Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is full of tourists, souvenir shops, pubs and busking bagpipers. When you walk across the Old Town, you are taking a journey through history, from Edinburgh Castle on one end, to the Palace of Hollyroodhouse at the other. This part of history, however, is not on the surface of the streets, Mary King’s Close is found deep underground. Here you will find a network of narrow alleyways and abandoned houses which have been standing since the 17th Century, and is believed to be haunted.
In the early part of the 17th century, Mary King’s Close was bustling with traders. The street was named after a widow who lived there in the 1630’s, who owned her own property and started a business selling fabric from a booth on the Royal Mile after her husband had died. The street was densely populated and suffered major overcrowding. The city walls were built to protect its residents, and meant it could expand outwards, the houses were packed in more tightly and grew upwards to eight stories high. The close which led off the Royal Mile could be locked up at night to keep unwanted people out. With the rich living on the upper floors where they got more light, and the least stench of sewage, and the poorest lived in the dark, and squalid ground floors, which they shared with cattle and open sewers.
Most of the alleys were either demolished or redeveloped into offices or apartments over the years, but the fate of Mary King’s Close was to be different. The cities authorities became concerned about losing trade to Edinburgh’s New Town, so decided to build a new Royal Exchange, (now the City Chambers), opposite St Giles Cathedral. There was just one problem, the houses which were already there. They decided to demolish these houses, took the higher floors off and used the lower floors as the foundations. Mary King’s Close was completely swallowed up into the basement. The sloping ground meant the houses fronting the Royal Mile were destroyed but further down the close, whole houses were buried intact.
Life in the close was hard, and things soon became worse in 1644 when the bubonic plague reached Edinburgh. The rich residents fled but the poor were left to fend for themselves. Legend has it that the gates at the end of the close were locked and the plague victims were left to die. But in reality, the area was quarantined but food and water was brought in, until, finally, the last resident left – one way or another – and the close was abandoned in 1645. The death toll is estimated between a fifth and a half of the city’s population.
The buildings in the close became re-occupied some 40 years later, but tales of spooky goings-on soon began to spread throughout the close and blame pointed to the spirits of the plague victims, from disembodied floating heads to a woman in black. Maybe this was all just a hallucination brought on by clouds of methane rising from the Nor Loch, but its supernatural reputation was given a boost in 1685 when George Sinclair published ‘Satan’s Invisible World Discovered’ –
” a choice collection of relations anent devils, witches, spirits, and apparitions.”
He documented a variety of manifestations and defended the popular belief in witchcraft, (the street angles steeply towards the old Nor Loch at the bottom of the hill which had a marsh turned sewage dump where they dunked witches.)
According to Prof. Sinclair, Mr Thomas Coltheart, a respectable law-agent, and his wife moved into a house in Mary King’s Close with their maidservant. The servant soon left the close, and her employment, after hearing the spooky tales. Shortly after moving in, Mrs Coltheart sat reading her bible when a vision frightened her and made her faint. She explained to her husband that she saw a disembodied head of a grey bearded old man. Her husband put it down to an overactive imagination. However, later that night, whilst they were both laying in bed, the apparition appeared to both of them. They tried to pray it away, but to no avail. Later, a second apparition appeared of a young girl wearing a coat and standing next to the old man’s head. A while later, a third apparition appeared before them in the form of an arm, which seemed to be reaching out to shake the hands of the living couple.
“In the name of the living God, tell me why thou troubles my family? To my knowledge, I have never wronged any man, by killing or cheating, but have lived innocently in the world. If thou hast received any wrong, if I can right thee, I shall do my utmost for thee, but trouble me no more.”
The man’s pleadings did nothing and things continued to happen. These phantoms were soon joined by a ghost dog, a ghost cat, and other spectral creatures, and finally they heard a terrifying groan and all the spirits vanished. Surprisingly, the couple refused to let these occurrences run them out of their new home, and they remained in Mary King’s Close for the remainder of their lives, never to be troubled by the specters again. However, later two more occupants moved to the close, a hard-drinking pensioner and his wife. On the night they moved in, they saw their candle begin to turn blue. Shortly after, the ghostly head reappeared, and the couple fled their home never to be seen again.
The close was reopened in 2003 to visitors after archaeologists and historians analysed all the evidence they could uncover what life was like for its 17th century residents. Costumed guides now take around 175,000 visitors a year through the ancient streets and houses. Some of the houses contain accurate representations of how people use to live. The tours are mainly about history, but many visitors have reported some paranormal encounters. Before the opening of the close in 2003, it was owned by the city council. Occasionally, visitors were allowed beneath the City Chambers to explore. In the 1990’s, an Edinburgh company, Mercat Tours, began conducting official tours in the subterranean streets.
Psychics identified a cold spot in a corner of a room in the old houses in 1992. A Japanese psychic, Aiko Gibo, claimed she saw the spirit of a 10 year old girl named Annie, wearing a dirty white dress and boots. She explained that Annie was so upset at losing her favourite doll and felt lonely without it. This upset the psychic so she went out and bought her a replacement doll. The spirit of little Annie became a regular occurrence, as many people have claimed to have seen or heard her, or have felt her presence. To this day, visitors leave Annie toys in what has become known as the shrine room.
Annie is not the only ghostley report here though. Visitors have claimed hearing scratching noises inside the chimney where a young sweep is said to have died. Some have even said, when they have put the hands inside the chimney, they have felt them being scratched. Other reports have been of footsteps heard in an empty room and disembodied voices.
In May 2008, Mary King’s Close hit the headlines when a ghostly apparition was photographed by an infra-red static camera. It shows what appears to be a tall human-like figure standing in the doorway of Mary King’s reconstructed residence at the top of the close. The picture was taken around midnight on Saturday 10th May, just a few hours after a special ghost-hunting event hosted by Richard Felix who was a historian on Most Haunted. Could it have been a publicity stunt……or……could it be another eerie chapter in the history of Mary King’s Close?