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Mary King's Close

Mary King's Close is a network of subterranean tunnels and chambers running beneath the Old Town area of Edinburgh, Scotland. After being used as closes and later being closed to the public for many years, the complex has become shrouded in myths and urban legends. Tales of ghosts and murders, and myths of plague victims being walled up and left to die abandoned.[1] However, new research and archaeological evidence has revealed that the close actually consists of a number of closes which were originally narrow streets with tenement houses on either side, stretching up to seven stories high. Mary King's Close is now a commercial tourist attraction.

Contents

Plague

Dr George Rae

During Christmas 1644 the plague, probably brought by ship from Europe via the port of Leith, and spread by fleas carried on black rats, erupted across the land. It took hold first in Edinburgh, then spread west and north, and over the following 18 months killed a substantial part of the Scottish population.

Despite the myth, victims were not walled up in the closes and left to starve. In fact, there had been a long tradition of organized quarantine in the town. Over many previous outbreaks, those infected with the plague enclosed themselves in their house and indicated their plight by displaying a small white flag from the window. In response, bread, ale, coal and even wine were delivered to them daily, and a plague doctor would visit to drain bubos - the pus-filled lymph nodes, which threatened to rupture and kill the patient through septicaemia. Some people were quarantined in wooden huts or ‘ludges’, outside the town at Sciennes, Boroughmuir, or in the King’s Park, for anything from two to six weeks or until death, whichever came the soonest.

With the limited and often downright dangerous medical treatments of the time, doctors could do very little to help. Like others, they would have worn herb-filled, beak-like, masks to try to protect themselves; but many died. John Paulitious, Edinburgh’s first official plague doctor, was one such victim. However, the risks were not without compensation. Paulitious' salary had risen from £40, first to £80, and then to an incredible £100 Scots a month by the time his successor, Dr George Rae, replaced him on 13 June 1645.

Dr Rae dressed from head to toe in a thick leather mask, cloak and gloves when visiting plague victims. At the time, it was believed the plague was spread by miasma - what was thought to be 'bad air' - and the doctor's cloak was designed to prevent miasma from reaching his skin. It has since been shown that the plague was actually spread by flea bites, and that the leather prevented fleas from the patients biting the doctor.

By November, Dr Rae had negotiated a further £10 Scots per month but by the autumn of 1646 the worst was over in Edinburgh, though it took longer elsewhere, and the Council had second thoughts about paying him. Ten years after the last major outbreak of the "foul pestilence" in Scotland, George Rae was still fighting to be paid. He eventually won and claimed an unprecedented yearly pension of £1,200 Scots.

Mary King's Close today

Mary King's Close was re-opened to the public in April 2003. Now a commercial tourist attraction, it is being displayed as a historically accurate example of life in Edinburgh between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mary King's Close is also the organisation which funds and manages the annual Mary King's Ghost Fest in Edinburgh. This unique and popular award winning, 10 day city wide festival has become a regular favourite on the Edinburgh festival circuit with its strange and quirky events attracting visitors from throughout Scotland, the U.K. and overseas in May each year. This unusual, off-peak festival sets out to explore and uncover more about the dark tales and strange paranormal activity for which Edinburgh is internationally renowned.

Mary King's Close in television

See also

Notes

External links

Coordinates: 55°57′01″N 3°11′25″W / 55.95028°N 3.19028°W / 55.95028; -3.19028

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