Six feet under

The underground city in Edinburgh disappeared in the 19th century, but the stories about who inhabited it are more alive than ever.
I
f you’ve ever been to Edinburgh you’ll have passed its castle on Castle Hill, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and, of course, the Royal Mile. So you’ll know the capital of Scotland…but not completely. Edinburgh hides a secret that few are aware of: A city underneath its foundations. Enter the underworld: Enter Mary King’s Close. It is located under two buildings in the Old Town, covered by the current city hall of Edinburgh in the Royal Mile. For many years it was closed to the public, but in 2003 it was reopened as a tourist attraction, and with its opening, all the stories of plagues and murders that took place there also resurfaced.

A gesture of kindness

Due to the large amount of people who take toys for Annie to Mary King’s Close, they have to be removed from the room every three months. All of them are donated to charitable organisations that distribute them to those most in need.

The buried city of Edinburgh was built in the Middle Ages. Space was limited, it wasn’t possible to build more houses and attacks from invaders stopped the city from expanding because it was dangerous to live outside of the city walls. The rich built upwards, which meant the creation of the first apartment block buildings in the 16th century, and the poor built downwards, creating an underground city that today remains in exactly the same location.
The lower classes had to learn to live in a gloomy, damp space with hardly any ventilation. Sunlight couldn’t enter and there was no access to water, and to round things off, the waste from the flats above ground were thrown down onto them. It didn’t take long for disease to spread, but it was the bubonic plague that would turn this place into a real graveyard. When someone fell sick, they were isolated by being locked up at home to contain the epidemic, which meant that they ended up infecting all the members of their family. Corpses piled up in the streets from this underworld until the gravediggers came to collect them.

The bird doctor

A completely covered figure, wearing leather gloves and a horrific bird mask used to walk among the houses of the street. Don’t be scared though: despite his appearance he was one of the few who visited the sick. It was doctor George Rae and he dressed this way to avoid infections.

This street was closed in 1902. Its last inhabitant, Andrew Chesney, was forced to leave and since then it has remained closed, meaning that this labyrinth of passageways retains its sombre appearance. Several companies such as The Real Mary King’s Close offer tours to help visitors imagine and experience first-hand what life used to be like there. Dressed as one of the inhabitants, the guides share stories with you such as Annie’s story, the ghost of an eight-year-old girl who, the story has it, was abandoned by her parents when she contracted the bubonic plague. She was discovered by a Japanese medium who explained that Annie was sad because she had lost her ragdoll, which has led to a tradition of visitors from all over the world who come to give cuddly toys to the young ghost. But she is not the only spirit that inhabits Mary King’s Close. There are those who claim to have heard footsteps, including a worker who captured a ghostly silhouette with one of the photo cameras used on the tours. If you like ghost stories and really want to discover Edinburgh, forget about the Royal Mile and take a walk through its inner depths.

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