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A close-kept secret in Edinburgh.

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. To save themselves an expensive demolition job on a building which was to cost them only 30,000[pounds] (3,000[pounds] in the English currency of the time), they took the top storeys off the tenements around Mary King's Close and used the lower storeys as foundations.

Now the street, and the houses which lead off it, are of intense interest to historians -- and to the curious who may find their way there. The street itself slopes sharply and is carpeted with the dust of centuries. The houses, with their cramped rooms and claustrophobic atmosphere, have been empty for 347 years.

Or have they? Photographs taken in two of the rooms have been found to contain shadowy human outlines when the films have been processed. Guide dogs taken down into Mary King's Close have repeatedly refused to enter one of the houses. Some council employees won't go near the area at all. Psychic investigators who have spent the night there have reported sounds of merriment and the clink of glasses coming from what is known to have been the street's tavern. And ancient bloodstains on one wall continue to appear through countless coats of council whitewash.

Old superstitions die hard. The ghost stories of the mid-seventeenth century, and the fear that the killer plague may still lurk there, have both continued almost until the present, which may be why no move has been made to open up this piece of living history in what is, after all, a highly tourist-conscious city. Plus, of course, a natural bureaucratic reluctance to see a lot of holidaymakers tramping up and down the stairs of the City Chambers.

Perhaps a tourist invasion would spoil the ambience of Mary King's Close anyway. |I wouldn't want to see it tarted up,' says Councillor John Wilson, who has become something of an expert on both the City Chambers and Mary King's Close. 'It contains a tremendous amount of mystique--especially for people who come to Edinburgh and want to see something special.

|Mary King's Close could be turned into a financially viable tourist attraction. But it would require a tremendous investment to make the ruins safe in the first place. At present people who go there do so at their own risk, and they go as guests.'

Or perhaps the tourist invasion might awaken another ghost -- that of Mary King herself. The street was named after her because her father, Alexander King, was one of the principal property owners in the area during the seventeenth century. But in 1645 Mary herself was one of the dozens who died of bubonic plague in the street which bears her name.

She is known to have liked wearing a long blue dress. And some visitors to the maze of buildings below the City Chambers say they have been briefly joined on their tour by a tall, pale, silent woman dressed in blue . . .
COPYRIGHT 1992 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Edinburgh, Scotland's Mary King's Close
Author:Mead, Robin
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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