Edinburgh Underground, Scottish Capital Historical Sights, Tourist Tips

Edinburgh History Below the Ground

11 August 2019

Edinburgh History Below the Ground

Exploring the history of Edinburgh is as exciting as enjoying a Springbok mobile adventure.  The city’s history encompasses over a thousand years of settlement, struggle, war and survival.

There are plenty of sites to visit above-ground in Edinburgh but if you’re looking for a more intense exploration, descend to the heart of Scotland of the Middle Ages in the lanes, alleyways and abandoned houses of Mary King’s Close.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh started as a fort that was built on Castle Rock in the 7th century.  The fort was constructed when the English captured this part of Scotland. Settlement started when the Scots recaptured the area in the 10th century. King Malcolm III built a castle on Castle Rock and a small village grew in the surrounding area. By the 12th century Edin (Old English word for “fort) burgh was a flourishing community.

During medieval times, the city of Edinburgh was famous for making wool cloth. The nearby port of Leith gave Edinburgh an increasingly prominent position in the region’s export but it was also one of the reasons that Edinburgh became a major target for capture in the constant battles between English and Scottish forces. Despite the warfare, Edinburgh became Scotland’s de facto capital for many years.

Mary King’s Close

Mary King’s Close was built in the 17th century when, as one English writer described the town “From the King’s Palace in the east the city rises higher and higher to the west and consists mainly of one broad and very fair street. The rest of the side streets and alleys are poorly built and inhabited by very poor people. And its length from east to west is about a mile while the width of the city from north to south is narrow and cannot be half a mile’.”  At this time in history, the Close was established.

The Close

The Close was a network of narrow alleyways and houses that were built to solve Edinburgh’s overcrowding problem.  By the 1600s, there was no room for the city to expand outward. The city walls, which had been originally built to protect the inhabitants from English incursions, closed off building space. Houses were packed tightly and there were some structures that were 8 stories high.

The wealthiest residents lived in the top floors where there was light and a relief from the stench of the sewage.  Down below, in the lower stories, lived the poor people who made do with dark, squalid ground floors, next to which flowed sewage from the open sewers. They were penned in with cattle.

A web of narrow side streets called “closes” were  established. They were locked up at each end at night to keep the undesirables out. Over the years, most of the closes were demolished or redeveloped into offices or apartments. But the Mary’s Cross Close was turned into the foundations of the Royal Exchange. It evolved deep below the ground, under the main town. The top floors of the tallest buildings were knocked off and the Exchange was built above. That left the streets and houses of Mary’s Cross Close underneath.

In essence, Mary King’s Close became the Exchange’s basement.  Entire houses were buried. And for many years, the Close continued to host businesses. People would descend into the labyrinths, deep below the ground, to buy tobacco or get a wig made.

The Chesney family were the Close’s last residents. They were forced to leave in 1902 when the Exchange building – now the City Chambers – was extended. The last of the Close was sealed up but in 2003 after archaeologists and historians began excavations, Mary King’s Close was reopened to visitors.

Tours

Entrance to Mary King’s Close is via the Visitors Center where tours take you into a labyrinth of underground streets where buildings connect to low-ceilinged rooms. The street slopes downward in a steep angle towards the old Nor Loch at the bottom of the hill where the Princes Street Gardens — originally a marsh turned sewage dump turned spot for dunking witches – is located. Each Close is only a few metres wide so it’s clear what a dark and oppressive place it was 500 years ago when buildings towered up on either side.

During a tour, stories are told about the inhabitants – murderous mother-in-laws, gravediggers and star-crossed lovers.  Some of the stories about about fabric merchant Mary King who went into business after her husband died and prospered – a very unusual situation for a woman in those days.

It’s easy to imagine what a tough life it was for Close residents where poverty, plague and, horrible living conditions created an eerie subculture. The Close was almost completely abandoned in 1640 after an epidemic decimated the population but it was repopulated again in the 1700s.

Ghosts

A walk through the Close wouldn’t be complete without some stories about the ghosts who, locals say, still haunt the site. One ghost story is that of Annie, a young girl who a Japanese Psychic claims to have met on his trip several years ago. Annie, the psychic said, was a plague victim and wanted a doll to help her get through the lonely days of her illness.  People have actually sent dolls to Annie and those dolls are now piled up in a special “Annie’s Room.”

Infrared cameras have picked up images of a 18th-era gentleman in a top hat and evening coat and other visitors have also reported sudden drops in temperature, emotional swings and feelings that they had been touched – even when there was no one else there.

Regardless of your beliefs in ghosts, a trip through Mary King’s Close offers a fascinating window into Edinburgh’s past.




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