A Close-Kept Secret in Edinburgh

By Mead, Robin | Contemporary Review, July 1992 | Go to article overview

A Close-Kept Secret in Edinburgh


Mead, Robin, Contemporary Review


IN the basement of Edinburgh's City Chambers, in the oldest part of the town, there is a grey metal door which opens -- with a suitably melodramatic creak-on to the sixteenth century. It also opens on to what is perhaps Edinburgh's greatest undiscovered tourist attraction.

For the City Chambers are built on top of an ant-hill of buildings and houses which date back almost 500 years, and which were sealed off during the last great outbreak of bubonic plague in Edinburgh in 1645. Three alleyways were filled with rubble during the construction of the City Chambers between 1753 and 1759. But a fourth narrow street, an alleyway called Mary King's Close, survives more or less intact.

Over the years the maze of dwellings which line the old streets have been used by the city fathers for a variety of unlikely purposes; they have acted as storerooms for both civic records and civic junk, and have even served as air raid shelters during the Second World War. But now they are largely empty, and to step into them is to step back into the bad old days when Edinburgh was one of the most crowded, violent and unhealthy cities on earth.

Strictly speaking, Mary King's Close is not open to the public. Unofficially, if you can persuade a kindly councillor or council employee to show you round the City Chambers then perhaps he will include the basement in your tour. And it is in the basement that you will find the tempting grey door that leads down into another world.

It is a world where Edinburgh's shortage of building space led to the world's first high-rise city in the 1500s, as tenements of up to 16 storeys climbed up the sides of the rocky spine at the head of which is Edinburgh Castle. It is a world where there were five wells to serve the entire city and where the only form of sewage disposal was a bucket of slops hurled into the street below at ten o'clock every night to the time-honoured cry of |Gardy-loo!'.

Not surprisingly, in such surroundings, outbreaks of plague were rife. It was the responsibility of the head of each family to report any outbreak of the disease in his home, and when that happened the entire family would be taken by cart to the edge of the city and sent into exile for life. If that sounds harsh, the penalty for failing to report a case of the disease was even harsher: the head of the family would be hanged, and his spouse would be drowned in the local loch.

One form of the disease involved bouts of violent sneezing -- a symptom perpetuated in the children's nursery rhyme |Ring a Ring o' Roses'.

When Edinburgh began to recover from that worst but final outbreak of plague in 1645, many people believed that Mary King's Close was still affected and shunned the area. Reports by some visitors that they had seen the ghosts of people, and indeed of animals, who had died there completed the street's isolation, and eventually the city magistrates ordered that it should be sealed off.

It stayed like that for more than a century, until Edinburgh's merchants needed a site for their new Royal Exchange, later to become the City Chambers. …

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