Edinburgh’s buildings conceal a hidden street called Mary King’s Close. Underneath the Royal Mile, an underground street remained almost untouched for hundreds of years. A long street with narrow passageways conceals houses from the 17th century. The street was the second largest in Edinburgh and was used as a market. All different social classes lived in these medieval 14 story buildings, the rich were closer to the sky and away from the squalid conditions below.
Why is it underground?
The government wanted a new Royal Exchange 1753 which was built on top of Mary King’s Close, They chopped half of the street off and build on top of it. This meant that much of the close was plunged into darkness beneath the busy streets above.
Mary King, was a widow and she became a burgess after her husband’s death, meaning she could have property named after her and even vote. It wasn’t until 1928 until women were legally given the vote. Mary gained a seat on the Edinburgh Council. She resided in one of the buildings in the 1600s.
Edinburgh suffered from the many battles, so after the Fluddon battle, a wall was built around the city to keep English invaders out. With Edinburgh’s growing population, it was impossible to build houses outwards because of the city walls. So where was there space? Upwards…
Edinburgh’s old town is lined with tall buildings and many narrow and steep steps in between the walls of stone. They would have housed a large population of people in a small and confined space, much like modern high rise buildings.
Living in Mary King’s Close
Stepping back in time, a labyrinth of rooms and paths takes you on a journey into Edinburgh’s past, shedding light on how people lived in these streets. The lanes are narrow and the rooms dark and damp, with little natural light – how they would have been during their original occupancy. The bottom floor rooms were small, often with 4 families living in one tiny room, with little light reaching down the narrow gaps between these medieval high rise buildings.
Wallpaper was taxed and therefore incredibly expensive, so residents took to other methods of decoration. You can still see the faint outline of printed floral patterns on one of the remaining houses and another was painted a faded, dark green. However, the paint contained arsenic, which is poisonous.
Nowadays tourists flock to see Edinburgh’s beautiful historical streets, these buildings were a breeding ground for death and disease. Houses weren’t the only properties inside the long and looming buildings.
One room on Mary King’s Close was kept for cattle. They were also butchered in the ground floor room. All waste – human and animal – was thrown into the street, which slowly slid down the steep streets and into the river at the bottom.