Old Edinburgh was built on the spine of rock and its backbone (The Royal Mile) ran from the Castle to Holyrood Palace. People lived and traded in a series of lanes and alleyways (wynds or closes) off the long street. Closes included tenement houses on either side, stretching up to seven storeys high. This was at the heart of Edinburgh’s busiest and most vibrant streets, open to the skies and bustling with traders selling their wares to the Old Town’s residents. The custom then was to name the close after the most prominent citizen or the most commonly found business in the close. Mary King was daughter of Alexander King, advocate to Mary Queen of Scots, and was a prominent businesswoman, widow and mother of four who traded in fabrics and worked as a seamstress. Mary King’s Close ran from the Royal Mile down to the Nor Loch (Princess Street Gardens) then a stagnant and highly polluted marsh. Biogas gases from the effluence escaped into the close, creating eerie lights and hallucinations. The eastern end of the Nor Loch was drained in 1763 and the rest in the 19th century.
When plague broke out in the city it spread quickly in the overcrowded and squalid conditions. Poor sanitation, armies of rats and fleas plus a lack of understanding how the infection spread led to an epidemic. There was no medical remedy available and mortality rates were high (90%). The Plague was indiscriminate and nearly all households rich and poor were affected. Rats, the carriers of both the bacteria and the fleas which transmit plague to humans, were everywhere. The worst outbreak in Edinburgh was in 1645. Tens of thousands of people died estimated to be about half the population.
In the 17th century the predominant belief was the blighted were doomed, and should be kept far away from the healthy populace. Plague sufferers were confined to their homes and instructed to hang white sheets from the doors and windows, they would then be visited by the Plague Doctor. Treatment was rarely a success. Others were banished to quarantined huts outside the city walls in desperate attempts by the authorities to separate the healthy from the ill. George Rae was a plague doctor in Edinburgh and wore a large beaked mask which was filled with sweet smelling herbs, along with a leather cloak. Rae treatments consisted of bursting open the victim’s buboes (swelling of the lymph nodes) and cauterize them with a hot poker. There were no anesthetics which would make the procedure almost unbearable.
Mary King's Close was the last badly infected location of the Old Town and in a desperate measure to reduce contamination over 300 plague victims were entombed alive when the close was bricked up until the plague had passed. Life continued in the close as normal except no one was allowed to enter or leave. Supplies were passed to them and life continued under death over took.
The plague ended in 1647 and the area around lay deserted for 110 years before fears of the Black Death were largely forgotten. As the city’s population grew an acute shortage of houses in 1685 saw a few families move back in. It is said two brothers were hired to remove any human remains. The pair was lazy and instead of carrying what remained up and down the stairs in the tall buildings, they hacked the skeletal remains to pieces. The new inhabitants of Mary King's Close soon made reports of seeing apparitions and hearing unnerving noises. Reports of a dog, headless animals, a young girl and several severed heads, limbs and other body parts were reported. 'Satan's Invisible World' by Professor George Sinclair (Glasgow University) was published in 1685 and the first published record of paranormal activity in Mary King’s Close.
Eventually the inhabitants of Mary Kings Close were evicted in 1753 to make way for a new building project. All four remaining closes were partially demolished and buried under the Royal Exchange. Access to the remaining close was prohibited to the public for many years and the space was used to store paperwork during the Second World War. Mary King's Close was eventually re-opened to the public in April 2003 and is now a commercial tourist attraction, entry through Warriston's Close and Writer's Court, Royal Mile.