Written by Daniel Sharp
In the 1990s, a Japanese medium visited Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh’s Old Town. She sensed nothing at all until she entered a perfectly preserved seventeenth-century house and felt a despairing presence in the room. Turning to leave, the medium felt a tug on her trouser leg and turned to see the ghostly apparition of a small girl named Annie. Annie was a girl who had lived in the house, but was left alone there by her mother when she caught the plague. Most distressing of all – Annie’s favourite doll had been taken away by her mother. The medium immediately ran to a shop and brought back a tartan Barbie doll for Annie to play with. The ghost was appeased and the feeling of despair dissipated. That doll is still there, along with a pile of other toys that visitors have brought from all over the world to leave for Annie.
As it is not the place of a History, Classics and Archaeology journal to pronounce upon such matters as the existence of the paranormal, I shall not judge whether the story of the haunting is true or not (though, as it happens, I am a confirmed skeptic). What is true, however, is that the sites in and around Mary King’s Close have had reports of hauntings since the seventeenth century, and it has a reputation for the supernatural – it was even featured on the paranormal television series Most Haunted in 2004.
What I can judge, however, is how good the Close is as a place to visit. It is now a tourist attraction and I recently visited with some family members. A tour guide, garbed in historical clothing, leads you underground and shows you the perfectly preserved rooms and houses which once made up Mary King’s Close. Prior to it being built over in order to construct the City Chambers, it was one of the busiest closes in Edinburgh. It was also one of the few named after a woman – Mary King was a burgess and successful businesswoman in the 1630s.
Indeed, it is a great place to visit. Yes, it is very touristy as these things generally are, but that does not take away from the fact that the tour guide is very genial and informative. It also does not get in the way of a ‘genuine’ historical experience – the Close and the houses within it are very well preserved. Annie’s house in particular was a treat to see as it is a perfectly preserved seventeenth-century house, with some of the original floral patterning still visible on the walls.
One receives a huge amount of information about the history of the Close, with particular attention paid to the period of Edinburgh’s final plague outbreak, which killed an astonishing amount of people. Given the tightly-packed layout of the Close, it is not difficult to see how disease spread so easily – the Close was narrow, the dwellings tiny and crammed full of people, and human waste was thrown out onto the street with the traditional cry of ‘gardyloo!’. You hear of other stories of the inhabitants too, including the tragicomedy of a murderous encounter between a man and his mother-in-law.
In the end, ‘The Real Mary King’s Close’ is well worth visiting, one of those rare tourist attractions that pays real attention to the history of the place. So, the next time you are walking along the Royal Mile, think about the underworld that you are walking on top of – and if you visit, remember to take a doll for poor Annie!