The Real Mary King’s Close

I know I said I was in Scotland to visit old stuff. Really, really old stuff, from the Roman times and even earlier. And I have enjoyed that very much, for there were many places along the way: a 5,000-year-old house in Orkney, a 1,200-year-old church marker in Rosemarkie, and in between visiting the leftovers of when Romans and Vikings roamed the countryside.

Today, though, we detoured into the 17 and 18th centuries, travelling underground to Mary King’s Close.

Stand at the top of the Royal Mile in almost any given doorway along the north side of the street. Look down. There will be a narrow path. It is dark, either covered by the wing of a building, or simply because the buildings are so close together. After that come the stairs. Sloping, the ramps and stairs wind their way between buildings and out to Princes Street Gardens. All the way down the side of the cliff upon which sits the castle are other buildings and narrow walkways.

The narrow walkways are called closes. Mary King’s Close is a narrow street that is now several stories underground.

Just a short jaunt down the hill from Edinburgh Castle is a vast structure with Greek columns and a paved courtyard. It was designed in 1765 to house the merchants guild, although once built, the merchants did not use it (I am still not sure why). Today it’s called the Chambers.

In order to build such a grandiose edifice, and in order for it to be level with the street looking grandiose to someone travelling along the Royal Mile, certain construction had to take place.

The buildings along the Royal Miles are, five, six seven stories above street level, and usually extend as far below street level into the side of the hill. To build the Chambers, 3 or 4 buildings were knocked down, just to street level. On top of that, a floor was laid.

Voila! In no time, they had a neo-classical Merchants Chambers, complete with built-in basement vaults and storerooms, those which used to be houses and closes. In the end,the northern end of four closes and their buildings were turned into the basement vaults of the Chambers.

Underneath the Chambers, life continued as usual, As it was built into a hillside, there were still houses and shops even further down, with entrances to the close at the bottom of the hill.

Under the chambers today is still a subterranean world of rooms and passageways. We stopped in the middle of the close, four floors beneath the Chambers. Looking up we could see the floor above us, see where the houses had been cut off the build the Chambers. Before it was built, the tall houses kept going up. The close is narrow, so that one person could almost, with arms outstretched, touch on the walls, and the open sky was at least eight floors above. In the 1500s, it might have been open to the sky, but I am not sure that was beneficial to very many people.

It is an amazing tour to take, and a refreshing glimpse of reality. For one who often reads novels and watches historical movies, the “happy ending” books never mention the nastiness of open sewers and diseases. They never dwell on the prevalence of crime in a neighbourhood without proper light or law enforcement. It can be difficult to convey the overcrowding, the smell, the dankness.

The close was at one time full of people and animals and garbage and sewage, and a dirt (mud) floor. People lived here. People worked here. The poorest of the poor crowded into rooms several families at a time. The richer ones lived at the top, near the sky, the fresh air, and the light. But down here, was the dark and the crime and the muck. Standing underground in a tiny room with twenty other people, an oil lamp the one light in the room … at least the guide didn’t recreate the sewer.

The building of the Chambers inadvertently elevated the status of Mary King’s Close, giving part of the close a roof, and by the 1890s, there was stone pavement and a sewer. Andrew Chesney lived and worked on Mary King’s Close in the late nineteenth century. He was a saw doctor (as in one who repairs saws, not the music group). By the time he lived there, it was a fine address indeed.

Until the Chambers wanted to expand. In 1892, Andrew Chesney became the last resident of the close, forced to leave his home and shop. All entrances to the close were blocked up; the Chambers added onto the back of the building. Except Andrew Chesney’s home was not demolished. It is as he left it in in 1892. Because it is decrepit and dangerous to enter, we were only allowed to see it from the close, looking into the front door.

It is strange to think that this underground still can only be reached by going through the back of the Chambers. These used to be streets and and shops and houses, but now all that’s left are myths and stories and the empty rooms.