In this article, you’ll learn about the mysterious Edinburgh Underground Streets!
On the Royal Mile above the old Edinburgh are souvenir shops, pubs, buskers, bagpipers and swathes of tourists! Little known to some of these tourists is the history of old town! Underneath the surface you can go on a journey through history! At one side of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle and at the other side, The Palace of Holyroodhouse! Deep below the ground there are narrow alleyways, abandoned homes and cobbled streets! We call these closes! They’ve been standing there since the 1600’s! You can find out more about the secret Edinburgh underground streets at Mary King’s Close.
History of the Underground Streets of Edinburgh
During the 1600’s, Edinburgh’s Old Town was terribly overcrowded. The city walls which had been built to protect its residents meant there was no space for the city to expand outwards. Instead of expanding outwards, houses got packed in tighter and tighter, and grew upwards to eight stories high. A web of narrow side streets called closes led off the Royal Mile. These closes could be locked up at each end at night to keep people out that didn’t live there.
The wealthiest people lived in the top floors where the buildings got the most light. This was also the please with the least smell from the sewage. The poorest of the residents lived in the dark, squalid ground floors with cattle and with open sewers right outside their front doors. Most closes were demolished or redeveloped into offices or apartments over the years, but Mary King’s Close, one of Edinburgh’s most famous underground streets, had a different fate.
Edinburgh’s Underground Streets – Losing trade to the New Town…
The 17th century city authorities were worried about losing trade to Edinburgh’s New Town, so they decided to build a grand new Royal Exchange. They found the perfect spot opposite St Giles Cathedral. There was just one small problem – the streets of houses that were already there. Rather than knocking these houses down, they took the top floors off and used the lower floors as the foundations for the Royal Exchange.
Mary King’s Close was covered over and swallowed up into the building’s basement. The sloping ground meant the houses facing the Royal Mile were demolished. Further down the close, whole houses were buried intact. Even though it was underground, the close wasn’t totally abandoned. Some residents didn’t want to leave and carried on running businesses in their own strange world. You could go underground to buy tobacco, get liquor or get your shoes polished.
The Chesney family (famous sawmakers) were the close’s last residents. They operated until 1902 when they were finally forced out as the Exchange building – now the City Chambers – was extended and the last of the close was sealed up. In 2003 Mary King’s Close was opened to visitors after archaeologists and historians analysed all the evidence they could find to uncover what life had been like for the residents who lived there during the 1600’s.
Edinburgh Underground Streets – MARY KING’S CLOSE
When you visit Mary King’s Close, you’ll be accompanied by guide wearing a traditional costume. You’ll head down a dark staircase from the visitor’s centre and become emerged into a labyrinth of underground streets connecting buildings with cramped low-ceilinged rooms. You’ll be able to feel exactly how it was living in Edinburgh during this time. The street angles steeply down towards the old Nor Loch at the bottom of the hill.
Today, the old Nor Loch is known as Princes Street Gardens, The old Nor Loch originally was a marsh turned sewage dump. It was quickly turned into a spot for dunking witches. They would have heavy stones tied to them. If the person sank, they’re not a witch and if they float, they are a witch. Either way they would be killed.
With each close being just a few metres wide, you can imagine how dark and oppressive it must have been for the poor people who lived at the bottom with buildings towering up on either side.
The guided tour will take you through a series of rooms, and along the way you’ll hear the stories of the close’s residents. You’ll even hear from Mary King herself. The closes in Edinburgh are named after prominent local citizens and in the 1630’s, Mary was a fabric merchant. Mary set up her business after her husband died. This was impressive for a woman at that time as women were mainly expected to be housewives.
You’ll also learn plenty of gory details about what life was like on the close during the 17th century, lots of them involve the disgusting ways of disposing of sewage that were used at the time (they used to throw raw sewage out the windows!) They would shout “gardyloo” to warn people to move out the way! Life in the close was really hard, and things got a lot tougher for the residents when the plague reached Edinburgh in 1644. The wealthy city residents fled but the poor were left behind, and the final death toll is estimated at between 1/5th and 1/2 of the city’s population. Luckily, Edinburgh was able to recover from this and turn into the thriving, historic city it is today!
Legend has it that during the plague, the gates at the ends of Mary King’s Close were locked and plague victims were left to die. In reality, the area was quarantined with food and water brought in, until finally the last residents left – one way or another – and the close was abandoned in 1645.
Moving back in to Edinburgh’s Underground Streets
After 40 years, people started moving back into the close. There were many spooky sightings! Could it be the ghosts of plague victims who refused to leave home? Or maybe it was just hallucinations brought on by clouds of methane rising from the sewage in the Nor Loch? Either way, many people have been came to the close to search for ghosts over the years.
Visitors have reported hearing footsteps during the tour coming from the empty rooms. The infrared camera that’s used to capture pictures of visitors has even caught a ghost like figure in the background during the night after the building was closed. When I was on the tour I never saw anything however many people have! Even if you don’t see any ghosts, you’ll love the experience of learning the dark secrets of Edinburgh’s underground streets!
Edinburgh Underground Streets – The Details
You’ll find The Real Mary King’s Close is just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, opposite St Giles’ Cathedral. It’s a short walk from Edinburgh Waverley train station. It’s usually open 10am–9pm (until 5pm on Sundays to Thursdays from November and April) with tours every 15 minutes.
Entry costs £15.50 for adults, £13.50 for students/seniors and £9.50 for children aged 5–15. Children under 5 are not permitted because they’ll find it too scary. It gets busy at peak times so it’s a good idea to book tickets in advance online.
Once you’re finished at The Real Mary King’s Close, don’t forget to check out one of our walking tours! You’ll learn more about the history of Edinburgh and learn the best places to go to during your stay!