Far beneath the jugglers, pipers and sword-swallowers lie the ancient streets of Edinburgh. Walking along the Royal Mile, dodging the entertainers, or the shops stacked with fudge and shortbread and ginger wigs, tourists are accosted by imploring folk in triangular hats and scuffed boots.
The costume is in keeping with Edinburgh’s lucrative underground tours – a business seemingly doing so well that the prefix ‘The real’ is included in the literature of this tour.
The tour begins with a map of 17th century Edinburgh. Dozens of crooked lines of houses run down from the Royal Mile to the Nor’ Loch (helpfully translated as the North Lake for people from Surrey).
Each house chucked sewage, blood, rubbish and dead cats into the gutter and rainwater washed it into the loch, which has since been drained to form the lush Princes Street Gardens.
There is something fascinating about the subterranean. As we step below- streets are we closer to death or birth? Are we examining that dreadful fear of being buried alive? Or, as the worried Portuguese lady in our party said, ‘I am in wrong place.’
Perhaps the spirits were communing with her in this haunted underworld? Sadly, it seems her Spanish audio guide was already in the plague house when we hadn’t left the staircase.
Edinburgh has a unique history shaped by religious wars and skirmishes with the Auld Enemy (that’s the English). A huge wall had to be built to protect the citizens and with land scarce houses started to go up and up. This created the filth, pestilence and plague we would hear of later. A side profile of Edinburgh would show the Royal Mile (or High Street if you want to sound local) at the crest with sharp slopes off to either side. Houses were built to several storeys at the top and increasing heights and storeys as the land fell away so the houses grew taller like an expanding wedge of cheese. This meant that houses reached some sixteen storeys high in parts of the city. Although the closes (Scots for streets) were open to the elements the walls were not perfectly straight and little light reached ground level. The middle classes were flitting around in sedan chairs keeping their boots clean, while way below them the poor grubbed around in filthy, mired streets bricking out any meagre light they had for fear of paying window tax.
Our guide is Jonet Nimmo, the daughter of Mary King, a seamstress who gave the Close her name. She has a twinkle in her eye and endearingly doesn’t play the whole accent and mannerisms bit too much. We descend into the rooms below what is now the Council Chambers. The air is dry and fusty like opening a box of old photos in your granny’s attic. The cobbles below our feet are original. There is a cow byre with large, smooth stones for slaughtering. A neat U-shaped channel has been carved into the stone for collecting blood.
‘If it’s not contaminated it’s taken away for puddings,’ Jonnet says, confusing two Americans who are picturing cows blood drizzled on cheesecake.
We head down further and into an old room where the plaster is crumbling and made from bone and horsehair. The walls have been decorated with woodblock and dye.
In a poor room plague victims are laid out. The room is not sufficient to stand in. The fire would have been smoky had they fuel. If there was oil a lamp may have provided scant light. We could barely see each other, let alone embroider or pick our way through the works of Sir Walter Scott.
Jonnet reminds us we are not underground. Although builders dug into the hill to cram more rooms into the basements of houses Mary King’s Close was open to the sky. It was only when new foundations were laid that these streets were paved over. One room is propped with black iron poles and a faint draft picks its way through the chimney. It’s hard to imagine how people lived and worked down here. Edinburgh is fortunate to have such a fascinating history below its streets, though its ancestors paid the price.
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