Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Don't Stand So Close to Me

A few years back I was lucky enough to spend a day in Edinburgh, Scotland. We only had time to go through Edinburgh Castle and about half-way down the Royal Mile, so I would love a chance to go back. What we saw was really just wonderful though, it's beautiful and so much history packed into a tiny spot what with the Old Town/New Town thing. "New Town" was created in the over the course of about 100 years (mid-18th to mid 19th centuries).

"Old Town" is basically the strip from Edinburgh Castle on the hill down to HolyRood Palace. (Check out this great website for a better view of the map where you can zoom in). It was of course surrounded by a wall at one point and this caused the population to really pile up on one another. Aristocracy and fishmongers would live in the same building (although I'm sure the inside of their rooms looked really different).

A cool feature of Edinburgh that we learned about was the "Close". A Close is basically what in America you would call an alley. But it goes way beyond alleys that I've lived with - they might be only as wide as a person, they could have stairs in them, they can be open to the sky, or maybe the buildings over top completely cover it. They're named too, maybe after someone who lived nearby, or for where they led to; and there are fortunately still a good amount of them.

One close in particular is extra cool because you can tour it now and see how it looked in the 18th century. What happened was the tenements above were torn down so the Royal Exchange building could be built in 1753, but the lowest floors were left as is and remained the foundation of the Royal Exchange building. This close is Mary King's Close. Mary King is said to have been the daughter of Alexander King, who was a lawyer for Mary Queen of Scots and lived somewhere along the close. I can't verify all that though.

Naturally, it's supposed to be super haunted down there and we did take the tour. You walk down a long staircase and suddenly you're in a dark alley (close) with authentic 18th century laundry hanging overhead. Ok, maybe the laundry is new. But whether you believe in ghosts or not, it's definitely creepy. But also, for an amateur genealogist/historian like me, it's WAY COOL to see something preserved so well like that.

What brought all this up was a book I'm reading now called "Traditions of Edinburgh" by Robert Chambers. He published it in 1824, and revised it a few times. Literally he went around asking old people what they remembered about the Old Town in Edinburgh and he has all these great little stories. It's really interesting to hear him lament about places that were torn down for roads or new buildings, just like we do today! It just goes to show that nothing changes!

Anyway, he was talking about some ghost stories and believe it or not, he had one about Mary King's Close!

Here's the excerpt (he's talking about a "deserted house in Mary King's Close (behind the Royal Exchange"):

"At midnight, as the goodman was sitting with his wife by the fire reading his Bible, and intending immediately to go to bed, a strange dimness which suddenly fell upon his light caused him to raise his eyes from the book. He looked at the candle, and saw it burning blue. Terror took possession of his frame. Turning away his eyes, there was, directly before him, and apparently not two yards off, the head as of a dead person, looking his straight in the face. There was nothing but a head... ...Presently the door opened, and in came a hand holding a candle. This came and stood - that is, the body supposed to be attached to the hand stood - beside the table, whilst the terrified pair saw two or three couples of feet skip along the floor, as if dancing..."

Isn't that cool? I got a kick out of the fact that he was relating this well-established ghost story in 1823 about a place that I walked through in 2007. Don't try to tell me history isn't fun!


  1. Great post! There are so many wonderful things to see and do in Scotland. My husband and I went on our honeymoon there. Because we wanted to see a lot of the countryside and especially the north, we gave too little time to Edinburgh, so like you, I would love to go back!

  2. It wasn't just dark and creepy...the only light we had down there was the guide's flashlight!! You looked down at your feet and saw nothing but black and had to walk slowly because it was very uneven. It was cool to actually see the houses and shops down there. That was a great tour!!! I, too, would love to go back and spend some more time there. Scotland is so beautiful!!!