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The Real Mary King's Close

from Edinburgh, Scotland


ABOVE: Stephen Boyd, a merchant from the year 1635, poses near his property in Mary King's Close. (Note the laundry hanging above the street.) INSET BELOW: Mary King's youngest daughter with gifts in Annie's Room, and the historic attraction's entrance on the Royal Mile.

photoUntil the mid-1700s, Edinburgh was a walled medieval city. Multistory "tenements" occupied the steep slopes on either side of the Royal Mile, which ran along the top of a ridge from Edinburgh Castle to Canongate. Edinburghers of all classes lived and worked in narrow "closes" or alleys like the one in the photo above.

One such alley, known as Mary King's Close, was preserved in its original state after the upper stories of several tenements were demolished to allow construction of the Royal Exchange (now the City Chambers) on the Royal Mile. Residents of the affected buildings were evicted in 1753, and their dwellings and workshops were all but forgotten until the late 20th Century, when Mercat Tours began to offer guided walks through underground Edinburgh.

photoIn 2003, The Real Mary King's Close opened as a tourist attraction, with guided tours throughout the day year-round. The costumed guides play historic characters: On my tour, a young maid named Agnes Chambers led a group of several dozen visitors through the underground alley and into rooms that hadn't changed in 250 years. Her first-person narration described 16th Century tenement life, the plague epidemic of 1645, and the ghosts that are said to occupy the premises today. (One such ghost, a little girl named Annie, attracts gifts of dolls and money that ultimately get donated to a children's charity.)

If you're a history professor or grad student, you're likely to be put off by the touristy tone and the scripted first-person narration, but don't let that keep you away: The well-preserved ruins are genuinely interesting, and they offer an intimate view of how the poor and wealthy lived cheek by jowl in what Christopher Turner, author of Edinburgh Step by Step, calls "a Scottish Pompeii."

Where to find it: The Real Mary King's Close is through an archway on the High Street or Royal Mile across from the High Kirk of St. Giles. You'll often see a costumed employee distributing leaflets near the entrance.

When to come: You can visit The Real Mary King's Close every day of the year except Christmas. The first tour begins at 10 a.m., with tours departing every 20 minutes until 4 p.m. or 9 p.m., depending on the day and time of year. Special events and "Supernatural History Tours" are often on the calendar. (Prebook if you can, especially on weekends or in high season.)

For more information, including prices and booking information, go to

More about Edinburgh:
Edinburgh home page at Europe for Visitors

Top and center photos copyright © The Real Mary King's Close.

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