- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

EDINBURGH, Scotland — The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the bubonic plague has immobilized Edinburgh, claiming the lives of more than half the population. The area hardest hit is Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries ofsuffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death has supplanted the pungent aroma of tea and scones.

The place, the time and the horror have been resurrected as Edinburgh’s major new attraction for 2003, which opened in April. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real.

Hidden for many years, Mary King’s Close lies beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, among a series of closes (narrow, winding side streets with multilevel apartment houses looming on either side). In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the new building, now called the City Chambers. Part of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery and misery.

The newly opened exhibit breathes new life into this underground world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then, Mary King’s Close provides an amazing insight into a period of history with which many people are unfamiliar — and it has been preserved in an authentic environment and with historically accurate depiction that defies most commercial historical reproductions.

“Our aim is to reveal the very real history connected to this intriguing place. From the newly discovered documentary and archaeological evidence found, we are able, for the first time, to trace the real lives and accurately interpret the living conditions of the real people who lived in these closes throughout the centuries,” says Dominic Tweddle, chief executive of the Continuum Group, the company that developed the site.

It is eerie meandering up and down along dark, circuitous unpaved passageways, beaten-down earth floors (good walking shoes are a must; wheelchair accessible it is not) — past room after room, each with its own story to tell — a projection of people who lived in the close in the mid-16th through 19th centuries. I almost feel like an intruder as the subtle lighting enhances the effects of a shadowy past. The journey is a fascinating one.

The inhabitants — ranging from those gracing a grand 16th-century town house to plague victims of the 17th century to the third-generation saw makers who departed in 1902, when the last section finally was interred — are not composites of might-have-beens; the lives recounted are based on real people gleaned from primary documentation (written at the time) and preserved in the Scottish Office of Records and its archives.

The one-hour tour begins with a multimedia presentation illustrating the closes in the context of the City Chambers and surrounding areas. Shaking heads and small cries of amazement greet the 3-D model of what we are about to experience.

Lighting conveys the supernatural nature of the attraction, as does the narrative. Only “practicals” — original methods of lighting the dwellings — are used, re-creating the actual lighting conditions of the 17th and 18th centuries. Candlelight illuminates one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A single low-watt bulb brings others into hazy focus.

The dark hallways are lit by lanternlike “bowats,” providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants — no more or less than is believed to have been available to the tenants at the time. The concept of atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.

Rounding one curve reveals a large window lit by a gloomy, greenish, unhealthy light. A doctor emerges, tending to bed-ridden figures covered with sores, boils and diseased skin. It’s the home of John Craig, a gravedigger who already has succumbed to the “visitation of the pestilence”; his body is awaiting “collection.”

His wife, Janet, and three sons remain in different stages of the deadly malady. The doctor is lancing a boil on the eldest son, Johnnie, with a hot iron to seal and disinfect the wound. Repellant odors provide a little more reality. By the door are bread, ale and coal delivered to the quarantined family. The townspeople want to ensure that the afflicted stay in their homes, so the healthy have good reason to give generously.

Therein lies the tragedy of Mary King’s Close: Much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck residents fiercely, and as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside to be carried away by those designated to perform the task. Mary King’s Close was a pariah in the neighborhood — and ultimately fell victim to its own diseased fate. It disappeared, as well.

Myth, up to now, had it that the close was “enclosed,” with its inhabitants buried alive in the process, so as not to contaminate the rest of the town.

New research, however, reveals a less grisly story: The term “enclosed” refers to its quarantine status rather than its demise.

With more than two dozen stops along the tour path — each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history — I become acquainted with residents of the close.

Mary King moved there with her four children in 1629 after her husband died. Her living room is re-created with items listed in her actual will — which is on exhibit upstairs. Among them are six gowns and six ruffs, 10 spools of embroidery thread, three stools, two gold rings and two chamber pots.

While our group is listening to the story of another early dweller, the narration is interrupted by a scream from across the way. We quickly go to see what has happened. The widow Allison Rough, murder weapon in hand, is standing over her son-in-law, Alexander Cant, a prominent burgess of Edinburgh, whose body lies on the floor, the dowry agreement over which they have been fighting still in his hand.

Events leading up to the murder, as well as its aftermath, are wound into a true-to-life rendition of the widow’s life.

Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre, but all authenticated by original documentation, abound as we make our way around the winding, up-and-down corridors.

Shifts in lighting reflect the various circumstances. Not to mention the assorted ghosts (the only residents not authenticated by original documentation) who are said to inhabit the property.

Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard discovery. “This really brings to life all the stories I’ve heard over the years about this part of the city’s history. It’s hard to grasp that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops,” she says.

One of the most important — and saddest — among a multitude of rooms that witnessed much sadness is one in which 8-year-old Annie died of the plague in 1645. A Japanese psychic, visiting in 1992, could barely enter the room because of all the misery she felt there. As she turned away, she claimed to feel a tug at her leg.

Annie, in rags with long dirty hair, was standing by the window, crying because she had lost her family, her dog and her doll. The psychic brought Annie a doll to comfort her — and people from around the world have been leaving trinkets and toys ever since.

Key chains, jewelry, dolls and stuffed animals line the walls as a shrine to the sad little child who has long since passed away. “What a sad story,” says 10-year-old Harriet Peterson, visiting from London. She slowly adds the small stuffed teddy bear she is hugging to the other offerings.

It is one of the most fascinating and unusual walks through history I have treaded.

The unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, the serpentine alleyways remained with me, even as I explored the many other, more traditional sites of historic Edinburgh.

Mary King’s Close is open daily, with tours at 20-minute intervals. Approximate prices are adults, $11; children 5 to 15, $8; seniors and students, $9.50. For more information, contact: VisitBritain, 877/899-8391 or, on the Internet, www.realmarykingsclose.com.

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