Mary King’s Close was a street in Edinburgh sealed off from the world, leaving all the people suffering from the bubonic plague trapped beneath. These people were quarantined and left to die as the residents in the city above went about with their everyday lives. Did they even know there were victims of the plague dying beneath their feet?
This is what I thought of Mary King’s Close before I signed up for The Real Mary King’s Close Tour.
I was partially right, in the sense that the close was shut off from the world and that it was greatly affected by the plague. But no unsuspecting victims were trapped within it, as they covered the close and above it now sits the City Chambers.
I visited Mary King’s Close so many times when living in Edinburgh that I could easily have given the tour myself! I was completely captivated by the incredibly dark history behind the close, hearing how the Great Plague (bubonic plague) ravished the country, infecting people and causing festering, pus-filled boils, swollen glands
Makeshift sewage systems
Edinburgh in 1645 was an unhygienic place, where sewage flowed freely through the streets. Without a proper sewage system to remove waste, every household owned a bucket that spent all day in a corner of the living quarters being rapidly filled with urine, feces and whatever else. Then at a specific time of day, the warning cry “Gardy Loo!” would be bellowed before the contents of the bucket were thrown into the streets below. If you look closely at the sides of the roads in Mary King’s Close, you can see where the sewage ran down towards what was known as the Nor’ Loch.
Now the location of the beautiful Princes Street Gardens, the Nor’ Loch was once a lake heavily polluted by sewage and household waste. It was also rumoured to be the place where suspected witches were drowned — a practice known as “dunking.”
These unsanitary conditions created a breeding ground for flea-infested rats ridden with bacteria (specifically Yersinia Pestis Bacterium) in Edinburgh. Not before long, this deadly bacterium spread further than the city and wreaked havoc on Scotland, just like it had done previously across the rest of Europe.
The Plague Doctors
Contrary to popular belief, Edinburgh’s plague victims were not trapped in Mary King’s Close but were treated by people known as Plague Doctors. These doctors believed that the plague was caused by miasmas in the air and dressed head-to-toe in defensive gear to protect themselves from the infected air. Their outfits comprised of thick leather cloaks and bird-like masks filled with sweet lavender and herbs, designed to keep airborne diseases out the doctors’ airways. The leather clothing prevented infection-inducing rat bites, meaning the doctors wouldn’t contract the plague.
However, plague victims had to endure great pain at the hands of the doctor. He would cut off the top of each boil (usually located in the armpit or groin) and would cauterize the wound by sticking a burning hot pole over it. Although incredibly painful, this form of treatment was quite successful.
After the plague passed through Edinburgh, Mary King’s Close and other closes (streets/alleyways) in the local area began to decay, transforming into dilapidated, overcrowded places. The council sealed off the closes and built a place on top of them where merchants could conduct their businesses. Some closes were destroyed while others stayed intact and were used as stable grounds to support the buildings above.
The Real Mary King’s Close Tour
I highly recommend taking a tour of Mary King’s Close during your holiday in Edinburgh. It’s an experience brimming with true history, where you step into a genuine Edinburgh alleyway and see where people lived in the city’s past, led by an authentic character guide plucked straight out of history! I always seem to get the maid or the foul clenger, but there are also the poet, Robert Fergusson, and the doctor. I’ve never been on a tour led by the doctor, but I feel he’d be a great person to follow around since he got really close to plague victims.
Once our tour began, the door closed and we left the modern world behind, stepping into the dark, dank labyrinth of narrow alleyways that make up the historic Mary King’s Close. As our group walked down the stairs, the musty smell filled the air and my eyes slowly adjusted to the lack of light in the underground city. Our guide, Hamish (better known as the poet Robert Fergusson) gathered us around the bottom of the stairs and we stared down onto the steeply sloping road that leads to the Nor Loch.
Our first stop was a small room used as a home for impoverished people. The residents had very little living space and exposed dirt floors and a damp, dark life overall. We heard tales of a sewage bucket they kept in one corner of the house and imagined the terrible stench they couldn’t escape from since their homes were at the very bottom of the close.
As we passed through the door toward other areas of the close while our guide relished in stories from his time there. We heard about real residents like Andrew Chesney, a wealthy saw maker, who enjoyed showing off the indoor toilet he referred to as his “thunderbox.” He was so proud of his toilet he would leave his front door open while using it, so people passing by could see.
If you’re into the paranormal, you’ll enjoy the story about one of Mary King’s Close’s most famous ghostly residents. In 1992 a Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, was touring the close with a film crew when she spotted a young girl who said she’d died of the plague. The young girl, Annie, said she was abandoned by her family and was looking for her lost doll. Aiko felt sad for poor Annie and purchased a Barbie doll donned with Tartan that now sits in a room within the close. Many people have brought Annie gifts over the years, but I recommend giving a cash donation instead. The donations are collected throughout the year and given to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh.
A trip to Mary King’s Close offers you a tour full of information from a well-informed tour guide who treats you to real stories from times past. Although sometimes spooky, this isn’t a tour where ghosts and ghouls jump out at you. But if you’re looking for real history from Edinburgh’s past instead of a jump scare, a visit here should be on your must-do list for your visit to Edinburgh.
Visiting Mary King’s Close
The Real Mary King’s Close is located on High Street, 2 Warriston’s Close. High Street is also referred to as the Royal Mile and Mary King’s Close sits underneath the City Chambers, across the street from St. Giles Cathedral.
Mary King’s Close is open from 9:30 am to 9:30 pm seven days a week. Hours vary in the winter, so check the current time table on the official website before you visit.
As The Real Mary King’s Close tour is very popular, I highly recommend booking your place in advance to avoid disappointment. You can book your tour here.
As of 2019, the prices for Mary King’s Close are:
Senior (65+) and Student: £13.95
Children (5-15): £9.75
Family (2 Adults & 2 Children): £43.50