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Mary King’s Close

Mary King’s Close is the most famous part of Edinburgh’s underground city, and is widely known for being the most haunted place in the city. The close is on the Royal Mile, now under the 17th-century City Chambers. In the 1500s, when the close was first built, it was ten stories tall, towering above the Royal Mile. The buildings then had to be high. Edinburgh was still enclosed inside its city walls. (Today, the World’s End pub marks where a boundary once was.) As the city couldn’t grow outwards, it grew upwards as high as it could, to accomodate the rapidly growing population.

Who was Mary King?

The closes of the old town were named after their best known inhabitant. As a result, they have all had several names over time. (There are some exceptions to this naming rule, for example Fleshmarket Close, which would have been the site of a meat or livestock market; and Blackfriars Wynd, the former site of a monastery.) In the past, Mary King’s Close was known as Alexander King’s Close. Alexander King was a lawyer, widely distrusted by the Protestant townspeople because he was a Catholic. Mary King may or may not have been a relative of his, but she was probably not a close one- Alexander’s heir was his brother and he had no children. Mary King was recorded as living in the close in 1635 until she died in 1644. She was married to Thomas Nimmo, who died considerably before she did, and they had three children.

Ew-yick! Buboes!

In 1645- the year after Mary died- Edinburgh was hit by a massive outbreak of the plague. The plague is a disease spread by fleas, carried on the Black Rat, which is quite often brown. Plague comes in two strains, Bubonic and Pneumonic.

Buonic plague caused boils- or buboes- filled with pus or mucous to appear on the body, particularly on the armpits or groin. When they burst, it was incredibly painful. However, this type of plague could be survived, if you were healthy before you got it.

Pneumonic plague was an instant death sentence. As well as the buboes, sufferers would bleed from every possible opening. The only good thing was that death came quickly.

That’s lovely, but what’s it got to do with anything?

Because of the high number of people in the small closes, the disease spread quickly. In an attempt to contain the plague, some streets were closed off completely. Mary King’s Close was one of them. The residents were shut up inside, and left to die of the plague. By the end of the plague outbreak, the population of Edinburgh had been halved. But even after that, it was still overcrowded, and, of course, the population would insist on reproducing. There was nothing for it but to open up Mary King’s Close and the other streets, take out all the corpses, and encourage people to move back in. They were quickly reoccupied.

I’m bored. Where’s the ghosts?

Shortly after the closes were reoccupied, a Professor George Sinclair published a book called Satan’s Invisible World. This book was written to encourage the citizens of Edinburgh to be less sinful and more religious. George Sinclair was Glaswegian...
The book told the story of Thomas Coltheart and his wife. They moved into Mary King’s Close, and soon regretted it. The previous residents hadn’t moved out yet. They saw an old, grey-haired man, a floating child, and a disembodied arm which kept trying to shake hands. These apparitions were joined by more random flying dead stuff until they took up the whole room, leaving the Colthearts trapped on their bed.
This book convinced the public that Mary Kiing’s Close was a demonic hellhole, and probably had been ever since that Catholic Alexander King lived there. Of course, he was in league with the Devil, because how else could a Catholic ever get to be a lawyer? O.o

Then, at the end of the 1600s, some houses in Mary King’s Close were damaged in fires. Locals took this to be a message from God, allthough it didn’t stop people from living in the unaffected parts of the street.

Isn’t this thing meant to be underground?

In 1753, plans were made by the Council to build a Royal Exchange on the High Street. As the part of Mary King’s Close nearest the High Street had already been burnt down by the fire, and nobody liked it much anyway after the whole “floating dead bits of goo” issue, they chose the area around the close to build on. Other streets taken up by the Royal Exchange were Allan’s Close, Stewart’s Close and Pearson’s Close.

The higher stories of the top end of the close’s buildings were knocked down, and the lower floors were incorperated into the foundations of the Royal Exchange. The lower end of the close, furthest away from the High Street, remained as it had been before.

This left part of the street covered, although it didn’t affect the businesses of the shops there, or seem to have much of an effect on the residents at all.

In the 1800s, after the building of the New Town, the lower end of Mary King’s Close was destroyed when Cockburn Street was built as a link between the old and new towns. A small staircase was built from Cockburn Street up to the covered-up part of Mary King’s Close , and business in the close conitnued as usual. The last person to actually live in the close was William Marshall, a sawmaker, who left in 1897.

In 1913, the staircase from Cockburn Street was removed and the close fell into a period of disuse. During the Second World War it was used as an air raid shelter for the City Chambers personell (Royal Exchange building). This is why some of the old rooms are whitewashed. Today, entry to Mary King’s Close is available only through the tours that regularly go there, as is the case with most of Edinburgh’s old and haunted places. They’d probably let you in if you convinced them you were a proper historian. If you’d like to do that, here’s a tip: don’t say you’re going to hunt the floating dead goo.

So are there any real ghosts or just fake Glaswegian ones?

Obviously this depends on what you beleive, but there are numerous ghost stories, including a woman in black (sometimes said to be the ghost of Mary King, but looks more like a Victorian spirit). There is also a fairly well-known story about a group of people who offered to spend the night in Mary King’s Close, sponsored to raise money for charity. In the morning, they said they hadn’t been bothered by the random floating dead goo (shall I drop this now?), but were kept awake by the noise from the pub upstairs. It turned out, though, that all that was above them was the City Chambers- empty and silent at night.

The room they stayed in is thought to have been a tavern hundreds of years ago.

However the most famous ghost of Mary King’s Close is undoubtably Little Sarah. She is widely known as being first seen by a Japanese psychic who had come to Scotland with a television crew who were filming her as she looked around supposedly haunted places for supernatural activity. Sarah was a little girl in ragged clothes, who had died of the plague. Sometimes she was seen with a small dog. The psychic felt sorry for the lonely little girl and left a doll for her in the area where she’d been seen. over time, visitors left more small toys and gifts for her and now there is a large collection of dolls, coins, and a rather large fuffy rabbit.

However, here on, we have an account of ghosts- including the child- which dates back to before the sighting by the Japanese psychic. Some of the other ghosts seen on this encounter include that of a child murderer, a show-off "ghost-on-purpose", and a Stanley Holloway lookalike. Screwed-up city? I don't know what you're talking about.