Lions & Witches & Ghosts Oh My in Edinburgh . . . (Part 2 )

I booked a room at a Crowne Plaza on High Street on the Royal Mile. I went out for Ewart's ( see Vonn's comments and my response below ) and then was wandering up and down streets avoiding American tourists when I came across a group of elderly folks collecting at Mercat's Cross. When a black-hooded and caped woman joined them and began collecting their money, I joined them. She was leading a tour of Mary Kings Close, an underground part of the city which was covered over when the wealthier merchants ( hence " Mercant" ) got tired of standing in sleet and cold mud and decided to build a Royal Exchange, or market place, and covered right over a very historic and creepy part of Edinburgh.

We walked down Anchor Close to get down and into Mary Kings Close from behind. What started as a five storey street quickly descended to a 12 storey street in one block, as the skyline remains the same and the buildings plummet at the angle of the hills from the bottom. The tour led us through the locked gates and wooden doors into a dark, dank and deep alley way with a ceiling -- the ceiling of course was the Royal Exchange. The rooms are bare and brick and stone, covered over with plaster and paint, which is chipping and falling apart at the touch. The floors are broken and uneven and the path is steep and unsteady.

Mary Kings Close began it's life as Brown's Close, and was later renamed Alexander King Close. They know that Alexander was a wealthy man, but a Catholic, and attracted other Catholics to live in the Close, and was therefore hated by intolerant Protestants. So, said our guide Anna, it was beginning to get a bad reputation. There is a 14th Century carving depicting a man being given Last Rites, which was covered over with mortar and plaster during this time, supposedly so as not to incriminate the Catholics currently living there.

The real history of this place is augmented by the theatrical delivery of young caped Anna, but after hearing the stories of the Bubonic plague and Pneumonic plague that wreaked havoc on the tightly-crowded inhabitants int he 1640's, it didn't need alot of decoration. Anna started out with a graphic description of the hygeine of the times, including the "guardez lou" -- hey , I learned that the LOU stood for the French "L'Eau", or "water". The filth progressed downhill and soon ended up in a loch, or rather the water source for the city. It's a wonder they didn't all die of Typhus before the rats ever moved in.

400 people were estimated to inhabit the tightly packed Mary Kings Close. Of those, about half contracted the plague: it was one of the first outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague in Scotland. Tie that to the fact that the dreaded Catholics were there, and you have a sudden outbreak of quite another plague: Mass Hysteria. ('scuse the pun ) There solution was to wall off the two ends of the Close, sealing 300 people from getting in our out. Regardless of the 40% recovery rate of the plague itself, there was no escaping the extreme quarantine, and every single soul perished in Mary Kings Close.

Except one little girl, Annie. Probably 8 or 9. How do we know? Her ghost apparently haunted the room she died in. Her parents both had the plague, although Annie did not, and she was walled into Mary Kings Close in spite of the fact that she was OK. So her parents found a small window and pushed her though. She was met on the other side by sympathisers. But Annie apparently left her doll behind, and couldn't live without it, so she snuck back into the Close, only through the wrong window, and ended up falling and breaking her leg, and died there alone. And her ghost was seen by lost of people until 1993, when a Japanese psychic went through with a video team and felt her coat being tugged. So she ended up having a little chat with the ghost of Annie, and sent one of her cameramen up to buy a doll, any doll, and they "gave" it to Annie, and the ghost has never been seen since. But the Tartan Barbie is still in the room, which is now become a shrine of dolls and coins and even a L'Oreal lipstick, and crucifixes and cheap plastic jewelry and teddy bears, and candy and soda pops and little notes. Annie has a pretty fair collection of Disney toys and beanie babies too.

There were other more modern ghost stories, but the only thing that creeped me out -- apart from the permeation of beanie babies and the L'Oreal lipstick -- was the fact that every room looked so much like the final scenes in Blair Witch... I told Anna to remember me when she got ot see it. It's not here yet. Oddly enough, she said she was too scared to see it ! Odd, I say, because it wasn't the Close itself that was unnerving, but Anna's theatrical voice and convincing script that people it with over 300 years of real and imagined ghosts.

--READER COMMENTS -------- [* Note: i was "blogging" in 1999 ]

Vonn Marsch suggests:

If you have a chance, visit Ensign Ewart's, the last pub before the castle >on High Street, for a bit of a nip. (And have a Scotch with the nip, too.)

My Response :

I did indeed find the Ensing Ewart's, and got you a picture of the ftont. I sampled a 1/2 pint of Ornkey's (dark) and 1/2 pint of Black Sheep Bitter (light) and have now given up beer. Very nice bartender. Three American patrons: one man and his wife who walked in because Ewart was his last name, and one guy from SF who was reading Henry Miller's "Under the Rooftops of Paris", which I know better than to interrupt.... BTW, the bartender told me to give you his URL:


Sherry McGarvie adds:


I'm having the most marvellous time; if by proxy.

Am actually going through a bit of Alan Lightman's favorite mode of time >travel - that of reminiscence ... I've been through Stirling Castle a few >times, and ADORE the area! When next we meet I'll need to confirm a picture I've got of this fabu sundial that I think I took last time through there. It's a big wacky head grinning out the hours .... If you go near Troon, beware!!! The place is riddled with McGarvie's! While some masquerade as Gelvin's you'd be hard pressed NOT to notice the family resemblence.

If you've got time whilst in Edinburgh, I highly recommend the Corkscrew museum. Just down the lane from the overpriced Scotch museum, it's very silly, thus appropo pour moi.

Away, wi ye lassie! There ale waiting somewhere.


My Response :

I wish I had seen this sundial. I didn't go in, as it was closed, but only around the churchyard and around the statues in front. The Corkscrew Museum no longer exists, if indeed it ever did. Half of Edinburgh now thinks you are quite mad for asking. They've never heard of it. And Chambers Street, where BOTH the Scottish Museums are, is mostly under construction anyway.


Tigger2 Diana (who is battling Hurricane Floyd on the bEast coast ) quips:

Stirling is where I sampled a platter of "haggis, tatties, and neeps," which was one of the more disgusting meals I've ever had in my life (although the tatties were fine).

My Response :

Yes, Haggis and Tatties and Neeps are standard barfare. They have to have SOME ghost stories to tell above ground, eh?

Ahhhh, Great Britain, where the coffee's all powdered and the croissant but a happy memory of Holland. It was 1/2 way through last night's burger -- which needed a chainsaw rather than a knife -- that I remembered about Mad Cow Disease. So I am off beef for the duration of this trip. Shouldn't be too much trouble with all the fluffy little lamb kebabs dotting the pastoral landscape.

Last night I was in bed by 11 -- only I might has well have stayed out pub hopping. I heard the live music from Wistle Binkies below until the wee hours, and then a sound that I swear sounded exactly like a bulldozer scraping all the cars off the street and piling them into one big heap and then rolling over them repeatedly. Got no idea what *that* was all about. But the guy at the desk thinks I'm nuts -- especially after I had him on the phone with the Tourist Bureau trying to find the so-called "Corkscrew Museum." Ta, Sherry.

I had a breakfast that was serenaded by a real bagpiper--OK, he wasn't there for us, but for a conference downstairs, but I went down and took pictures. Only the light wasn't right, and he said I'd need a flash cuz he wasn't going to flash me. Cheeky devil. I told him I already knew what was under his kilt. He said "WHAT?" I said, "ooo, sorry, skirt, then." He said, "You should know better'n that." I said "Of course I do, but I just said it to piss you off." And he grinned and winked and said come back when he was done with the gig, 15 minutes later, he was.. Stewart went outside so I could get the shot. Very nice man. (Mom, you really should have been there. I couldn't quite get him in my suitcase, what with his all his garb -- woolly black hat, sporan, etc and the bagpipe and yards and yards of tartan wool. )

I did Edinburgh Castle ( yawn ) and the Crown Jewels today. The most interesting thing was the ancient coronation stone, which was removed to Westminster Abbey for the Coronation Throne when England took over. And in 1996, the Queen gave it back, with the understanding that it would be returned on the event of a coronation. But the guard, who as a serious Nationalist, said -- quite aloud -- that the future was uncertain, and if Scotland Sceeded from the English, it probably wouldn't ever go to London again. There was quite alot of talk about this over the last couple of days. The Scots are pretty disgusted with the House of Windsor.

That pretty much wraps up Edinburgh. I've stolen as many shortbreads out of the Business Class Lounge as I can and am off to Heathrow, to be met by Gabrielle-who-was-Justine.


UPDATE: April 7, 2005

i have received an email from a lady named Paula who is the Duty Manager for The Real Mary King's Close in Edinburgh. She asked me to link to her website at : She did not tell me to piss off and take this trundled out mess o' shite with me, so i take this as a good sign that i am representing the fair city of Edinburgh properly !!!