Edinburgh’s Close Past

Mary King's Close -sMary King and I have much in common.

We’re both single (she a widow) with grown children; both of us are entrepreneurs with small success and live in comfort. But the comfort of Mary King was a far cry from my own. You see, Mary lived in 17th century Edinburgh in a ‘close’.

Closes were very narrow streets with tall (seven or eight storey) buildings closely set together on either side of the road. These were often named for the businesses in them – Baker’s Close, Advocates Close, Tanner’s Close, etc. Or they may have been named for the notable residents living in them.

Such is Mary King’s Close.

Mary was a charismatic, well-liked individual (the similarities just keep mounting) who traded in fabric and sewed for a living. And while it’s unlikely that any Toronto streets will be renamed in my honour, I too ply my trade on a machine – a computer.

Built on a steep hill which ended at the Nor’ Loch (north lake), these closes were a hive of activity and home to dozens of families. The lower floors were the poorest; the upper the most well off. Mary lived in the upper middle and owned her few rooms. In this too, we share affinity; my condo is on the 16th floor!

Each day at 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., the prescribed hours, one might hear shouts of “Garde loo!” from the tiny windows. This was followed by the emptying of chamber pots up and down the street onto the tiny thoroughfare. The steep hill meant that these slops would slowly slide down into the loch, but not before everyone, many without shoes, tramped through the filth. It’s small wonder that the plague swept through areas such as this!

Auld Reekie

Edinburgh enjoyed the soubriquet, Auld Reekie, apparently because people had no fireplaces and the smoke of their fires simply seeped through the doors out into the street. But I suspect it wasn’t just the smoke that reeked.

Nor LochThe closes were built up around Edinburgh’s castle, on the steep hill forming the centre of the city. Curiously, today’s Princes Street – a bustling thoroughfare with beautiful gardens, memorials such as the one to Sir Walt Scott, and wonderful shops – was built on the site of the Nor’ Loch. It was drained in the 1820s to create the gardens and the Waverley Station. The sewage was several feet deep when it was drained and it’s said that the beautiful flowers in Princes Street Gardens still benefit from it.

800px-Edinburgh_Castle_and_Ross_FountainLess than a mile up the road lies Holyrood (Holy Cross) palace, the home of kings and queens through the centuries. What would Mary have thought of the studied opulence of such a place compared to her own humble dwelling? Or did she simply thank heaven that she didn’t live on the lowest levels of the close?

As I wander through the rooms of Mary’s home, led by her ‘daughter’, a costumed interpreter, I can’t help but give a moment’s thanks for the change in hygiene the last four hundred years have wrought.
plague doctorIn the 20th century, the plague is no longer a problem but here, we visit the room of an 18th century plague victim – a child with the tell-tale boils. His doctor, looking like a space alien, is wearing a coat, gloves, boots and  mask of leather.  The front of the mask protrudes like an elephant’s trunk; this space is filled with sweet herbs intended to protect him from the “foul humours” in the air. Given that it would have taken an intrepid flea to gnaw his way through all that leather, the protective costume proved a success.

The ghost of Annie

Mary King Close disappeared when the lowest levels were covered over in the 1700s by the building of the Royal Exchange. It was uncovered in 2003 and ghost stories abound. In particular, one room, visited by a Japanese psychic named Gibo, is said to be haunted by Annie, a child who was abandoned by her mother (she probably had the plague and her mother thought to protect her siblings). Her favourite doll was lost. Gibo brought her a doll which apparently “delighted” her.

Today the shabby little room is filled with toys – stuffed teddies, dolls, books – brought by enthusiastic tourists. Money has also been collected here and all this is donated to a children’s charity.

Rotation of RMKC Annie's room with Jonet Nimmo-sA visit to Mary King’s Close, carefully and faithfully restored and filled with interesting artifacts, unearths a small piece of Edinburgh’s past. Auld Reekie indeed.

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