Spooks Week: Mary King's Close

The Old Tolbooth

Once upon a time, when I was writing a lot of drama for BBC Radio 4, my late and much missed friend and producer Marilyn Imrie and I decided to book a tour of Mary King's Close in Edinburgh, with a view to a possible production. This was long before it became a visitor attraction. To see it, you had to organise personal tours through a volunteer guide who, as far as I remember, had some connection to the Royal Exchange building that sits above this strange and spooky place. 

Our interest was triggered by research that I'd been doing for my novel The Curiosity Cabinet. Although that book is largely set on a fictional Hebridean island, it was originally inspired by the story of Lady Grange, who was kidnapped from her house in Edinburgh's Old Town, at the behest of her husband. He wanted to get rid of her without actually committing murder, so he had her transported to - among other places - St Kilda. I was fascinated by the notion of how a younger woman might cope with a similar challenging situation, and The Curiosity Cabinet was the result, albeit with a happier ending! If you want to read more about the real Lady Grange, I can highly recommend The Prisoner of St Kilda, by the late Margaret Macaulay who was a fine historian. It appears to be available only as a second hand hardback at the moment which is a pity. 

It was in reading accounts of Lady Grange that I became curious about Edinburgh's Old Town. I had lived in Edinburgh for five years, and knew the area well, but what I hadn't known, until I went looking, was that part of Mary King's Close and its warren of linked rooms, had effectively been buried below the newer Royal Exchange building on the Royal Mile. If you walk up Cockburn Street towards the Royal Mile, and look up to your right, you'll spy a door, high up in the building. That door marks the lower end of what survives of the close. 

Edinburgh can probably claim the first skyscrapers in with world, with its impossibly tall 16th and 17th century tenement buildings, with narrow lanes running between them. There are plenty of these 'closes' still in existence. Mary herself, after whom the close was named, was an affluent widow, who lived here c1635. When the tenements were first built, the rich lived high up in the buildings, to avoid the stench of sewage and other refuse clogging up the alleys below. The poor lived down below, and many of the rooms in the labyrinths between closes never saw daylight at all. Contrary to popular belief, plague victims were not 'walled up' here, but this place would certainly have seen its fair share of sickness and horrible death when bubonic plague came to the city in 1645. However, the close survived, with people living there until 1753, when it was adapted to form the foundations of the grand Royal Exchange building on the site. In 1853 the lower end of the close was demolished to make way for Cockburn Street - but a large chunk of the old street and its adjoining warren of rooms survived, buried under the newer building. 

Marilyn and I followed our guide down numerous steps, through rooms that were clearly used as storage for the Royal Exchange above, rooms full of quantities of filing cabinets, old files and documents. At one point, we heard somebody rattling down the stairs, whistling loudly as he came. 

Our guide grinned. 'They don't much like coming down here, even though they have to from time to time!' he told us.

There were lights but only up to a point. As far as I remember, there was some illumination in the original, steeply cobbled close. The shops were still there. We saw open doors and windows, that would never look out on daylight again. But once we left the close and moved inwards, there was only darkness, our guide and his lantern. It was probably the single most disconcertingly spooky experience I have ever had. Rooms led off rooms. There were passageways, stone stairs and more rooms. His lantern showed us ancient wallpaper peeling off the walls. Fireplaces with the ash still in the grates. A few abandoned pieces of furniture. A cupboard in the wall with the door hanging off. Sad, sad little rooms reflecting the impossibly difficult lives of those who had once lived here.  I chiefly remember the smell of it. It smelled of damp plaster, rot, neglect, a miserable past. We went further down, all sense of direction lost, until at one point it seemed as though we were among the very bones of the city. 

'You know something,' Marilyn whispered in my ear. 'If he were to take his lamp and leave us here, we would never find our way out again!' 

Somewhere online, you will find the PDF of an intriguing book, published in 1800, and titled the History of  Witches, Ghosts and Highland Seers, including, among much else to intrigue and entertain, a chapter about an 'Apparition seen in a dwelling house in Mary King's Close in Edinburgh.' 

The account starts enticingly with somebody meeting a maidservant carrying some light items of furniture into the close in the middle of a 'flitting' or house removal. The friend asks if she intends to stay there, and on being told that she has been 'hired for half a year', tells her that she will 'have more company than yourselves'. As is usual in these cases, maid tells mistress, and mistress tells husband but he, 'with natural courage and fortitude of mind' (i.e. stubborn) decides that they should give it a try. Wisely, the servant heads off to the kirk, but 'came no more to the family.' 

The wife sees the first apparition - the head of an old man, which seems to emerge from a small adjacent room, hovering in the air, gazing at her. Predictably, her husband, who has slept through the whole thing, doesn't believe her. 

They make up a large fire for warmth and comfort, and go back to bed. Whereupon the drowsy husband sees the same old man's head, hovering in the same part of the room. His wife isn't at all happy, but they commend themselves to the Lord, like the good Christian souls they are, and go to bed again. An hour later, they see a vision of a young child 'with a coat upon it' suspended in the air near the old man. 

Tom, the husband, leaps out of bed with his wife not far behind. They are both terrified and try to wake the neighbours, who don't respond. Perhaps they are used to disturbed tenants and prefer to ignore them. The couple light more candles and do a whole lot of praying, but to no avail. 

A naked, disembodied arm appears, flexing as though in salute, and approaches so close to the husband that it seems as though it wishes to shake hands with him. Unsurprisingly, he prefers not to return the gesture. The couple retreat into the bed, whereupon - rather horribly - the hand and arm appear through the opening in the bed-curtains. They try prayers and exhortations, but the persistent arm still approaches them 'in a courteous manner, as though wishing to make their acquaintance.' 

Soon a small dog appears from the same adjacent room, jumps up on a chair and 'composes itself as it were with its nose in its tail to sleep.' They have no dog. Nor do they have a cat, although a cat follows the dog, and begins to 'play some little tricks' as cats do. Soon, the place seems to be full of leaping, dancing creatures. When they are at breaking point, they hear a series of 'deep dreadful groans' whereupon all the apparitions vanish. The narrator reports that they went 'hand in hand to the little room where the drink stood and refreshed themselves.' I'll bet they did. Oddly enough, they then assumed that the worst was over, as in fact it seemed to be, because they remained lodging in Mary King's Close thereafter. Perhaps the welcoming party had tired of the game. 

Fortunately, our 20th century guide didn't abandon us.  Nor did we see any disembodied arms. We staggered into daylight, and went in search of another 'place where the drink stood'. We never did make the programme, and now Mary King's Close is a successful visitor attraction. We went back, my husband and I, many years later. It was very good. We enjoyed it. But it wasn't half as spooky as that original strange voyage into the unknown. 

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