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Edinburgh, Scotland
Mary King's Close, Edinburgh, Scotland: 400 Years of History
Where the Plague Comes Back to Life –
Though No Longer Contagious

Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs courtesy of The Real Mary King's Close Consortium

he year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city's population. The area hardest hit: Mary King's Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.

The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh's most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago.

Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King's Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery – and misery.

narrow walkways of Mary King's Close, Edinburgh

The exhibit breathes new life into this underground world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then – though without any contagious aspects – the Real Mary King's Close provides amazing insight into a period of history with which many are totally unfamiliar – and it's been preserved in an authentic environment and historically accurate depiction that defies most "commercial" historical reproductions.

It is eerie meandering up and down along dark, circuitous unpaved passageways, beaten down earth floors (good walking shoes are a must; wheelchair accessible it is not) – past room after room, each with its own story to tell – a projection of people who lived in the Close in the mid-16th-19th centuries. I almost feel an intruder, the subtle lighting enhancing the effects of a shadowy past.

dark and eerie interior of Mary King's Close

The inhabitants – ranging from those gracing a grand 16th century townhouse to plague victims of the 17th century to the third-generation saw makers who departed in 1902, when the last section was finally interred – are not composites of might-have-beens; the lives recounted are based on real people gleaned from primary documentation (written at the time) and preserved in the Scottish Office of Records and its archives.

the maid meets Mary King

Lighting conveys the supernatural nature of the attraction as much as does the narrative. Only "practicals" – original methods of lighting the dwellings – are used, re-creating the actual lighting conditions of the 17th-18th centuries. Candle light illuminates one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A single low-watt light bulb brings others into hazy focus.

The dark hallways are lit by lantern-like "bowats," providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants – no more or less than was available to the tenants at the time. The concept of atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.

Rounding one curve reveals a large window, lit by a gloomy, greenish, unhealthy light. A doctor emerges, tending to bed-ridden figures, covered with sores, boils and diseased skin. It's the home of John Craig, a grave-digger who has already succumbed to the "visitation of the pestilence," his body awaiting "collection."

His wife, Janet, and three sons suffer from varying stages of the deadly malady. The Doctor is lancing a boil on the eldest son, Johnnie, with a hot iron to seal and disinfect the wound. Repellant odors arising from the family chamber pot of vomit provide a little more "reality" than even today's cable TV has prepared me for. By the door there is bread, ale and coal delivered to the quarantined family. The townspeople want to ensure the afflicted stay in their homes, so the healthy have good reason to give generously.

And therein lies the tragedy of Mary King's Close – much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck its residents fiercely; as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside to be carried away by those designated to perform the loathsome task. Mary King's Close was a pariah in the neighborhood – and ultimately fell victim to its own diseased fate. It disappeared, as well.

With more than two dozen stops along the tour path – each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history – I became intimately acquainted with the residents who lived there.

actors as inhabitants of Mary King's Close

Mary King herself, of course, who moved here with her four children in 1629 after her husband died. You'll get to meet her personally and boy, does she have some good stories to tell!

While listening to the story of another early dweller, the narration is interrupted by a scream from across the way. We quickly run to see what happened. The widow Allison Rough, murder weapon in hand, is standing over her son-in-law Alexander Cant, a prominent Burgess of Edinburgh, whose body lay on the floor – the dowry agreement over which they have been fighting still in his hand. Events leading up to the murder, as well as its aftermath, are wound into a true-to-life rendition of Allison's memorable life.

Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre – all authenticated by original documentation – abound as we wend our way around the windy, up-and-down corridors. Shifts in lighting reflect the various circumstances. Not to mention the assorted ghosts (the only residents not authenticated by original documentation) who are said to inhabit the property.

Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard discovery. "This really brings to life all the stories I've heard over the years about this part of the city's history. It's hard to grasp that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops."

Annie's Shrine

One of the most important – and saddest – among a multitude of rooms that witnessed much sadness is one in which eight-year-old Annie died of the plague in 1645. A Japanese psychic, visiting in 1992, could barely enter the room because of all the misery she felt there. As she turned away, she claimed to feel a tug at her leg. Annie, in rags with long dirty hair, was standing by the window, crying because she had lost her family, her dog and her doll. The psychic brought Annie a doll to comfort her – and people from around the world have been leaving trinkets and toys ever since.

Key chains, jewelry, dolls, stuffed animals line the walls as a shrine to the sad little child who has long since passed away. "What a sad story," laments 10-year-old Harriet Peterson, visiting from London. She slowly adds the small stuffed teddy bear she is hugging to the other offerings.

There was a lot of life lived within these buildings – and a lot of lives lost. As one of the most fascinating and unique walks – literally – through history I've yet to tread, the unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, the serpentine alleyways remained with me, even as I explored the many other, more traditional sites of Historic Edinburgh.

The Real Mary King's Close is open daily, with tours at 15-minute intervals. Price is adults, $23; children 5-15, $13; seniors and students, $20. For more information, please contact: VisitBritain at 1-877/899-8391 or visit www.realmarykingsclose.com.

Related Articles:
My Scotland, My Perthshire; Hopscotching Around Scotland; The Long Good Bye to Ireland; Pittormie Castle

(Posted 9-5-2014)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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