As Edinburgh started to spread out from the Royal Mile a rabbit warren of Closes, Wynds and Courts developed to house the expanding population. Generally speaking Wynds were open alleyways with a public right of way whereas Closes were private and closed at one end. Collectively, I believe that they’re all often referred to as Closes.
Characteristically, the buildings were (and still are) tenements with multiple occupancy. People from all walks of life lived in the same block but needless to say some apartments were much better than others. I read somewhere that there were as many as 300 Closes, but I think the figure is much nearer to 60 these days. Even so you can’t fail to notice them and it has to be said that most of them are not that enticing to wander into – if you can that is.
These alleyways all have names which are connected to their past in one way or another and most of them have quite a history. For example, at the entrance to Paisley Close is a sculpture of a certain Joseph McIver. This lucky man survived the collapse of a nearby tenement in 1861 which killed 35 people. Rescuers apparently were able to hear his cries of “Heave awa’ chaps Ah’m no deid yet”.
A completely different type of Close can be seen at the bottom of Canongate. It’s called White Horse Close, named after the Inn of the same name which was used as the headquarters for Jacobite officers while Bonnie Prince Charlie resided in nearby Holyrood Palace (see main picture).
If at all possible, there is one Close that you really shouldn’t miss, but at £15.50 for a full paying adult it doesn’t come cheap (Nov 2018). It’s called Mary King’s Close and is situated under the City Chambers. This Close comes as near as possible to show what life would have been like around here years ago.
Photography isn’t allowed and so I can’t show you what it looks like but it conjures up everything you would imagine from The Plague, murder and ghosts.
One of the ghosts was a little girl who has become known as Annie. A story has unfolded of how a Japanese psychic named Aiko Gibo was making a film about Britain’s haunted places some years ago when she encountered her own out of world experience. In a quite unnerving tale she made contact with Annie next to the fireplace in one of the rooms. The young girl asked her why her mummy had left her (the reason was that she had died of the plague and probably brought her children here out of harm’s way). The girl was also upset that she’d lost her favourite doll and so Gibo brought her a doll which really cheered her up. The story goes that as long as the doll is here Annie’s spirit will never be seen again. Ever since, people from all over the world have brought dolls and toys to add to the collection.
Whether you believe in these sort of things or not, it’s all part of Edinburgh’s character.
The city is renowned for its macabre historical past with people like Deacon Brodie, Burke and Hare, and other unsavoury people doing their business around here. These Closes were unhygienic and unsafe. Can you imagine what it would have been like to wander around these Closes on a dark, wet, foggy night?
No wonder the hangmen lived here as well.