Saturday, 27 July 2013

Mary King's close: religious mania and ghosts

Edinburgh reputedly has more ghosts per square metre than any other city, even London. This may be because Edinburgh is relatively small and because the Celtic population may be a little more sensitive to the paranormal (I sense skeptics leaving already: keep reading, you may get a surprise).

Mary Kings Close, in the heart of Edinburgh, is allegedly one of the most haunted places in Edinburgh with ghosts showing on souvenir photographs taken by visitors and Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), about which I am skeptical, recorded on “official” ghost hunts. None of the evidence is conclusive, no solid evidence of haunting has been found and no amount of evidence will ever convince the more extreme skeptics, but as a whole the body of evidence implies there is something worth investigating.

The Folklore of Mary King's Close

Mary King's close, in Edinburgh's Royal Mile, is a number of closes (back alleys) that grew up in the days when people clustered close to Edinburgh Castle for protection. The closes were rabbit runs between tenement buildings up to seven stories high. In 1645 the Plague struck Edinburgh and, the story goes that the inhabitants of Mary Kings Close were walled in and left to die. The close was then sealed off and forgotten for a century or three till it was rediscovered. This may be why the street was called “the street of sorrows”

Mary Kings Close is now a tourist attraction and this story or a variation is told to tourists. Don't blame the guides, there is relatively little good information on the Close and a lot of what might be termed “Chinese Whispers”. The real story is more interesting.

Known Facts and History of the close

Alexander King a prominent citizen, property owner and lawyer to Mary Queen of Scots had a daughter called Mary, and this may be the origin of the name. The close was never deserted.

It was the site of the Edinburgh Fishmonger Company's Oyster bar, till the City Chambers were built: The close prospered but the Oyster bar was killed off by by the Royal Exchange which reduced the length of the close by around 10% and prevented direct access to the bar from the High Street.

The upper stories of the tenements were demolished around 1753 and the lower stories were used as a foundation for the Royal Exchange, which was built in 1753. Opposite the Oyster bar was an eight storey tenement which was only demolished in 1897. Doubtless the council wanted to demolish it earlier but they could not buy it outright.

The tenements below the Royal Exchange became flats and offices and in one case a tavern and coffee house, with stairs connecting them to the High Street. The stairs have largely vanished though their remains can be seen today. Around 1845 the remaining addresses in Mary Kings close were renamed and the close vanished from the map. Cockburn Street was built in 1855-1860 and wiped out the remaining sections of the close, though these remained within living memory for a long time.

The underground vaults of the Close were used as an air raid shelter during World War II. After that not a lot happened. 

The Plague

Bubonic plague hit Edinburgh in 1645, probably from Europe via the Port of Leith. Edinburgh had a procedure for dealing with plague, as a result of previous experience. Sufferers would put a white flag in their windows and essential supplies would be delivered to them each day. Those who recovered were allowed to leave the house and resume normal life. A plague doctor would visit and treat them regularly. Apparently the plague did not hit the close more than any other part of Edinburgh.

The Haunting of Mary King's Close

In the mid 17th Century the Edinburgh equivalent of todays televangelists, George Sinclair, a Scientist, Professor at Glasgow University and a tub thumping religious nutter who believed totally in the reality of Witchcraft used a public frenzy over witchcraft at the time to promote his own brand of Fire and Brinstone religion. These frenzies happen periodically, the last being the Satanic Ritual Abuse farce of 1987. As part of his campaign he seems to have invented the hauntings of Mary King's Close though I need to do more research on this. It seems likely that Sinclair used his Scientific knowledge to deceive his listeners, just as modern Televangelists will draw a cross on their forehead using a dye which remains invisible till they start sweating, then turns bright red.

The Nor Loch, which was apparently the old castle moat, was near the close (it is now Princes St Gardens) and took the city's sewage and the waste from the nearby market. It generated a load of Methane (Marsh Gas) which produces all the classic symptoms of ghostly visitation: every low-lying area in the world has tales of hauntings by grey ladies, bearded old men and other wraith-like spirits. Marsh gas is lighter than air and hovers, with a slight luminous glow until dispersed or dissolved in the air, and given the right mixture will burn with a blue flame, possibly giving rise to the legned of the Will of the Wisp. Edinburgh has few wind-free days so wispy gas pockets collecting in the houses of the Close's nether regions - trapped and unable to escape upwards, and with insufficient air, unable to dissolve quickly could have produced symptoms of hauntings.

One of George Sinclair's specialities was the effect of "Damps and Wildfire" in Coal-mines. The subject was by no means fully understood in 1685, but he must have had acknowledge of methane gas that could have been used for reassurance and not for raising Cain. But to a religious nutter all is fair.
Be that as it may sightings of the spirits ceased with the draining of the Nor' Loch around 1760 - coincidentally contemporary with the building of the first stage of the present City Chambers. Without marsh gas the ghosts could not survive the soul killing influence of local bureaucracy.
The Hauntings today
Workers in the close have reported strange footsteps, the sound of clothes rustling, and sensed strange presences in the Close. Some of this could be due to expectations and some to the acoustic properties of the close. I recall one tour guide telling the story of trying to use a dowsing pendulum near the close. When the pendulum started to accelerate and swing horizontally not vertically they decided it was time to leave- fast. They collected their belongings the next day. I am told of one group who slept in the Close overnight and heard sounds of drinking and fighting from an empty room overhead that had been a bar in the 17th century.
The most famous ghost in the close is called Wee Annie and alleged to be the ghost of a girl who died in the close. However her existence is not supported by the historical evidence and the psychic who claimed to have seen her seems, according to one source, to have a habit of seeing ghosts of little girls at tourist attractions round the world. This does not mean they do not exist, merely that this claim should be given less weight.
Professional investigations of the close by various psychic research groups have found no real evidence of hauntings. There are some photographs that seem to show people not present when the photograph was taken and some anomalous sounds (EVP), claimed to be words, that I found unintelligible before I read the team's version of what was “said”.
If Mary King's Close is haunted there seems to be no reason for a high density of ghosts other than the plague in 1645 and the hauntings prior to the 21st century can be put down to the effects of Marsh Gas exploited by a religious nutcase who misused their scientific training and exploited a moral panic over Witchcraft in order to instill fear in the public

In brief
Although allegedly one of the most haunted places in Edinburgh the evidence for a real haunting is almost nonexistent, though the possibility cannot be ruled out. Apart from that the Close has an interesting history which will appeal to students of Architecture and of the history of Edinburgh. If you visit the close or the area round it keep an eye out for the relics of the past preserved in the buildings round you and glory at the continuity of the traditions involved.

Much material of interest has been left out to keep this a reasonable length and will be included in my forthcoming book on paranormal phenomena in Edinburgh.

If you are staying at the Badjao B&B we are a ghost free zone and intend keeping it that way. You can reach Mary King's Close with a single bus ride and a short walk. The best time to come if you do not like crowds is September when we may be experiencing a late summer and the trees are turning golden red.

Further reading

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