Monday, August 6, 2012

Mary King's Close, A Haunted Legend

The Haunted Close

The area around Mary King's Close, from an 18th century engraving.

I think the first time I even heard about Edinburgh, Scotland, what I was really being told of was the famous Mary King's Close, a supposedly haunted underground complex beneath the city, where the miserable spirits of wretched poor still wander their old abodes. I forget whether the rumor of plague victims being bricked up inside the close was part of what I had heard at the time or not -- it seems to be a common myth about the site nonetheless -- but definitely the miserable state of the town's paupers during the 17th century was an aspect of some importance in the story as it was being told. With the poorest of the poor living underground in its particularly wretched conditions, it was said to be known as "The Street of Sorrows."

When I visited Edinburgh for the first time in 2001, Mary King's Close was -- much to my disappointment -- not open to the public. However, on my 2012 visit I found things had changed. Now there is a guided tour given by someone in costume speaking with very theatrical Scottish accent, showing everyone who arranges it around Mary King's Close (or in fact, several remains of closes that include Mary King's.)

Edinburgh during the time of Mary King

A "close" is, for those who don't know, a sort of old-style Scottish alley. Mary King's was but one of many, during a time when Edinburgh was a tightly compacted city on a hilltop. Due to the need for space, the buildings often were built up several stories tall -- high as the technology of the time could allow -- and with underground basement levels also making the most of the location. Street level apartments were the most desirable and were inhabited by the wealthiest people, while the middle classes lived on upper levels. The poorest people lived in the dismal underground parts of the buildings, which were undesirable for their bad ventilation, bad lighting, and their tendency to soak up the mud and sewage created by the residents above.

Closes were usually known and named for important residents who lived there or for notable businesses located within -- Fisherman's Close, Advocate's Close and Jackson's Close are some of the local samples. According to the tour, Mary King was the daughter of a wealthy advocate named Alexander King. She married a Burgess and upon his death inherited his title; this unusual position for a woman was evidently enough to make her the best-known property owner on her block, causing the close to be named for her.

It appears that the first definite claim of hauntings in this close is recorded around the 1680s, in the book "Satan's Invisible World Discovered." The story reeks of urban legend, much like the tale of the cannibal wigmaker at Rue de la Harpe -- no names are given and the story contains details that seem unlikely for anyone to have actually witnessed. It tells of a married couple who move into a house at which ghostly events have already been detected by the neighbors, but who ignore the warnings and take up the residence nonetheless.
"As the Mistriss was reading to her self, she chanced to cast her eye to the little Chamber Door just over against her, where she spyed the head and face of an old man gray headed with a gray Beard, looking straight upon her [...] Then she told her husband what was done, and what she had seen, the Apparition being evanished. [...] After supper, both being alone, the good-wifes fear still continuing, she built on a large Fire, and went to bed. After a little time, the Good-man casts his eye toward the chimney and spyed that same old-mans-head in the former place."
The story goes on to tell how a spectral child, a disembodied arm and a ghostly dog and cat followed by "small creatures" also appeared to them. I have seen it speculated that since Mary King's Close ran nearer than any other close to the old Nor' Loch marsh (now drained), swamp gas may have been getting into the tunnel and causing these ghostly-seeming lights and shapes. It is claimed that the reports of otherworldly visions seemed to have stopped abruptly once the Loch was drained in the 18th century. Nevertheless, the reputation for ghostly happenings was already established, and eventually visions of ghosts were replaced with 'sensing' of ghosts. In the 1990s a Japanese psychic famously claimed to make contact with the spirit of a little girl who had been abandoned in the close; the spirit complained that she had lost her doll, and so to appease her, the psychic bought a Barbie and left it for her. It has since become traditional to leave toys and money (to be donated to a children's hospital) in this room.
Other stories are that the close is haunted by 17th century plague victims who were either bricked in and left to die or whose bodies were cremated and used to make plaster for the walls of the houses, or that the close was used to hack up bodies of plague victims to make them easier to transport. Less dramatically, it's been said that hanging around in certain rooms one could still hear ghostly sounds of people living their everyday lives -- even when the close hadn't been inhabited for a century. Whatever the nature of the haunting, this place had a reputation for ghostly activity for a long time.

The close was inhabited and was a lively street for over two centuries, being located a hop skip and a jump from the town's Mercat Cross and just across the narrow street from the Luckenbooths; but in the 1750s many residents were chased out to make room for the Royal Exchange (now City Chambers) constructed next door. In the late 19th century the final inhabitants were forced out by further construction, and much of the close was destroyed; however, a certain underground section still remains, and it has become a very popular tourist attraction.

The Tour

A recently posted plastic sign above Writer's Court leads one to the tour base for The Real Mary King's Close -- which today is the only way to access what remains of this famous site. In fact, the tour actually goes through the underground remnants of about four closes total: Mary King's, Stewart's, Pearson's and Allen's.

One is not allowed to take photographs on the tour (and, honestly, the spaces one sees are so dark, I don't think very good pictures would be possible even if you could take them.) Since these "closes" are really the underground remnants of closes that were preserved when newer structures were built overtop, the effect of the visit is a bit like wandering around in someone's empty basement for an hour. A very historically interesting basement.

A tour guide outside the building, attracting visitors.

Cheerful guides in theatrical-grade costumes, portraying historical personages who were documented as living in the close during the 17th century, lead groups of about 15 visitors at a time into a little doorway through the giftshop. Tours seem to occur about every 30 minutes in the summer. The website advises booking in advance but I didn't have a problem, as a lone traveler in July, just walking in and buying a ticket. One of my local contacts tells me that the Halloween night tours do get booked up months in advance, though.

A similar room to the ones at the tour of The Real Mary King's Close. This picture was actually taken at the City of the Dead Underground tour.

After descending a staircase, one begins the tour of Mary King's and surrounding closes by being herded into a little room with some bits of replica furniture placed inside. The guide explains that this room is actually a little larger now than it would have been at the time of its inhabitation due to some modifications required by overhead construction, but that it's the equivalent of a poor-man's entire family home. Old time sanitation and lighting practices are explained in case anyone in the group might be unfamiliar with the subject. Suddenly a scream is heard some rooms away: the guide (with a sort of bad-actor's air that lets you know this is all part of the show) apologizes and says he needs to check what the problem is: he returns a moment later with a sobbing peasant woman and explains her husband was just murdered.

After this, the group is led to a room with what I perceived to be some rather troublingly badly-crafted statues, depicting a murder scene. The guide tells the story of what is portrayed: a murder which occurred during the 16th century (?) (the costumes on the statues were certainly 16th century) whereby a man was killed by his mother in law. Both she and her daughter, the victim's wife, were convicted for the crime and were sentenced to be executed by drowning in the old Nor' Loch; however, the daughter was able to have her sentence postponed due to pregnancy, and took the opportunity to successfully flee Scotland.

Next comes a little room where projected silhouettes of persons who lived in the close are shown and described. This is where you learn what info is known about Mary King, as well as some tidbits about other notable folks like the local tanner, the rich doctor, and so on.

Further rooms the group visits include one fitted with statues portraying a family sick with plague, an empty room which was once a cow barn and slaughterhouse, a very old room with its original plaster (which was supposedly made from the ashes of human plague victims -- I don't know how anyone would test for this or why anyone would have found this a desirable substance to use), and a large peep-hole in a wall through which you can see an underground area that supposedly dates to the 1100s. Relevant sound effects are played, kind of randomly, over speakers throughout the rooms.

One particular room -- in which the tour group is "quarantined" after visiting the plague room -- serves as a little theater, in which a reduced version of Sinclair's story of the haunting in Mary King's Close is narrated, with visual aid projected onto the walls. The story as told was kind of lame, and having since read the full account I think they maybe should have picked and chosen better parts of it to use. "...and then, two years later, he died" isn't really that great of an ending to a supposedly scary story. The filmmakers also seemed to not actually want to portray the ghostly subjects that were seen by the couple in the tale (maybe because the floating head and floating arm wouldn't seem spooky enough?) So the result is mostly a story about two people praying, merely told in a spooky voice.

Also of note is the famous Annie's Room, the place where the Japanese psychic (whose name wasn't given on the tour but whom other sources reveal to be Aiko Gibo) was said to have sensed a little girl's ghost. A mountain of toys sits against a hole in the wall, and a little box of coins is out which the guide explains will be donated to a children's hospital, and he entreats the visitors to add toys or coins by threatening them with perpetual hauntings if they resist.

A public domain publicity photo of the famous close.

The actual remnants of Mary King's Close proper are the very last part of the tour. These ruins resemble a very tall hallway, but sloping downward rather steeply. It is decorated with hanging laundry in an effort to demonstrate how the place would have looked when it was a bustling street. For £6 one can have a special photograph taken here with the guide. A final room is pointed out, but due to its decaying foundation and its being decorated with arsenic-based paint the group is not actually allowed inside: it was the home of the final resident of Mary King's until he was paid to leave, to make room for the construction which ultimately encased the place. A little further up the slope, the last business to have operated in Mary King's is revealed: a sawmaker's shop. At that, the group is led back up the stairs and out into the gift shop to collect their photos or to buy some Scottish tourist junk.

I'd been a little reluctant to take this tour due to the £12.95 ticket price (that's more than $20 US) but one of my Edinburgh contacts had recommended that I should go through with it if I had the money. Being a fan of architecture and of the history of old streets, I think it was probably worth it; though if I'd done the same tour 10 years ago when I first heard of the place and I was more interested in the ghosts and hauntings, I think I might have been disappointed. In those bygone times I'd have probably rather preferred a tour that just consisted of guides taking you into the close and telling ghost stories merely to creep you out.

If you are really in it for the history, I recommend also doing the John Knox house down the street as an accompaniment; Mary King's focuses mostly on the situation of the poor in the 16th and 17th centuries due to those quarters being the main survivors, whilst the Knox House reveals more of the middle class lifestyle. (Also notably, the real John Knox actually lived in Warriston's Close -- the place you have to enter to get into Real Mary King's Close.)

Thus with the understanding that Mary King's Close is above all a historical tour, it's a fun event to pass some time as a tourist in the city of Edinburgh. It is also one of the few attractions that is open late, making it a nice pre-pub or after-dinner passtime in the area.

History Uncovered-Over

Sadly, while the Real Mary King's Close tour is the only way to visit that particular historic close -- and as I have described in the last post the tour makes some troubles with not permitting photographs -- I might have something even better to offer: photos from a very, very similar close nearby, and which is NOT bricked over the way that Mary King's is.

Behold: Byres' Close.

It is named for Sir John Byres, who lived ca. 1569 - 1629. The location is on the same block and was built around the same time as Mary King's. The deep slope and step pattern is almost identical to that found in Mary King's and the buildings are of a similar appearance.

It's of note that while the actual sign over the close reads "Byres' Close" some sources say "Byre's Close" or "Byres's Close" or just "Byres Close."

Just about the only difference between Byres' and Mary King's is that Byres' Close is just a little more narrow -- I think maybe about a foot less wide than the preserved section of Mary King's. Mary King's also has fewer steps in the preserved section, being mostly slopes.

I am told Mary King's would not originally have been paved -- I assume neither would Byres'. But one can clearly see that these cobblestones are not exactly new. I think "originally" may be a relative term; perhaps it was raw dirt in the 1500s when it was new but probably by the 19th century it looks like it would have been paved.

Surrounding buildings in Byres' are still inhabited -- in fact, while taking these pictures I met a nice fellow who was out for a smoking break, and a whole family filing through in a row, all carrying suitcases, apparently lodging in the area. Some sources (like the city of Edinburgh's own website!) claim Byres' Close is not open to the public, but that seems to be a mistake, as there are definitely businesses operating in there -- (perhaps they only open for limited hours?)

Having seen Mary King's I can say that this nearby place is so similar in appearance that if you just hung some fake clotheslines overhead, one would probably not be able to tell the difference between the two in a photo -- I could not say this of other nearby closes like Craig's Close or Anchor Close. And once again, Byres' Close has the benefit of still having the rooftops open, so it is actually more similar to its historical appearance than modern Mary King's would be.

However, if you must see documentation of the real thing, some older pictures from Mary King's Close and buildings are available at this website.

The Ghost of the Ghost Street

Mary King's Close: marked in yellow on this map from the Bank of Scotland's Museum on the Mound, which shows the current street plan in red laid over the 17th century plan in black. The construction of the City Chambers and Cockburn Street were the primary culprits in the close's destruction.

Modern view; Red line attempting to mark Mary King's Close as it would have gone.

That which we now call Mary King's Close seems to have begun its life as Towris (or Touris) Close, named for a property owner of the early 16th century. Later it became known as Alexander King's Close, then Mary King's Close. It is usually assumed that Mary King was the daughter of Alexander King, though it appears this cannot be definitively proven. In 1635, Mary King was listed as a tenant but not a landowner in the close, and the land in the close belonging to the descendants of Alexander King was described as "an empty wasteland" in the tax records, with no one living there.

Detailed depictions of Edinburgh's streets pre-19th century are hard to come by. The above is a map from the time of Mary King, though not very well detailed nor accurately scaled. Still, it helps us understand the lay of the land: Mary King's is approximately located in the red circle across from St. Giles (though the map does not correctly portray the number of blocks nor the number of buildings in the city.) The modern Prince's Street Gardens and Waverly Station sit in a hole that was once the Nor' Loch. The town of Edinburgh was almost entirely placed on top of a hill, and with sanitation being as it was in those days, it was convenient to just let the streets slope down toward the Loch so that the sewage and garbage thrown into the roads could naturally drain that direction.

Mary King's on a 17th century map. Stewart's Close is the zig-zaggy one to the right.

While other nearby closes tended to be cut off by buildings or would open out into nice airy gardens, the end of Mary King's Close, during the 17th century, went as near to the Nor' Loch as the streets could get, landing at the lowest part of the hill. It seems it was an important thoroughfare for this reason. Various 18th and 19th century construction projects have trimmed the close much shorter than its peak length, but the red arrow below depicts my understanding of how the close used to extend as laid over a modern area map. Fittingly, it seems it would have terminated somewhere around the modern Edinburgh Dungeon!

The "haunted" part of the close was said to be the portion after the modern Cockburn Street and going towards Waverly. It would have been the area nearest the Loch.

A small, fenced gap between buildings on Market Street which is now but a bricked up sliver, was for a while the final remnant of the haunted segment of Mary King's. The fence for some reason remains, even though there's nothing to pass into now.

Compare this picture of Mary King's old passage to the opening of nearby Craig's Close, which contains a narrow stairway leading up to the next street.

The Hebrides Bar has a little window out the back through which I tried to get what pictures I could. I possibly saw some remnants of stairs coming off from the old close. (The red and yellow circles over the maybe-steps, are a reflection on the window glass.)

Meanwhile, here is the portion of Cockburn Street where the close used to run through.

Up on the High Street, the actual factual entry into the close is quite gone and has been for some time -- its High Street close-head was lost in the 18th century and by 1817 Mary King's was no longer considered part of the area (though most of the addresses in the "Exchange" Close had previously been Mary King's.) However, this photo below shows where the original entry would have previously stood, and it is also the plot of land under which the remnants of Mary King's Close are still preserved today.

The portion of Mary King's which ran after the City Chambers or Exchange still persisted as a busy street for about another century despite the loss of the High Street entry, at least until the interference of further construction brought its useful life to an end.

Mary King's is still clearly marked, but is entered by way of the Exchange.

Mary King's is now nothing but a little path between the Royal Exchange and Cockburn Street.

The Origin?

George Sinclair's account below, reported as if a true story, is usually considered the first report of a haunting in Mary King's Close. Sinclair was a Scottish mathematician, engineer and demonologist. The first Professor of Mathematics, Glasgow, he is known for writing this book called Satan's Invisible World Discovered, (c. 1685), a work on witchcraft. He wrote in all three areas of his interests, including an account of the “Glenluce Devil”, a poltergeist case from c. 1654, in a 1680 book mainly on hydrostatics and dealing also with coal.

An Apparition Seen in a Dwelling House in Mary King's Closs, in Edinburgh.

Sir, Within these few years, there was one T. C. by profession an Agent about the Session-house, who about flitting-time was removing his furniture from a lower part of the City to an higher. One in the afore-said Closs seing his Maid on the Saturday carrying some light furniture to such a house, asked her, if she was to dwell in that house. Yes said she, for I am hired for this half-year. Her friend told her, if you live there, I assure you, you will have more Company than your selves. And after twice or thrice, more going up and down, and several informations anent the business, she was perswaded to tell her Mistris, she would not tarry a servant in that house, it being haunted with a Spirit or Ghaist, and gave her the ground of her intelligence.

The Mistriss informed her husband, desiring him to forbear that house, least she might be afrighted, even with apprehensions. But he out of a natural courage and fortitude of mind smiled at the Relation, and resolved to tarry, lodging there that same very night.

To morrow being the Sabbath-day, they went both to Church in the forenoon. But in the afternoon, he being indisposed, fitted himself for a sleep. His Wife took the Bible, and at the head of the Table near the Bed, resolved to spend the time in reading of the Holy Scripture, appointing the Maid-servant to go to Church, which she did, but came no more to the Family.

As the Mistriss was reading to her self, she chanced to cast her eye to a little Chamber Door just over against her, where she spyed the head and face of an old man gray headed with a gray Beard, looking straight upon her, the distance being very short. At which sight, she endeavouring to awaken her husband fell a sown and fainted, and lay in that posture till she heard some of her Neighbours open their doors, after sermon was ended. Then she told her husband what was done, and what she had seen, the Apparition being evanished. He pleaded it was some fancy or delusion of her Senses, and bad her be of good courage.

After Supper, both being alone, the good-wifes fear still continuing, she built on a large Fire, and went to bed. After a little time, the Good-man casts his eye toward the Chimney and spyed that same old-mans-head in the former place. He told his Wife, who was like to fall into her former passion. He riseth, lighteth a candle, setteth it on the Table, and went to his Bed again, encouraging themslves in the Lord, and recommended themselves to GODS care and protection. After an hour and more was spent thus, they clearly perceived a young child, with a coat upon it, hanging near to the old mans head. At which sight, the Good-man Tom flew out of his Bed, and his wife after him. He taking her in his armes kneeled downbefore the Bed, and with fervent devotion they entreated the Lord to be freed from that temptation. He lighted a second candle, the first being spent, and knocked upon his Neighbours, but getting no answer, they both returned to their Bed, where they both kneeled, and prayed, an excessive fear and sweat being upon them.
By and by a naked Arm appears in the air, from the elbow downward, and the hand streatched out, as when one man is about to salute another. He then skipt out of hissed, and kneeling down begged help from heaven. The Arm had now come within its own length to him as it were to shake hands with him. Whereupon he immediatly goes to his Bed again, and at the opening of the Curtain, it offered another salutation to him. The man and his wife embracing one another through fear, and still eying the naked arm, they prayed themore earnestly. But the Cubit offering to touch him, he was in such a consternation and amazement, that he was as one distracted, but taking some courage from GOD, he boldly spake to it after this manner. In the name of the living GOD, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, tell me why thou troubles my Family? To my knowledge, I never wronged any man, by killing or cheating, but hath lived honestly in the World. If thou hast received any wrong, if I can right thee, I shall do my utmost for thee, but trouble me no more. Notwithstanding of this, the Arm and hand came nearer than before, still after a courteous manner, with an offer of acquaintance. They fell to prayer again, both of them being drowned with sweat, and in the mean time they saw a little Dog come out of that little Room aforenamed, which after a little time looking abouty and towards the Bed, and the Naked Arm, composed it self upon a Chair, as it were with its nose in its tail to sleep. This somewhat increased their fever. But quickly after, a Cat comes leaping out from the same Room, and in the midst of the hall began to play some little Tricks. Then was the hall full of small little creatures, dancing prettily, unto which none of them could give a name, as having never in nature seen the like.

It is not possible to narrate the hight of Passion, and Fear these two were under, having all these Apparitions at once in their eye, which continued a long time. The honest couple went to their knees again within the Bed, there being no standing in the Floor of the Room. In the time of prayer, their ears were startled, with a deep, dreadful, and loud groan, as of a strong man dying, at which all the Apparitions and visions at once evanished, and as the honest couple thought, they retired to the little Room, whence they came, and the house was quiet.

After this, they both went hand in hand to the little Room where the Drink stood and refreshed themselves therewith. After they had taken a second draught, the husband said my Dear, God hath made me this night to bear, that which would have afrighted to death the stoutest of them all. The day approaching, they dressed themselves, and made no secret of it. But looking back upon what happened, they wondred that none of them had the wit to open the Door, and to flie from the house, which had been easier to have done, than to light the first Candle. But they behoved to undergoe this Trial, having nopower to escape it. And by this means, the Goodman had the courage to dwell in the house after till he died: yet would never want some Good-fellows or others with him, concluding the worst was over as indeed it was.

A few weeks after, he on a Sabbath day went with his wife to Carstorfin, a Village two miles from Edinburgh, to hear Sermon. In the evening he took some refreshment there, at a publick Inns: and steping to the Door, to ease nature, he was instantly surprised with a vehement Shivering and trembling in all his joynts. Coming from the end of the aforesaid Village, with a purpose to come home, he was accompanied with some crows flying above him, and almost keeping pace with him, till he came to Portsburgh, a part of the surburbs of the City, Where they left him, and returned to their own lodging. These Crows (my dear says he) Do prognostick that I must die shortly. He fell sick of a pain in his head, with an excessive aiking. But before I go furder on in this narration, I must make a visit to the Countrey.

A Gentle-man near Tranent or in it, a town about seven miles from Edinburgh, whose Agent this man was, in managing his Lawaffairs, and keeped his Papers for that effect, had a singular kindness for Thomas, as he had for him. This Gentleman being in Bed one morning with his Wife, his Nurse and a Child laying in a truckle Bed near them, the Nurse was afrighted with something like a cloud moving up and down the Room, but not shaped as such. She called to her Master, and his Wife, and awakned them. He seeing the Cloud figured like a man, nimbly skipt over the Bed, and drew his sword. And going to Bed again, layed it by his side, and recommended the Family to God. For a time it continued in the forementioned dark form, but anone they all saw perfectly the body of a man, walking up and down. The Gentleman behaved himself more like a Christian, than a combatant. At last this Apparition looked him fully and perfectly in the face, and stood by him with a ghaistly and Pale countenance.

At rage said to the Spectre, what art thou? Art thou my dear Friend Thomas Coltheart? for so was the Agent called. Art thou dead my friend? Tell me, if thou hast any commission to me from Almighty God, tell it me and it shall be welcome? The Ghost held up its hand three times, waving and shaking it towards him, and immediatly disappeared. This was done about the very hour (as was guessed) of the Agents death.

The Sunday after his death, among many accompanying his Corps to the common burial place, some of the Town Ministers were there, and by chance a friend of his, thanked one of them for his attendance: and said (sir) it was a pity, that some of you saw him not before he died. The Minister asked him, if any remarkable thing was the cause of his sicknesse? So much was told, as gave the Minister ground to make a visit to the Widow, who made him very welcome with many tears in her eyes. A fter she hadcomposed herself heprayed. Prayer being ended, she began thefore-related story, andtold it from the beginning. Butwhenshe came to the Dogs part, she telling him, that that he was just now sitting upon the Chair, where the Dog lay asleeping, the Minister rises up, and taking the Mistris by the hand, come (said he) if I have seen his Chair: in the name of Almighty God, I will see his Chamber too; and so went in to see the little Room from which the Apparitions came, and to which they returned, in which Room she gave the Minister an account of what followed the Dog. In the mean time a Gentleman came in, whom she knew by his voice, and running to him with great fervor, they embraced one another affectionatly with tears. To make an end, this stranger was the Gentleman, to whom the Ghost of the deceased husband appeared, about Tranent, the very hour, when he was expiring at Edinburgh. He told likewise, that, that morning the Ghost appeared to him, he was resolved to attend the Duke of Lauderdaile from Lithingtoun to Edinburgh, but this Apparition discomposing his Wife, he could not. But with his first conveniency, (he told her) he had come in, to see her, and get an account of his papers, being touched with what he saw at his house. These things coming to the Duke of Lauderdails ears, as remarkable Stories, he called for that Minister, and had the same account of the Particulars, before many of the Nobility narrated to him.


  1. It's so interesting to follow your serie about Mary Kings close. Good work and well written.

    1. Oh, thank you! I was afraid no one would read it! :)


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