Edinburgh is a city built on top of a city dating back centuries. To step down into its hidden history, schedule a tour with The Real Mary King’s Close.
The Old City of Edinburgh is built around the main street, known as the Royal Mile, with alleyways (called closes) leading off of it. These closes were named after people living on them or for the businesses found there and were usually poorly ventilated and reeking with refuse from the multi-story buildings full of people living and working in its environs. Just imagine Auld Reekie (the nickname of Edinburgh which gives you a good sense of how it smelled!) with its grimy streets and smokey winds cloaking you in darkness as you hustle down the sloped close towards your home in a stone tenement room with a dozen other people. No wonder the plague and other diseases ran rampant in this environment!
Mary King’s Close is one of the best known in the city and was the largest street besides the Royal Mile in the 17th century. It gets its name from a real person, Mary King, who was a merchant and burgess on the city council after her husband died. She even had voting rights – 300 years before other women received the right to vote! She purchased a home and stall along what was then called Alexander King’s Close and lived here with her four children until her death in 1644, a year before the great 1645 plague.
As the city expanded and continued to grow, some of the closes, like Mary King’s Close, were buried by modern buildings. Under these buildings, the old streets and rooms of the 17th century city can still be found and are now part of the sight-seeing tours of the city. The hidden closes make a particularly creepy visit on a ghost tour!
I still remember visiting the underground city of Edinburgh in college on a ghost tour. When researching ways to let my kids see the hidden streets without being too scared, I found the tour at The Real Mary King’s Close. This is a great, family-friendly way to see the unique side of Edinburgh!
Be sure to buy your tickets in advance – you have to purchase them by the day before if not earlier to guarantee your spot. Enter through the doors off the Royal Mile into the gift shop where you’ll wait for your tour to begin.
At the designated time, your costumed guide will lead you down the stairs and into the underground recesses of Mary King’s Close. No pictures are allowed on the tour (photos below are provided by The Real Mary King’s Close).
The hour-long tour will wind through the many rooms of the former close, now entombed by the Royal Exchange building. One room has portraits of the residents of the close and you’ll learn about their lives from the interactive exhibit.
Your guide will lead you into the actual alleyway that is shrouded by darkness and will describe what life was like for the inhabitants of the tenements. It’s amazing to stand on the steeply sloped street and imagine living and working in these dire conditions. While it’s dark now because of the building on top of it, it was almost as dark even when open to the elements since the buildings loomed up to 14 stories along it!
Your kids will love the gross humor of the term, “Gardyloo!” – what residents called out when they threw their waste out onto the streets! This article does a great job at explaining the term and why it became popular. You can just imagine the refuse running down the steep incline, sometimes several inches deep!
The guides do a great job at explaining the day-to-day life of living in the tenement, which actually didn’t have the negative connotation we think of today. The tenements were a mixture of classes, with the upper classes literally living up above the stink and the lower classes living down amongst the filth. You’ll see several rooms and learn about the people who lived there. When we returned to our hotel room at the Cheval Old Town Chambers, we realized that it was a former tenement room that likely housed at least two families!
Another part of the tour will take you into a room set up as it was during one of the many outbreaks of the plague. Your guide will go into detail about the different forms of the plague and how the infamous plague doctors treated the patients. Smaller kids may be a little scared in this room.
Images provided by The Real Mary King’s Close
One thing I remember about the plague from my ghost tour in college was the (incorrect) thought that these buildings were sealed up to prevent the plague from spreading. That horrified me so I was glad to know that this fact has been disproven!
The guide will lead you into another room that is supposedly haunted by a young girl named Annie. It’s not a scary story but may not be suitable for younger kids.
To get an even more atmospheric tour, you can opt for a lantern tour or the true crime tour (adults only). You can also have a private tour of the close.
For teens or adults who may want to be scared even more, you can add in a ghost tour of the underground city. Auld Reekie Tours and the City of the Dead tours look terrifying as they take you into the haunted underground vaults – I’m pretty sure my college tour was one of these. For a more mirth-filled tour, look at Cadies and Witchery Tours.
The tour of the Real Mary King’s Close is a great way to learn about the real, historical side of Edinburgh’s hidden city. Your family will get a fascinating look at the dire conditions of 17th century life, and it will make you grateful for today’s modern conveniences!
- Cost: £19.50/adult (15+); £13/child (5-15)
- Recommended: 8 and up
- Tour time: 1 hour
- Gift shop located onsite and online
- Transportation: Located along the Royal Mile, the Real Mary King’s Close is located across from St. Giles’ Cathedral.
- Dining options: There are many good options along the Royal Mile. We liked Burgers and Beers Grillhouse and Gordon’s Trattoria.
- Nearby hotels: Check out my Edinburgh guide for recommendations!
- Nearby attractions include: Royal Mile, St. Giles’ Cathedral, Gladstone’s Land, Victoria Street shopping (Harry Potter sites), National Museum of Scotland, and Greyfriars Kirkyard
Books to Read:
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