Spring Travel: The Real Mary's King's Close works its magic

Roll up, roll up to the Medical History Tours with Dr Arnott.Roll up, roll up to the Medical History Tours with Dr Arnott.
Roll up, roll up to the Medical History Tours with Dr Arnott.
One of the most enduring of Edinburgh’s tourist attractions is The Real Mary King’s Close. Situated beneath the City Chambers on the Royal Mile, this secret warren of hidden streets, where people lived and worked from the 17th to the 19th centuries, is an eerie time capsule that has preserved the past with unnerving accuracy.

Following a record-breaking year in 2023, when the Close attracted more than a quarter of a million visitors, the attraction has not been content to rest on its laurels and has used its success to invest in preserving the past and add new features.

Opening at the beginning of this year was the newly renovated Burgh Courtroom, transformed into a gift shop using the site’s original features. As conceived by interior specialists, Lumsden Design, the space takes its inspiration from the luckenbooths, Edinburgh’s old-style market stalls. Luckenbooths were the Capital’s first permanent shops and were originally situated near Mary King’s Close before the street was hidden beneath the City Chambers in 1753.

Not simply a retail space, the courtroom extends the experience for visitors, but it is not the only new attraction on offer this spring.

Running as part of Edinburgh’s Science Festival programme, Medical History Tours will run every Saturday from 30 March to 13 April. It’ will take in the Capital’s plague outbreak of 1645 and how the city dealt with it; herbal medicines and how “quacks” and “housewifes” used them, as well as some bizarre 17th-Century treatmentsinvolving animalblood, bile, liver, brains, and even unicorn horn.

The tours will also look at midwifes’ role in the 18th Century, Edinburgh being the first university anywhere to install a chair of midwifery, and the evolution of mental health treatment into the 19th Century.

Meanwhile, Dr Arnott’s Sampling Sensation has been expanded into an interactive and immersive experience that will feature every Saturday.

Dr Arnott was once the richest resident on the Close, his wealth outstripping that of his neighbour, Mary King. He specialised in internal medicine and his diagnostic methods were – to say the least – unorthodox. His favoured methodology for examining patients health was by a close study of their urine, analysing its colour, smell, and... well, taste.

The experience offers the very rare chance to become one of Dr Arnott’s students and employ all your senses as you examine patient’s samples following his quirky methods, and develop a herbal remedy. The attraction promises to be“an ex-PEE-rience not to be missed”, and the ticket price also includes“one hot drink” (ewww!).

March is Women’s History Month, so you have just a few more days to catch the Close’s specially curated Herstory tours, running on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Mary King’s Close was considered “a haven for independent women” with 45 per cent of the properties on the street having a female head of household. Herstory allows Mary King to tell the tale of how she became a successful merchant and secured voting rights 300 years ahead of time. It also informs visitors about the Edinburgh Seven – the first female undergraduates to matriculate at a British university – the Capital’s pioneers of gender equality.

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