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Issue 9 - Edinburgh'sdeep,darksecrets

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 9
July 2003

 

This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Edinburgh'sdeep,darksecrets

DIANEMACLEANTOOKASPINE-TINGLINGTRIPDOWNINTOEDINBURGH'SUNDERBELLYANDITS‘MOSTHAUNTEDPLACE':MARYKING'SCLOSE

MidwaydownEdinburgh’sRoyalMilestandstheproudbuildinghousingtheCityChambers.Builtinthe1750s,itwasatestamenttothecity’sburgeoningwealth,yetthisbuilding,magnificentinitself,sitsontopofbuildingsevenmoreintriguing.Edinburgh’sdeepest,darkestsecret,rumouredtobethemosthauntedplaceinthecity,isMaryKing’sClose,andithaslainbeneaththeCityChambersforover400years.

Thisclosewouldoriginallyhavebeenanarrowwalkwaywithhousesreachinguponeitherside.ItrunsoffatrightanglestotheRoyalMileatanincline.Overthecenturies,startingwiththebuildingoftheCityChambers,thewholeclosehasbeengraduallycovered.YouwouldneverguessthatunderthestreetsofEdinburghliesaperfectlypreservedclose.

Now,aftermorethanayearofhistoricalandarchæologicalresearch,MaryKing’sClosehasbeenopenedupasanewtouristattraction.Thecloseandthefullstoryofitsoccupantsisreadytoseethelightofdayoncemore.

Itookthetriponagloriousspringmorning,swappingsunshineforundergroundcold.Myguidewastheservant-girlAgnesChambers.Dressedinperiodcostume,shetookusdownbarestonestairsindimtorchlight,untildaylightandtheclatteroftrafficdisappeared.

Whenwereachedthebottom,wesawtheclose.Darkandmenacing,itvibratedwiththepast.Barelystopping,weweresweptintothepartiallyreconstructedhousewhereMaryKinglivedin1629.SheownedandranashopontheHighStreetsellingmaterial,anddottedroundthelivingroomarespoolsofthreadandyardsoffabric.Onthemantelpiecearegoldquaichsandsilverbottles,testimonytothewealthandinfluencethatsheenjoyed.

Movingthroughtheclose,AgnesleadustotheLaighHouseorlowhouse,wheresomeofthecity’spoorestlived.Sixteenth-centuryEdinburghwasnotaplacetobeifyouwerepoor.Here,inoneextremelylow-ceilingedroom,alargefamilylivedandslept.Lackingnaturallight,theroomwouldhavebeenlitbytallowcandles,orlampsthatburnedfish-oil.Withnoplumbingorsanitation,alltheirwastewentintotwobuckets.Thesmellmusthavebeenappalling,andthecontentswerethrownoutintotheclose,dribblingdownthesteepinclinetowardstheNorLoch.

Here,thefesteringmessofthecitysquelchedandbubbled,stinkingandpoisonous.Beingpoorandlivingonthegroundfloor,youhadtotakegreatcare,foryouwerenottheonlyonestothrowyourwastetothepavement.Fromupabove,servantsfromthewealthierapartmentswouldhurlsteamingbucketsofmuckoutontothestreetsbelow.Ifyouwerelucky,youwereforewarnedwithacryof‘Gardez-lou’,ifnot,thenthepungentcontentsofthebucketslandedonyourhead.Smallwonderthen,thatdeathwalkedthestreets.

Movingintoanotherhome,wecameacrossatragicscene.ThiswasthehouseoftheCraigfamily.JohnCraighadbeenemployedasagravediggerinthelocalcemeteryuntilJuly1645whentheplaguehadarrivedinEdinburgh.Youcanseehiminthecorner,wrappedinashroud,whilsthiswifeandchildrenhuddleindeliriumonthebed.Crouchedoverasmallboyisthedoctor,wearingatrulyterrifyingmask.
Themask,shapedlikeaneagle’sbeak,wasfilledwithherbs,whichwerethoughttofendofftheplague.ThespeedatwhichEdinburghgotthroughitsdoctorssuggestsitdidn’twork!TherehavelongbeenrumoursthatMaryKing’sClosewasbrickedupduringtheoutbreakofplagueandeverybodyinsidelefttodie.DrLornaEwan,ahistorianwhoworksforprojectmastermindstheContinuumGroup,hasrevealednewevidencetothecontrary.

“Thewordusedondocumentsofthetimerelatingtoplaguevictimsisthattheywereenclosit.Fromthat,somepeopleunderstoodthattheywerebrickedup.Wedon’tthinkthat’sactuallywhathappened.Theywerequarantinedintheirownhomes,butdailysuppliesofbread,beerandfirewoodweretakentothem,andthenthefamiliesweremovedtoquarantineareasoutsidethecitywalls.”

ButwhilstthegruesomeideaofpeoplebeingbrickedintotheClosehasnowdisappeared,therumoursofhauntingsrefusetodiedown.Inanotherhouse,intheadjacentPearson’sClose,thereisamakeshiftshrine,achestoverflowingwithtoysanddolls.ThisisAnnie’sroom.Anumberofyearsago,aJapanesepsychicvisitingtheroomfeltapresence.Terrified,sheturnedroundtoseealittlegirlwithmattedhairanddressedinragstuggingatherskirt.ThegirlsaidhernamewasAnnie,andthatshe’dbeenlefttherewhenherfamilydiedoftheplague.Shewascryingbecauseshecouldn’tfindherdoll.Thepsychicrushedoutandboughtatoy,whichsheleftonachest,hopingitwouldprovidecomforttoAnnie.Sincethen,manyvisitorshavebroughtdollsandteddiesforthelittleghost.

Ifthatstoryisn’tenoughtomakethehairsonthebackofyourneckstandup,thenyoucansettledownandlistentoanaudiore-enactmentofthenightofterrorthatthefamilyofThomasColtheartspentinthenextclose.Onewetandwindynight,awholeseriesofvisitationstroubledthefamily,whocoweredinterrorasghostsofpeople,animalsandseveredlimbsrushedthroughtheirhome.

Furtherdowntheclose,theghostoftheBlackLadyissaidtowalk,and,ifyouarestillfeelingbrave,thenvisittheroomwherein1535AlisonRoughmurderedherson-in-law.ThosewithastrongstomachcanponderonherfeelingsasshewasdrownedintheNorLochforhercrime.

Afterscaringuswitless,Agnestookusbacktotherecreatedcloseitself,wherewehuddledinsmallgroupswellawayfromtheshadows.NoonetalkedmuchastheywalkedpastthehouseofAndrewChesney.Helivedherealoneintheabandonedcloseuntilheleftin1901.Fromthereit’sashortwalkupthesteepslopeandbackupthestairsandintothe21stcentury.

Walkingoutintothefreshair,itisworthpeekingintooneoftheinhabiteduncoveredcloses,likeFleshmarketClose,thatstillshootofftheRoyalMile.Idon’tknowwhetherIbelieveinghostsornot,butIwasleftwiththefeelingthatthedustIbrushedoffmycoatwasn’ttheonlythingfromthe16thcenturythatI’dbroughtback.Lookingaroundatthecoffeeshopsandbustle,Igavethanksforalifeofsanitation,lighting,plumbingandcomfort.

And,inpassing,rememberedtheshort,gloomylivesofthepeoplewholivedherealong,longtimeago.