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The Dark World Of Underground Edinburgh

The Dark World Of Underground Edinburgh

A 17th-century city, complete with narrow closes, cramped lodgings, endless dark corridors
and legendary ghosts, lies just beneath the streets.

BY STEPHEN MCGINTY

In Edinburgh the past is only ever a few steps away...usually down. Visitors who step away from the cobbled steps of the Royal Mile and into Mary King's Close, the popular tourist attraction, descend into the ground and deep into the past, to the 17th century and a distant world of tight closes, small rooms and seemingly endless dark corridors. Actors in costume bring the past back to life and though at no point are you alone, a frisson of fear appears to accompany every step. Yet, when one emerges back into the light, the history of Mary King's Close and the hidden world of underground Edinburgh are as fascinating as the attraction is disturbing

The residents of Mary King's Close included Stephen Boyd, a luckenbooth trader who owned a property there in 1635; Walter King, a "foulis clenger," paid by the council to clean out the homes of plague victims; and then there is Agnes Chambers, a maid in the house of Alexander Cant, a merchant who was eventually murdered for his money by his wife who had fallen heavily into debt. There was John Kincaid, too, a witch pricker, who preached of the evils of redheaded, left-handed women and was adept at scouring their skin for the hidden marks of the devil.

The story behind the close's name is complicated. In the 1630s there was a successful businesswoman in the city called Mary. In 1616 she had married a local merchant called Thomas Nemo, with whom she had four children, Alexander, Jonet, Euphame and William. After her husband's death in 1629, she developed the family business and moved into what was then known as King's or Alexander King's Close, named after one of the city's prominent lawyers. Curiously, over the centuries the two names, "Mary" and "King" fused to become "Mary King's Close."

In 1753 the Edinburgh Council swept out the last of the residents of Mary King's Close, removed the top stories of the closes and built vaulted ceilings to support the Royal Exchange, a new business centre for the street traders who had come to dominate the Luckenbooth. For more than two centuries the lost world of Mary King's Close lay buried under a coffin lid of mortar and stone, which conjured up a grim story.

The whispered rumour, a story that for many was too terrible to check, was that 600 men, women and children were bricked up alive and left to die of the bubonic plague in July 1645.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2014 issue of Scottish Life.

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