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Street of Sorrows -

Mary King's Close


You see them everywhere - these 'Closes'. Somehow we pass them all the time. 'Old Fishmarket Close' for example. No doubt, fish was transported there in former times, quite a usual passage. Like all the others... or isn't it? They do look quite harmless indeed. 

Fishmarket Close

Put out both arms - you may get stuck. 


Medieval Edinburgh had hundreds of these closes. Houses with up to twelve storeys closed out the daylight. People were living in a crammed way, the gentle folk in the upper houses, downstairs were small shops, pubs, and brothels and those of course dwelled there who had no lodgings. 

Many of these Closes - the name originates in the fact that they were closed at night - have a gruesome history. Especially Mary King's Close: Here people were living together with the cattle which conveniently also was slaughtered on site. All this between filth and litter, excrements, and rats. Small wonder that the pestilences found their victims easily. 

First we walk along High Street to the entrance of the "City beneath the City" as it was called - or the "Pestilence Road". For a long time this close was locked. In 1994 it was opened again for the first time. Probably this close is the most frightening place of the whole town. 

In the 17th century,  Mary King was a rather successful business woman, daughter of the wealthy solicitor Alexander King. She has to do nothing with Queen Mary although in the anteroom the unpopular acid drops can be bought as well as books about Mary Queen of Scots. 


The bubonic plague is highly infectious, transmitted by flees and rats-  Against the Plague neither a raven masks helped nor the leathern coat the doctors were wearing during their battle against the pestilence. 

Beside Mary King's Close, by the way, a government building is situated, parts of the former Pestilence City are beneath it and as the Brits are a little paranoid as to this, in the cellar two storeys deeper photographing is not permitted. 

Mary King's Close

In those days there was of course no tap water or toilets.  Twice a day the excrements were poured into the close. Those living down there were just in bad luck. 

Die Peststadt

For many months the Plague was raging, more than half of the population died. Mary King's Close was said to be the cause of it and consequently the close was bricked up at both sides. With or without its inhabitants - that is not really certain. It is said however that many people were walled in and died a wretched death so that their souls found no peace - up to this day they are haunting the remains of Mary King's Close. 

There is another story about a father stricken by the Plague who returned into the "City beneath the City" to say farewell to his family. It was the death sentence for all of them. 

The rooms are small, reminding of cattle sheds. We enter a tiny room, Annie's Room. Any number of dolls, teddies and the like can be found, left by visitors so that little Annie is not frightened after her parents disappeared during the time of the Plague. 

Somewhat relieved, we leave this place of history behind us. Another 18 persons who were with us, appear quite quiet and depressed. Do many of these dead really still haunt the place? 

At any rate, this ghost crosses our path on our way home.