Thousands of tourists visit the city of Edinburgh every year and are charmed by its beauty and elegance and by the friendliness of the locals. However, few visitors know of the dark secrets lying below the rows of shops selling tartan, shortbread, whisky and other souvenirs.
When visiting Edinburgh, a popular place to start is the Royal Mile, which is the road that runs between the Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It is along this very street that hints appear of the city’s innermost secrets. If you are observant, you will notice, about half way down the Royal Mile, blackboards advertising walking tours of the city. It is these advertised tours that divert you from the usual tourist sites and give you access to the subterranean world of “Old Edinburgh” – a world that we found was significantly less romantic than the one we know of today.
As the tours reveal, the modern city of Edinburgh is built on top of an older and less glamorous city. Below the Royal Mile, for example, lie disused streets long since cut off from the outside world. The entrance to most of these streets has been blocked off – with good reason. One of the most notorious is Mary Kings Close. This street lies beneath the City Chambers on the Royal Mile and has been built over since its original inhabitants died of the plague.
To gain a full appreciation of the history we decided to go on a walking tour through Mary King’s Close. We had been up and down the Royal Mile several times but had never noticed the narrow alley leading to this subterranean street. As the guide unlocked the door leading to the close and we filed in, we could immediately sense that it was a far nicer world outside than inside. Mary King’s Close was dark, narrow, damp and cold! In these unpleasant and creepy surroundings, our guide began to relate the story of Mary King’s Close and its frightening history.
Most stories concerning the Close centre on life there during the 1600s. Edinburgh at this time was an overcrowded city, with space being a luxury. Due to the city being surrounded by walled fortifications, the only way to house the population was to build multi-storey building. These “skyscrapers” sometimes reached seven storeys!
Unfortunately, there was nothing in the way of plumbing and hygiene, which meant that human and household waste that was generated by the population in these buildings literally went straight out of the window! As there was no drainage and because the streets were so narrow, the waste accumulated, or rather “splattered” in all directions, meaning that passers-by had to negotiate their way very carefully as they went about their journey. On a rainy day, streets such as these became a slippery mess.
Worse still was the possibility of an unlucky pedestrian taking a “direct hit” from the waste as gravity took it to the street below. The richer members of Edinburgh society took to travelling in special chairs to avoid contact with the streets. These chairs were also curtained so the traveller could avoid having to see what he was travelling through. Others wore high-heeled shoes so at least they had some distance between their feet and the disgusting mess swimming beneath them. Upon hearing these horrible tales, we almost began to worry about where we had been putting our feet as we walked around Edinburgh. If we were already disgusted by the story so far, worse was to follow as our guide explained the filthy habits of these people in further detail.
Apparently the locals developed an “early warning system” to cope with the unhygienic conditions. To give passers-by a chance to escape, inhabitants took to calling out “Gardey Loo”, which was a version of a French expression meaning “Watch out for the water!” Locals who knew the expression, would call out “Haud yer haun!” (“Hold your hand!”) to the people above if they were walking past at that moment. However, visitors to Edinburgh would probably have looked up to work out what all the noise was about and would have received a nasty surprise
In these terrible conditions it comes as no surprise that Edinburgh, including Mary King’s Close, was badly hit by the plague. By 1645, thousands were dying from the disease and the local council in its wisdom decided that Mary Kings Close was a potential source of the disease. What the council decided to do to resolve the situation beggars belief. They bricked up both entrances to the Close and posted guards outside. No one was allowed to enter or leave the Close. As a result, the inhabitants died an horrific death trapped in a dark and disease-ridden environment.
The story made uncomfortable listening for our tour group as we stood in the claustrophobic Close. Imagining all those poor people trapped in there to die made us quite keen to get out of there. The sombre mood was darkened further as our guide took us further along the subterranean street relating stories of various inhabitants who were said to have lived in the area and whose ghosts are said to haunt the Close at night. The guide insisted that some tourists had seen ghosts during previous tours. Upon hearing this, all of us tried to casually negotiate our way to the front of the group so that we would not be the last one out of the Close – whilst pretending that we were not frightened by these tales.
In one small dusty room of a house, our guide showed us a corner where lots of small toys and mementoes had been left by visitors. Apparently, a Japanese psychic visiting the Close had seen the ghost of a little girl and had communicated with it. The girl told the psychic about how she had become ill and had been separated from the rest of her family. As a result of this story, visitors to Mary Kings Close have left teddy bears and jewellery and written messages to the little girl on the walls. Even if you do feel sceptical about such stories, there was no escaping the fact that the room had an eerie atmosphere.
Our guide informed us that Mary Kings Close was eventually re-opened, and unbelievably, people did start to return. However, when work began on The Royal Exchange above, now the City Chambers, the street was nearing its end. In the late 1800s, the final resident, Mr. Chesney, was evicted from Mary Kings Close.
We were shown Mr. Chesney’s house but because of the terrible condition it was now in we were unable to enter. I was not sure about the others but I felt quite relieved not to visit Mr. Chesney’s house. The visits to the remains of other houses in the Close had been more than enough for me.
I am sure that we all felt infinitely better when we did get back out onto the open streets of modern Edinburgh. For a start, the air was considerably fresher than below ground!
Having vowed to stay above ground for the remainder of our visit to Edinburgh, 24 hours later the terror seemed to have worn off and we found ourselves on yet another tour of underground Edinburgh. There was obviously something quite thrilling about the frightening history of Edinburgh, as the tour group was quite large.
This time our guide took us to a place known as the Vaults. Centuries ago, as well as living high above the ground, there had also been a large population of poor living below ground. Some of these vaults descended a few levels, although only some of them are accessible. Being so far below ground we all wondered how these people had been able to live. Being poor in medieval Edinburgh could not have been much fun
The great thing about these tours is that they bring the history of the Scotland to life. It gives you an insight into the lives of people who have long since been forgotten and whose existence is totally ignored when books and films are produced concerning this period. Romantic, their life may not have been, but there is no doubt that it makes a strong impact.
If you are looking for something different to do on a visit to Edinburgh and you have a strong stomach, try one of these tours. Not only will you learn some history, you will find it easier to appreciate the modest facilities of your Edinburgh hotel.
Copyright © 2002 Faiz Kermani