From Old Distillery Close in the shadow of the battlements to Bull Close on Canongate, each branch off the Old Town artery has a history all of its own.
Some, like the popular tourist attraction of Mary King’s Close, draw in visitors in their droves. Others, like the calming beauty of James’ Court on Castlehill attract barely any attention at all.
One of the most heartwarming stories behind The Royal Mile’s closes can be found carved in stone above Paisley Close between Cockburn Street and Cranston Street.
A devastating fire tore through the tenement between Paisley Close and Bailie Fyfe’s Close. Eighty residents lost their lives to the flames that night. As rescuers picked through the rubble in the aftermath, the voice of a young lad rising up through the debris must have come as quite a shock.
Joseph McIver, a survivor of the tragedy, was heard shouting: “Heave awa’ chaps, ah’m no deid yet!”
Encapsulating the Scottish spirit, the phrase was immortalised in stone along with his young face observing the festivities on the thoroughfare below.
The history of the aforementioned Mary King’s Close doesn’t carry the same optimism. Down below the Royal Exchange, visitors are able to enter the alleged 17th Century mass grave. As the Black Death decimated European populations, citizens of Mary King’s fell gravely ill and the close living quarters of large families and nosy neighbours spread the plague like wildfire.
If you believe the tales from the tour guides, residents were walled up inside and left to die unaided, their infection was so severe. Further lore of ghastly hauntings, murders and urban legends have continued since the 17th Century.
Old Assembly Close was, as you might have guessed, the site of the original Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. Here, dances were held between 1720 and 1766. It was also the starting point of the Great Fire of Edinburgh, which burned through buildings between
Brodie’s Close - go far enough down and you’ll come across a step with a deep groove cut into the solid stone step outside Deacon’s House Cafe. Legend has it Jacobite soldiers sharpened their blades here.
Down the street, Covenant Close derives its name from the belief a copy of the National Covenant was signed at a residence of this closed-off close.
Further away still, Toddrick’s Wynd was the scene of a dark and terrible 16th Century assassination. As Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Holyrood Palace around 2am on 10th February 1567, her second husband Henry, Lord Darnley walked into an explosive assassination attempt at Kirk o’Field, set by James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell.
The Kirk was blown to bits and he and his servant were found dead nearby. Suspiciously, they were found strangled and seemingly unharmed by the explosion. With such treachery afoot, it’s little wonder so many hauntings have been reported there.
Questions were immediately asked of Queen Mary and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Bothwell was found not guilty at his trial in April that year and he married Queen Mary the following month, not three months since her ex-husband’s demise.
Queen Mary penned wrote a letter explaining how she knew nothing of this plot:
“This night past being the 9th february, a litle after twa houris after midnight, the house quhairin the King was logit was in ane instant blawin in the air, he lyand sleipand in his bed, with sic a vehemencie, that of the haill loging, wallis and other, thare is nathing remanit, na, not a stane above another, bot all other carreit far away, or dung in dross to the very grund-stane. It mon be done be force of powder, and apperis to have been a myne. Be quhom it has been done, or in quhat maner, it apperis not as yit. We doubt not bot according to the diligence oure Counsale hes begun alreddie to use, the certainty of all salbe usit [known] schortly; and the same being discoverit, quhilk we watt [believe] God will never suffer to ly hid, we hope to punisch the same with sic rigor as sall serve for exemple of this crueltie to all ages tocum.” -- Marie R. 11 February 1567
With all the history and the secrets that Edinburgh’s back streets have gifted to us, it’s important to remember that some sections of the 17th Century roadmap are still coming to light. A section of Marlin’s Wynd has only recently been uncovered in 1974, after being built over and suppressed for centuries.
Reports of hauntings, the black death, royal assassinations and jacobin rebellions, yet these tales from the vault of Edinburgh’s dark past are barely scratching the surface of what our capital’s back alleys and closes have to offer determiend heritage hunters.