Connecting the Edinburgh Castle and the Holyrood Palace is the Royal Mile, a downtown thoroughfare through the Old Town of Edinburgh, Scotland. Once the main thoroughfare during the 17th century, it remains a prime tourist attraction today, lined with authentic Scottish shops, restaurants, pubs, and unique visitor attractions. One such attraction, Mary King’s Close, takes you back in time to the 15- and 1600’s, breaking down myths and legends, and getting to the truth of what life was like for the residents of the closes by taking you underground, literally.
Only accessible through booked hour-long tours, the close is entered from the ground floor of one of the buildings on the modern-day Royal Mile. Stairs lead down into dimly lit, ancient cobblestone streets that remain exactly as they were left in 1635 when the close was sealed from above. Now, instead of looking up to the sky, the top floors of the housing lining the closes constitutes the ground floor of The Royal Exchange, built in 1753, now home of the Edinburgh City Chambers.
The closes consisted of tenement houses, upwards of seven stories tall, with streets no wider than six feet. Due to the closeness of the houses to one another, and their extreme height, the ground floors received no natural lighting, requiring the tenants to rely on candlelight. As a group consisting of about twenty people, we crowded close together in each room, with little extra space to move. However, each room was commonly occupied by up to sixteen different families, crowded on top of one another in deplorable conditions.
In addition to extreme crowding, the amount of waste in the environment created ideal conditions for disease to develop. Twice daily, at the toll of the Gile’s Church bell, the chamber pots filled the waste of every family and animal housed within the close were emptied out of windows and doors into the street. Despite the steep slopes of the closes to aid in drainage, waste piled shin-high in some areas.
The steep slope of the closes aided in drainage, and led to Nor Loch, an ancient lake that used to be where the Princes Street Gardens stand today. The water from Nor Loch doubled as the main source of drinking water for the citizens of Edinburgh, leading them to seek different forms of fluid for drinking to prevent dehydration. In addition to home-brewed concoctions, beer was the main drink consumed by the population of Edinburgh by people of all ages.
Both strains of the plague, Pneumonic and Bubonic, swept through Edinburgh a record 11 times throughout history, aided by the living conditions of the tenement houses throughout the area. The tour wound through the close parallel to Mary King’s Close, Pearon’s, where we entered what had been a sick bay for plague and other disease victims. Here there were two figures laying in beds, displaying the skin lesions commonly associated with the plague another victim was claimed. Standing over one figure was another, clothed in a black cloak and a bird-like mask, a doctor, Charles de Lorme. Lorme is credited with developing the plague doctor costume, consisting of an ankle-length overcoat, gloves, boots, a brim hat, and a mask with a long, curved beak that would be filled with various herbs and spices.
Originally, the plague was not thought of as a disease, but as evil spirits overtaking a body. The herbs placed in the break of the mask were thought to keep the evil spirits away, but in actuality created a respiratory system that kept diseases from spreading to the medical professionals who assisted those afflicted. In order to rid an area of the evil spirits that were believed to remain after a person succumbed to the plague, doctors had their assistants burn all of the personal belongings. Black rats, the spreaders of the plague, began a mass exodus of the area due to the smoke that was prevalent from the high volume of plague victims. As the rats left, the number of plague victims dwindled until it was eradicated, which directly connected the rats to the source of the disease.
Winding our way back through the closes, one small, confined space after another, it was difficult to imagine how life could be sustainable in such an area. However, many generations of families held businesses within the closes that persisted after they were required to vacate the area as a place of housing in 1635. The city council, realizing that they could not prevent business from continuing underground, allowed shops to remain open. For almost 300 years, various shops and markets remained open and highly popular beneath the floors of the City Chambers, with the last closing in 1931.
The conclusion of the tour brought us full circle, back to the highest point of Mary King’s Close that remains, with the floor of the City Chambers only feet above our heads. Although the attraction is advertised as haunting, it brings together myth with truths uncovered through archaeological studies that paints the portrait of a difficult, but meaningful life for the citizens of Edinburgh, Scotland up to the 17th century. Things are not all that they seem on the Royal Mile. If you dig deeper, you might find more buried historical secrets, like Mary King’s and other Closes beneath the streets, unseen by the thousands of people that walk the streets today.