If there’s one tour in Edinburgh I’d recommend above all others, it would be the Real Mary King’s Close Tour. This tour has a little of everything – history, architecture, culture, and even a ghost story. Best of all, since the whole tour is inside and seemly underground (not really, but more on that below), it’s the perfect attraction for a rainy day in Edinburgh.
What is a Close?
To understand what a close is, I have to give a short history lesson. Over 300 million years ago, Edinburgh had some volcanic activity and the three hills of Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill and Castle Rock were formed. Later on, a glacier moved into the region, split on Castle Rock, and carved two valleys beside it. The original city of Edinburgh was built atop the basalt of Castle Rock. The town was fortified within a wall and only measured a couple square miles.
The layout of the town consisted of the castle at the top of the hill and a single main street running down the ridge of rock eastward from the castle. Small alleyways branched off this single road toward the valleys on either side. The homes of Edinburgh were built along these alleyways, stacked on top of each other to create the world’s first skyscrapers – some reached heights of up to 11 stories or more!
The Scottish names for the alleyways were close, court, entry or wynd. Wynds were public thoroughfares, although sometimes barely three feet wide (think windy – twisting and turning). Closes were private roads and therefore had a locked door or gate at the entrance. The alleyways were named after a notable person on the street, or after a profession that took place on the street. Some examples are Fisherman’s Close, Ceddes’ Entry, Bell’s Wynd and Writer’s Court.
My Tours of Mary King’s Close
The first time I took the Real Mary King’s Close tour, the day was sunny and snowing. In other words, beautiful and freezing. Maybe not the best day for a hike…not that the weather would have stopped me. If you are looking for something to do in Edinburgh that’s out of the cold or bad weather and doesn’t take too long, the Real Mary King’s Close is a perfect choice! I’ve since done the tour several times with different friends who’ve come to see Edinburgh.
I had the pleasure of getting Paul as my tour guide on my first tour. The others are just as good, but he definitely added his own flair and humor into the tour. And as my group was relatively small, it made for a great experience. After all, it’s only an hour-long tour.
I’m not going to spoil the tour too much, since I still want to you do the tour yourself, but here’s a summary of what you can expect.
The tour starts off in an exhibition room where you can see a 3D model of the original close and surrounding buildings. There’s also a video playing on the wall showing original maps of Edinburgh and the history of how the city was built. The guide will introduce himself or herself here and give you the rules, safety measures and expectations of the tour.
From there, a guide takes everyone down to Mary King’s Close to see some of the original dwelling spaces. The first several rooms are recreations of the lifestyle in the 1600s when Mary King resided in her chambers there. There is a gruesome tale of what happened with one of the residents of the close, not uncommon for that era, and another room with a really interesting audio-visual presentation covering some of the contemporary events in the 17th century.
The next few rooms are a bit more sinister, as they cover the story of the plague which decimated Edinburgh (and much of the world) in 1645. Due to lost records, it’s unknown exactly how many people perished during the plague, but considering how closely packed everyone was in those days (literally unable to leave the confines of a couple square miles), the mortality rate was extremely high. The rooms have recreations of the plague doctors and living conditions for those afflicted.
Another series of rooms show how some of the basements in Edinburgh were converted into bomb shelters during World War II. There’s another video in one of the rooms, but it doesn’t always play due to faulty (or perhaps cursed) wiring.
Lastly, there are the ghosts. While the tour primarily focuses on the history of Edinburgh, they just can’t avoid the topic of the supernatural in the most haunted city in the world. Various apparitions have been known to haunt the close over the centuries, possibly due to it’s proximity to the old Nor Loch (North Lake) where they used to carry out witch trials by dunking women into the excrement-filled lake. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there’s one particular room which has built up a rather famous reputation in recent years.
The final part of the tour is a photo opportunity standing on Mary King’s Close. This is the only photo you’ll be able to get on the tour.
Is The Real Mary King’s Close Really Underground?
There are many tours in Edinburgh that claim to be underground. This is incorrect. As mentioned above, Edinburgh was built on an ancient volcanic hill, and digging into the basalt wasn’t really an option or necessary for the original settlers. However, The Real Mary King’s Close certainly appears to be underground, considering there’s a large building above it.
In 1760, the Edinburgh City Chambers was built across the street from St Giles Cathedral. The building was originally the Royal Exchange and was big enough to span several alleyways. Instead of finding a new location, the city chopped the tops off the medieval “skyscrapers” and built the Royal Exchange on their foundations, leaving the original streets and lower levels intact. These areas were off-limits to the public until the Real Mary King’s Close opened as an attraction, giving tours centered around the close named after the wealthy merchant Mary King.
Tips for The Real Mary King’s Close Tour
The first thing to know about the Real Mary King’s Close is that it’s built under a governmental building – the City Chambers – and the supporting structures are apparently confidential, so photography is not permitted. As such, don’t bother bringing your camera. You’ll be able to get the photo provided by the tour itself.
Bring a pair of good shoes that won’t slip. This really applies to all of Edinburgh. The Real Mary King’s Close is quite steep, and while there are handrails, it’s a good idea to have a good pair of shoes anyway.
Finally, bring a little toy or stuffed animal with you. You’ll see why on the tour; I’m certainly not going to spoil the surprise!
Booking a Tour
Located directly opposite of St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile, Mary King’s Close is easy to find. With tours every 15 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., you can almost always find the time that you want. Just book in advance during the summer as getting a tour as a walk-in is very difficult! Full-price admission is £17.95, with discounts for seniors, students, children and families.
The tour is quite user-friendly. Guides speak English, Spanish and Italian, and there are audio-guides in French, German, Spanish and Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin and Gaelic. You can also show up for the tour right off the bus or plane with your luggage. Large lockers are available for your gear and extra layers you might be wearing since the underground attraction can be considerably warmer than the outside temperature. Unfortunately, there is no access for wheelchairs.
- Starting Location: Warriston’s Close, 2, High St, Edinburgh EH1 1PG
- Hours: Every 15 minutes – 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- Price: Adult ticket – £17.95 ($24)
- Website: The Real Mary King’s Close
- What to bring: Walking shoes and not your camera.
Updates for 2020
Due to the world events of 2020, safety measures have been put in place in the Real Mary Kings’ Close. Tour sizes have been reduced, allowing for social distancing. Hand sanitizer is provided throughout the tour, and you are requested to wear a mask unless you’re exempted. You should book in advance, partially to ensure you get a space on one of the tours, and partially as you’ll have to use a card which is better than cash.
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Disclaimer: This was a complimentary tour organized in coordination with Visit Scotland and the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions, both of which have my utmost gratitude!
Image Credits: The Real Mary King’s Close Tours
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