetch with their owners and couples sitting on the many benches facing the sea. I sit down at an empty bench and look out at the waves tripping over themselves near the shore. Across the Firth of Forth I can see the coastal towns of Fife, and to the east is the North Berwick Law in the distance. It really is the perfect day to just sit by the beach and soak up a little sun.


When I'm ready to move on, I walk inland a few blocks to downtown Portobello to see if there are any good stores or cafes to explore. I window shop down the main drag for a little while until I am ready to find my bus stop and head back into the city.

When Holyrood Park and Calton Hill come back into view over the rooftops, it feels like I'm coming home. I'm amazed by the sense of belonging I already feel in our little flat on Cockburn and all the familiar cafes and pubs I walk by every day. And with Matt leaving for work every morning this week, this now feels like our routine, our life. I know it's misguided since we will be leaving in a week, but we've been here long enough now that I feel comfortable and settled.

Posted by GoWander 11:53 Archived in Scotland

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