Under Edinburgh, a Hidden World of Plague and Passageways

By Alexandra Pecci
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 18, 2009

My eyes struggled to adjust to the dimming light as we descended below Edinburgh's Royal Mile to walk streets that had been hidden for centuries. The cobbled path sloped unevenly beneath my feet, and suddenly we were facing a long, narrow alleyway that dipped sharply downward and disappeared into darkness.

Being accompanied by 20 or so other tourists didn't detract from the eeriness of the Real Mary King's Close, an underground tour. Although, I admit it: I scare easily. I was the kid in tears begging to leave the haunted house fundraiser put on by the local elementary school. Still, the idea of visiting plague-ravaged subterranean streets appealed to the history lover in me. How many memories still lingered, trapped, down there?

I'd traveled to the United Kingdom with my husband, Brian, to visit our British friends Mike and Chris, who live in Darlington, England. Halfway through our stay, the four of us filled the "boot" of Mike's car with a night's worth of luggage and drove a couple of hours along the North Sea coast to Edinburgh.

Mike and Chris had already trod the city's ancient Royal Mile enough times for the excitement of shops filled with kilt-clad mannequins, canned haggis and tartan scarves to have worn off a bit. On the first day, when Brian and I braved the wet, sleety snow squalls of a raw March afternoon to explore Edinburgh Castle, Mike and Chris opted instead to have a pint in the cozy pub down the street.

Yet even the two of them had never ventured into Edinburgh's "closes," these streets that centuries ago were covered and built over to make room for the City Chambers. Several stories below ground, they're now being excavated. So the next day, we walked up the Royal Mile to the tour headquarters on Warriston's Close.

We met our guide in the tour's brightly lighted gift shop, which bustled with people buying postcards, T-shirts, tiny texts of Robert Burns's poetry and supernaturally themed trinkets, a nod to the supposedly haunted streets below. It was hard to believe that this touristy souvenir shop would give way to anything spooky. The guide was dressed dandily in 17th-century garb. Mike snorted at the sight of his tights and lacy collar.

Our guide warned us about the low light, cramped spaces and uneven floors that awaited us. Mustiness pierced my nose as we descended stairs that gave way to a bumpy path, and I concentrated on not losing my footing. The space was cool and damp and reminded me of the dark, dirt-packed basement in my father's 200-year-old farmhouse in Massachusetts. White sheets hung from clotheslines overhead, floating like ghosts in the light of the street lamps. It was as if the street's long-dead residents had just hung their laundry out to dry.

The gift shop seemed far away. I felt disoriented, winding in and out of the dark, narrow alleyways and cavelike homes. It was impossible to figure out how the twisting passageways connected with one other. Arriving at the tiny house of a poor family, we all crowded into its one room, feeling what it might have been like to live here with several unwashed, plague-ridden relatives. I stood shoulder to shoulder with Brian and a woman who kept a tissue pressed to her face to block the musty smell. A bucket for collecting human waste sat in the corner of the windowless space. It would have been emptied directly onto the street outside, the guide said.

It was that kind of poor hygiene and cramped quarters that helped the plague rip through the closes and the rest of Scotland in the 1640s. We passed a window where a white cloth hung outside from the windowsill: the signal of a plague house. Mannequins of plague victims languished in beds while a doctor, dressed in a Grim Reaper-style black cape and beaked mask, tended to their buboes with a cauterizing iron. In the shadowy, flickering light cast by artificial candles, the scene looked spookily real.

After those bleak re-creations, it was weird to see a heap of stuffed animals, toys and trinkets crammed into a little brick alcove. A filthy Barbie doll in a tartan outfit sat atop the pile. We were in Annie's Room, where a psychic claimed to have felt the unhappy spirit of a plague orphan who'd lost her favorite doll. The psychic comforted the girl with a Barbie doll, and visitors have brought toys for Annie ever since. The sight of all those toys -- the emblems of innocence -- in this dark space somehow made them appear creepy, in the same way that clowns or the tinkling strains of a music box can crawl under your skin. Some people say they've felt the little girl's presence or have even seen or heard her lingering in the close. I paused for a minute and closed my eyes to see if I could feel her, too. But nothing. Part of me was disappointed, but a bigger part was relieved.

Legends and ghost stories are around every corner in the closes, but the tales of plague victims being shut up there and left to die aren't true, we learned. Still, in one of the rooms, the guide warned us not to touch the walls. Excavators have found human cremation ash embedded in them, he said. Although I was nowhere near the walls, I immediately recoiled and looked around. I couldn't help imagining the people whose remains had wound up packed into this dank space. Who were they? Could they ever have imagined what would become of them? Or that hundreds of tourists would pass by here every day?

If only those walls could talk.

Alexandra Pecci is a freelance writer in Plaistow, N.H.

The Real Mary King's Close is at 2 Warriston's Close, Writers Court, Edinburgh. Admission is about $17; children ages 5-15 about $10; seniors and students about $15. Reservations required. No children younger than 5 are permitted. Photography is not allowed in the closes, but on the way out, groups are asked to pose for a photo, which can be purchased in the gift shop.

For more information: 011-44-08702-430160; http://www.realmarykingsclose.com.

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