Friday, 15 October 2010

Mary King's Close

Another thing we did was to visit Mary King's Close, something Bill was keen to do.  I know I said I've seen this before, but it was over 15 years ago and what I saw this time was altogether different.  Photos weren't allowed, sadly, but there is a photo gallery here which will show you a bit of what we saw, but it wasn't quite as hokey as you might think.  Oh, there were the usual ghost stories and all.  I suppose people see what they want to see at these things. 

Our tour was led by a young man, an actor of sorts, who gave us all the safety advice - much of it necessary as the tour was not well lit and floors quite uneven, steep, etc.  I didn't learn too much history I didn't already know, but the fact that this tour actually only discussed real people and real history made it pretty good in my book.  I got a better understanding of the geography of the closes in Edinburgh as well.  They were basically very narrow streets - perhaps 3 people could walk abreast  - that ran down the hill from the Royal Mile (at a high elevation, running between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House) and Nor Loch, at a much lower elevation; this was handy for when the buckets were emptied into the streets twice a day (at 7 and 10, but I can't recall which was am or pm) with a shout of "Garde a l’eau!" (which sounds over here like gardy-loo).  Of course the refuse eventually drained down into the loch, which was as much 'mud' as water.  

Our tour wasn't simple of the one street, but rather we walked back and forth in parallel to the Royal Mile, crossing and re-crossing several narrow streets.  The is a misconception that it is a buried city, but it is just dis-used and ancient housing over which the local Council decided to build offices (that was the reason given for not allowing photos, being under a government building, right?) and it is not permitted for people to live under ground, so the tenants back when the offices were built had to be bought out.  We got to see through the front door of the last tenant, very wealthy compared with many, having something like 7 rooms for 5 people (that's a guess), compared with the first room we visited, about 15' square for two families, perhaps up to 12 people (with perhaps one or two pieces of furniture, like a chest; a coal fire if they were lucky, and a bucket in the corner:  Home Sweet Home).

There was a story about one of the residents of Mary King's Close, a fairly wealthy woman who owned a shop on Market Street.  She was a real miser, apparently, and rather than pay her daughter's dowry to her son-in-law as owed (recorded in court records), she killed him.  Her daughter was pregnant and so saved from immediate punishment of death.  I believe she escaped to Europe never to be seen again.  The mother's punishment was drowning in the Loch, which apparently took some time given the thick content.  

Mary King was another resident who was fairly wealthy from trade.  She inherited her wealth from her father and being one of the notable residents, people began to refer to the close using her name.  Her wealth and position were documented in the tax records during the time of Charles I (1600-1649).  

Edinburgh claims to have been the city with the first skyscrapers and it is because of the height of the tenements built over the closes which ranged from perhaps 2-3 stories at the main road to, it was claimed, as many as 14 stories down at the Nor Loch end.  It wouldn't take much logic to work out that the wealthy lived at the top - near the Royal Mile where they likely had shops - and the poorest lived at the bottom.  I can't even imagine life on the ground floor nearest the Nor Loch, can you?  I can't recall the name of the houses - something like turnstile houses or turnkey houses, referring to the winding stairs that gave access to the upper apartments.  

Of course, to widen the market appeal, they talk a lot in the adverts about plague and ghosts. I believe one of the volunteers at another site we visited (Gladstone's Land - not that interesting) said that Edinburgh experienced 11 outbreaks of plague.  I can tell you from my previous line of work that plague is one of the more fascinating diseases (zoonotic diseases are much more fun, generally) if that sort of thing interests you (in which case I'd highly recommend The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett)...but where was I?  Oh yes, if a family was known to have plague, they weren't boarded in, but they were placed under quarantine and only a designated plague officer could bring you food, etc.  There is a room on the tour that has a mountain of toys -- I was reminded of the fence around the Federal building in Oklahoma City -- brought by tourists to 'comfort' the ghost of Annie, a little girl abandoned by her family in the time of plague.  apparently a psychic from Japan was able to identify this presence and the fact that she was distressed at being left without even her doll for company.  Oh well, it is a tourist trap after all...

Personally, I found what little I could grasp about the reality of life in Edinburgh in the 17th Centure to be sufficiently gruesome without any ghosts.  If you ever find yourself in Auld Reekie, I'd recommend this tour (even at £11).

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