Known as the ‘street of sorrows’ due to the urban legend that it was walled up with plague victims and their families to die in, Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh is one of the only original streets from the 1600s still standing in the city, with its original homes and layout. This despite the fact that it was walled up for over 100 years. Known as one of the most haunted streets in the world, many myths and stories grew up around it through its history.
A close is a tight, narrow street open at either end to a larger road, normally with buildings several stories high. In 1753, The Royal Exchange decided to take down the top three floors of Mary King’s Close and use the lower floors of the street as a foundation for the Exchange, now the City Chambers. Over 250 years later, the floors below remain as they were back in the 17th century.
Mary is just around the corner… On the left wall it looks like a person in the wall
The name of the street comes from Alexander King’s daughter, Mary. Alexander King was the advocate to Mary Queen of Scots and owned property in the street. It was once a shopping street with market stalls – Mary ran one selling lace – and there were also a saw makers and a cow shed to store cattle in before their slaughter (in fact, you can still smell the stable manure!). As in all streets at that time, especially the dark, narrow ones that contained tenements, the close was full of human waste: bed pans would be tossed out of the windows with a cry of “garde loo”, and the waste would run down the close to the Nor’loch. Within the seven stories of the street, the upper and the middle classes lived on the top tiers away from the sewage and dirt.
Mary King’s Close was a teeming market street with people of all classes living in it until the bubonic plague arrived in 1645. Some of the ceilings in the close were made from plague victims: constructors would burn the bodies to ash which was mixed with horse hair and other things to build them. Families that had a member afflicted with the disease had an ‘X’ chalked on their door, and people dropped foodstuffs off on the step, while when possible others were moved out of the street to a ‘plague hospital’ in which to die (or not). The plague doctor went to homes wearing a bird outfit with herbs in the beak, used to lance the “buboes” or sores. No other contact was allowed for 6 weeks after victims died or recovered.
House number 12 with a ghost
Contrary to the myth that people were walled up alive and left to die, plague victims were as well taken care of as possible given the circumstances – and Mary King’s Close was no different. However, it is a perpetuating myth that won’t go away, partly because of the hauntings that occur to this day and reality that the close was walled up – albeit 100 years later, when people had since moved out.
Stephen Boyd, a merchant from the year 1635, poses near his property in Mary King’s Close. (Note the laundry hanging above the street.)
The best known ghost in the close is Annie, a spectral pre-teen. She scared a Japanese psychic in 1992 who had felt nothing until she arrived in one of the small rooms where she felt sickness, hunger and cold, as well as a tug on her leg. Most researchers believe that Annie had been left to die by her family when she caught the plague and they abandoned the building. The room is now known as “Annie’s room”, and gifts for the little girl are left there by many tourists.
A passerby in the close
There are tours you can take of the close, and you can visit all the rooms and homes in it to experience the way the denizens lived. Guides take you through, and there are reenactments in the homes and shops. In one room there is a scene of a doctor treating a boy while his father is waiting for “collection” by the body collectors. In another a merchant serves a customer.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, a visit to Mary King’s Close is a fabulous chance to see how our ancestors lived. If you do go there, come prepared with a little toy for Annie.
Special thanks to VisitBritain.org, Michela and Peter Birlea for permission to use their images