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Scotland Magazine Issue 41
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Beneath the streets
Gary Hayden explores the subterranean streets of Mary King's Close, beneath Edinburgh's Old Town.
Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh is considered one of the most haunted places in Scotland. In the 1600s it was a densely populated street, but today it lies buried beneath the City Chambers.
THE SUPERNATURAL HISTORY OF THE CLOSE In the early part of the 17th century, Mary King’s Close was a bustling street of traders, named after a widow who lived there and sold fabric from a rented booth on the Royal Mile.
The close was hit hard by the great plague of 1645. Legend has it that the gates were locked at either end, food and drink pushed in, and the unfortunate residents left to their fates. Later, when the buildings were reoccupied, tales began to spread that the close was haunted by the un-quiet spirits of plague-victims. Its supernatural reputation was given an enormous boost in 1685 when George Sinclair, who later became Professor of Mathematics and Experimental Philosophy at Glasgow University, published, Satan’s Invisible World Discovered – “a choice collection of relations anent devils, witches, spirits and apparitions.” The book documented a variety of supernatural manifestations and defended the popular belief in witchcraft. It was hawked about the streets by gingerbread wives, and attracted a large – and credulous – readership. One of its most striking tales, “attested by witnesses of undoubted veracity,” concerned Mary King’s Close.
FEARSOME APPARITIONS According to Prof. Sinclair’s account, Mr Thomas Coltheart, a respectable law-agent, and his wife moved into a house in Mary King’s Close. They took their maidservant with them, but she was so frightened by neighbours’ reports that the house was haunted that she refused to remain there. One Sunday afternoon, shortly after moving in, Mrs Coltheart was sitting reading her bible when a ghastly apparition appeared before her – the disembodied head of a grey-bearded old man. Understandably, she fell into a swoon.
Later, she told her husband about it, but he put it down to her over active imagination.
However, that night, as they lay in bed, the ghostly head appeared to both of them.
They tried praying it away, but to no avail.
An hour or so later, a second apparition appeared: a young child, with a coat upon it, hanging near to the old man’s head.
The child and the disembodied head hovered about the room for some time before being joined by a third apparition: a ghostly arm which seemed intent on shaking hands with the law-agent and his wife.
“In the name of the living God,” cried Mr Coltheart, addressing the arm, “... tell me why thou troubles my family?
To my knowledge, I never wronged any man, by killing or cheating, but have lived innocently in the world. If thou has received any wrong, if I can right thee, I shall do my utmost for thee, but trouble me no more.” But, despite the poor man’s pleadings, things went from bad to worse. The bizarre phantoms were soon joined by a ghostdog, then a ghost-cat, and then a whole menagerie of spectral creatures. Before long, the floor was swarming with them.
Finally, as the terrified couple knelt on their beds praying for deliverance, they heard a dreadful groan and all of the apparitions simultaneously vanished.
Incredibly, the Colthearts refused to let these frightful events drive them from their new home. They lived out the remainder of their lives in Mary King’s Close, and were not troubled again.
However, two later occupants, a harddrinking old pensioner and his wife, were startled one night to observe their candle start to burn blue. Shortly afterwards, the ghostly head re-appeared, and the terrified couple fled the house never to return.
SUBTERRANEAN STREETS In 1753, the Burgh authorities decided to develop a grand new building, the Royal Exchange (now the City Chambers), on the site of Mary King’s Close and the adjoining closes.
In that part of town, the ground falls sharply away from the Royal Mile towards The Mound. The houses near the top were demolished to make way for the new building, but the houses lower down were left intact and used as foundations.
The resulting underground network of closes lay hidden beneath the Royal Mile for more than two centuries. In 2003 they were re-opened as a heritage attraction, The Real Mary King’s Close, owned and operated by The Continuum Group.
Costumed guides now take 175,000 visitors a year on a tour through the ancient streets and houses. Some of the houses contain accurate representations of how people use to live.
Although the tours are primarily about history, many visitors report supernatural encounters and experiences.
MODERN-DAY SPOOKS Before the opening of The Real Mary King’s Close, the underground streets were owned by the city council. From time to time, visitors were allowed beneath the City Chambers to explore them. Then, in the early 1990s, an Edinburgh company, Mercat Tours, began conducting official tours in the subterranean streets.
In 1992, psychics identified a ‘cold spot’ in a corner of a room in one of the old houses. A Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, later claimed to see an apparition there: the spirit of a 10 year-old girl named Annie, wearing a dirty white dress and boots.
Aiko said that Annie was distressed at the loss of a favourite doll, and went out and bought her a new one. Since then, scores of visitors claim to have seen or heard Annie, or to have felt her presence. Many of them leave toys in what has become known as the Shrine Room. Some leave money, which is donated to a children’s hospital.
Even the most hardened sceptic is likely to feel a moment’s unease when faced with the eerie sight of dolls and soft-toys gathering dust in Annie’s gloomy shrine.
But Annie is not the only ghostly inhabitant of Mary King’s Close. A number of visitors have reported hearing scratching noises from inside a chimney where a young sweep is said to have died. Some even claim to have had their hands scratched after placing them inside.
Most recently, in May 2008, Mary King’s Close hit the headlines when a ghostly form was photographed by an infrared static camera installed to take pictures of tour groups. The photo shows what appears to be a tall human-like figure standing in the doorway of Mary King’s reconstructed residence at the top of Mary King’s Close.
The photograph was taken around midnight on Saturday 10th May, just a few hours after a special ghost-hunting event hosted by Richard Felix from Living Television’s Most Haunted.
Was it just a publicity stunt? Or the beginning of another eerie chapter in the haunted history of Mary King’s Close?
The Real Mary King’s Close is a five-star historical
attraction situated on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It is
open seven days a week, every day except
Christmas Day. Tours depart every 20 minutes.
Opening times vary according to the season, and
can be found at www.realmarykingsclose.com.
The Real Mary King’s Close, 2 Warriston’s Close,
Writers Court, Edinburgh EH1 1PG
Tel: +44 (0)8702 430 160. Admission: £10