Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mary King's Close, Part I : 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.

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