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Sunday, 10 May 2009

Mary King's Close

The day Don and I spent an hour or three in the National Library looking up JG's journals, Nancy went shopping in the shops along the Lawnmarket (the old Linen Market), but we all met up again in the middle of the afternoon to take a visit to the subterranean Mary King's Close! A "close" has two meanings, one being the entrance passage to a tenement (the communal entrance to a series of apartments situated round a stair, maybe two or three on each landing), the other being, as I am using it here, a narrow passage between buildings, sometimes "enclosed" with an upper floor of a building forming the roof.

The old town of Edinburgh photographed from the 250year-old New Town
Going way back over the centuries, Edinburgh grew up on the ridge of the escarpment formed by glacial action to the volcanic plug that is now the Castle Rock. On either side of the escarpment there was once water and boggy ground, so that instead of expanding outwards the town expanded upwards, and the original high rise flats/ skyscrapers were born. Still the city grew and housing began to stretch down the slopes on either side of the escarpment, accessed from the High Street by narrow passages or "closes" between the buildings. It was rather like a fish's backbone and all the little bones, with the spine being the High Street, and each of the little bones stretching out from it, a narrow passageway.

Along these passages the hoy polloy mixed with the artisans and the tradesmen in the highrise housing. There would be shops and workshops along the lower levels, and the poorer citizens lived here or even deeper in the cellars. The rich would be found nearer the tops of the houses (possibly 15 stories up and each step to be climbed on foot) where the air was better - after all, Edinburgh was a dirty smelly place in those days - with less well-off folk probably in the middle sections. Click here to get an idea of how close together these passages were. This is a present day map but just think if it being like those fish skeletons I mentioned. Run your cursor over the close names and see the red spot on the map indicate its position, and remember each close ran all the way way down the slope to left or right. Click on a name for some information.

Over the years parts of the old closes were demolished. The High Street was to be modernised and new buildings began to be built as well as the new road structure as you see in the map I referred you to back in the last paragraph. Opposite the High Kirk of St Giles, near the top of the High Street (the Crown in the photo), the City wanted to build a brand new Exchange, a commercial centre for trading, which later became chambers for their councillors (the building with the pillars, and the extension to the left. This is the back of the building). The upper floors of a few of the closes in that area were demolished and the new Exchange built over the remains of the old. Further down the High Street, where the town tron or weighing scales were situated, under the Tron Kirk more original closes have been found - See Marlin's Close - so there may well be plenty more we know nothing about - yet!

Before the modernisation of the High Street, Mary King's Close had the reputation of having been blocked up to contain the Plague, and its occupants left there to die, but I personally think that is rather fanciful. In more recent times the close was used as storage for the Chambers above and during WWII as an air raid shelter. Now it is open to visitors to explore - on guided walks.

I first visited about 40 years ago with a boyfriend whose father worked in the City Chambers. I think I preferred that visit to the one we did the other week. It was before the days of pseudo 17th century guides and sounds of conversation and babble to persuade you that you are in a past century and that life is still going on nearby. There was no visitor centre or tourist shop with Mary King's Close keyrings and pens for sale. It was just a steep dark cobbled passageway (with a few electric lights) with small rooms off each side, where you could see butchers' hooks on a barrel vaulted roof, doors and windows to other shops or dwellings, but otherwise everything else was up to our imagination. It was fascinating. Now there are connecting ways through back-to-back buildings to closes parallel to Mary King's, mock ups of a well-to-do family home, a workshop and a grotty cellar where the plague doctor was visiting a sick family (all quite interesting nonetheless).... even a room said to be haunted by a small child called Annie, which has been turned into a sort of shrine to a 17th century child who lost her doll! There are dolls and toys a-plenty there now, left by visitors for Annie - I mean, come on, she's a ghost! - though they are eventually donated to the Sick Children's Hospital. I'm not being sceptial about the existence of spirits, as I do actually believe in them, but it has really become over commercialised now, and I don't like it much. Trouble is, when you open anything up to visitors, you spoil it in some way!

Anyway, unfortunately photos were not permitted in the close, so I have only a picture looking down the High Street to show you. Of course, I managed to take the photo just as a single decker bus crossed from South Bridge to the North Bridge (the Bridges, as we refer to them), but you can still see the height of some of the older buildings. There's the Tron Kirk I mentioned earlier and way down beyond the bus is an old house facing up the street, called John Knox House, now a museum. In the photo on the JKH website you can see the old gate, the Netherbow, now demolished, just beyond John Knox's, defining the city boundary in the 17th century, and way down the hill is part of the Scottish Parliament buildings right down at Holyrood. The City Chambers is slightly behind me on the left side of the street, and St Giles, the same on the right.


It's such an interesting street, combined with its upper stretches, Castle Hill and the Lawnmarket, plus the lower stretch of the Canongate, the road of the canons of Holyrood Abbey at the foot of the Royal Mile - the collective name of the streets between Castle and Holyrood Palace down the crest of the ridge.

Leaving you with two-three more views of Edinburgh.
Talk again soon.

The Castle, the towered Divinity College with the white buildings of Ramsay Gardens in between, and below in the New Town the National Art Galleries




Salisbury Crags, once a quarry into the hillside of Arthur Seat, with the rear of the Canongate Church and cemetery in the foreground






The Balmoral Hotel, once the North British station Hotel, and in front, the entrance from Waverley Bridge to the Waverley Centre, a shopping mall on the site of the old Waverley Market, a covered market place often used for big exhibitions such as the Ideal Homes Exhibition, a favourite in my youth!

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