The ghosts of Mary King's Close

THE DARK, claustrophobic streets running off the Royal Mile lead away from the light and downhill into the shadows. These half-forgotten reminders of Edinburgh’s insanitary past provide a perfect setting for a suitably spooky atmosphere. Largely built upon the ruins of centuries gone by, it is not just those of a sensitive nature who feel a certain frisson when they walk past.

Admitting to a spine-chilling creepiness is one thing, but deciding that you believe in ghosts is quite another.There are few places better situated to debating paranormal phenomena than Mary King's Close, Edinburgh's notoriously haunted spot below the City Chambers. The close was inhabited during the 16th and 17th centuries before the plague ravaged families living in the tightly packed tenement buildings. A century after the illness broke out, the city partly sealed the abandoned homes and alleyways, prompting chilling stories about paranormal sightings of previous inhabitants.

The celebrity of the close's supernatural resident is Annie, a ghostly pre-teen who (so the story goes) scared the daylights out of a Japanese psychic in 1992. This lady had been unimpressed by the tour until she arrived at one of the many small rooms. There she was suddenly struck by an overwhelming feeling of sickness, hunger and cold and, when she tried to leave felt the ghastly tug of a ghostly hand on her leg.

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Poor Annie's spectral life has now been fleshed out and it is believed that she had been left to die by her family. Since then, people from round the world have come to "Annie’s room". Many have told tour guides of seeing impressions of the spirit in the room; some visitors, treating the room as a shrine, have left gifts for the little girl out of affection.

Sceptic, open-minded or believer, the tour itself is a wonderful experience and well orchestrated by the operators, Continuum. Authentically dressed guides lead visitors out of the sunshine downstairs into the murky past through vaults and alleyways that form the remnants of 17th-century Edinburgh. They punctuate the gloom with eye-opening and historical information, practised banter and the occasional heart-thumping shock. The uncharacteristic drop in temperature in Annie's room is disconcerting.A growing list of people who believe they've seen spirits here has led to a number of experiments being conducted in the close. Ryan O'Neill from Scottish Paranormal, a group of amateur enthusiasts of the supernatural, captured "very faint white or transparent spheres" when photographing the recreated workshop. His group hopes to find these "spiritual orbs" again when they conduct experiments during the Edinburgh Ghost festival, 13-22 May.

The team use scientific equipment to measure electromagnetic fluctuations of temperatures and record anything odd. However, they don't confine themselves to hard science when investigating the phenomena, but use psychics and mediums to see whether their experiences tally with the scientific findings. They are also keen to involve members of the public in their investigations.

"I want to get their feelings and sensations," says O’Neill. "I want them to see what it is we do and to see there is a scientific side to our work."

The close is not short of scientists looking into paranormal activity. In April 2001 Dr Richard Wiseman of Hertfordshire University invited the public to join him for a series of experiments. Wiseman is returning for the festival, this time with scientists in tow to conduct another set of tests. He is seeking the help of more than 200 members of the public to participate in his experiments and the results will be compared with his 2001 findings.Assisting him will be Dr Caroline Watt of Edinburgh University's Koestler Unit. She says that 40 per cent or more of people participating in the previous experiment reported having experiences. Luckily Watt doesn’t have to rely on the public to describe what they saw, as she had her own experience of ghosts in Mary King's Close during a previous experiment.

"I was in a part of the close where no one else was supposed to be," she says. "I heard footsteps and the sound of rustling clothing. From a professional point of view I was annoyed because I thought it was someone intruding on our experiment, but when I asked the tour guides I found out there was no one there."

Which does rather beg the question, just who was intruding on whom in the darkness of Mary King's Close?

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