The Real Mary King’s Close
Edinburgh is known for being built on top of a series of steep hills and crags – but did you know it’s also built on top of Edinburgh? Beneath the Old Town, lies several hidden, underground spaces, and a visit to The Real Mary King’s Close gives you the opportunity to explore one such ancient street!
Why does Edinburgh have underground streets?
As you wander the Royal Mile today, you will notice dozens of narrow side streets branching off from it, which lead to all sorts of interesting places. These are known as “closes”. The Old Town was once surrounded by defensive city walls, which meant there was limited building space within the, resulting in the tight, cramped street layout we still have today.
However, there are more closes hidden beneath the streets we see today, and Mary King’s Close is an example of one of these. The street is named after a wealthy burgess who once lived there – she must have been important, as it was rare to have a street named for a woman at that time! It’s also worth noting, before we continue, that there are other underground spaces, such as The Vaults, but these came to exist in a different manner, and have their own story.
During the 17th century, Edinburgh suffered a terrible outbreak of the bubonic plague, and the cramped, dirty conditions of the Old Town’s closes meant they were some of the worst infected locations. Some stories now say that Mary King’s Close was sealed up with infected residents left inside to die, but this is urban legend, with no evidence to confirm it. The city made every effort to take care of plague victims, but ultimately thousands died, and left many closes in states of dilapidation and decay.
As the city sought to recover, many new buildings were constructed, Old Town streets were altered and restructured, and the expansion into the New Town helped to alleviate the overcrowding. In the 18th century, the new Royal Exchange (now City Chambers) was built in the middle of the Royal Mile, and to make way for it, part of Mary King’s Close was demolished, with only the lower levels left intact to serve as the basement foundations of the Exchange.
How was the street discovered?
The street wasn’t fully gone even after the Royal Exchange was built – the lower end of it, at the bottom of the hill next to what is now Princes Street Gardens, still had intact buried buildings, and residents continued living there beneath the ground. It was only in the early 20th century, when the Exchange (by then, City Chambers) was expanded, that the last of them had to vacate, and what remained of the street was sealed beneath ground entirely.
Archaeologists explored the close, to learn what they could about its history and residents, and then it was eventually reopened as a visitor attraction in 2003, with the addition of the ticket office and coffee shop above ground, in Warriston’s Close. Today it remains the only underground street in the city that you can visit, and is consistently rated one of the top attractions in Edinburgh.
What can you see in Mary King’s Close?
The tour takes you down below the street levels and into the buildings where people once lived. You’ll be shown through many rooms, so you can get an idea of what life was like in Edinburgh’s overcrowded Old Town in the 16th century, particularly during the plague, with entire families living all in the same room. You’ll also get to meet some of the residents, with actors portraying a maid, a merchant, a poet, and the ominous Plague Doctor, wearing his long-beaked mask.
As well as the buildings, you will also get to step out into the street itself. This is a rather surreal experience, as it looks just like some of the closes that still exist above ground, and you know you are “outdoors”. But you are actually standing in the darkness, with other buildings overhead where the sky should normally be. This is definitely a unique location, not to be missed!
Is it scary? Is it haunted?
Edinburgh is known for being one of the most haunted cities in the world, so it’s hardly surprising the presence of underground streets would spark thoughts of ghosts roaming through them, and Mary King’s Close is no exception to this! It is not specifically advertised as a ghost tour, of which the city has many, as it mostly focuses on the real history of the street. Although, thanks to the plague, that can be as gruesome and grisly as any ghost tale! However, there is one room inside that has had reports of a paranormal encounter.
In the 90s, a Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, was visiting Mary King’s Close and was almost unable to enter a particular room because of the pain and suffering she could feel from inside it. Eventually, she entered and was able to communicate with the spirit of a young girl named Annie, who was upset because she had lost her doll. Gibo bought one nearby and left it in the room for her, which brought comfort and peace to the girl. Since then, many more visitors have left dolls and toys for Annie, and the room is now stuffed full of them! Unfortunately, the original doll Gibo left went missing from its spot in 2019, and has yet to be found again!
How do I get to Mary King’s Close?
The entrance to this attraction can be found at 2 Warriston’s Close, High Street, next to the Edinburgh City Chambers. Warriston’s Close will lead you down to their coffee shop, but make sure you enter through the main ticket office on the Royal Mile first, to purchase your entry tickets there.
Please note that this attraction contains uneven surfaces, steep stairs, low ceilings, and has low lighting, and is therefore not accessible for all.
How much are tickets, and what are the opening hours?
You can find the current up-to-date ticket prices and opening hours listed on their website here. Groups are escorted underground by a guide, so pre-booking for a specific time slot is recommended, or you can buy your tickets on arrival and wait to enter with the next group that still has spaces. The tour takes around 1 hour in total.