One of the more unique of Edinburgh’s many historic features is its collection of “closes.” A Close is essentially a steep, narrow alleyway that drops abruptly from the Royal Mile. During medieval times the Royal Mile was the city’s main thoroughfare, built along a sloping ridge line that ran from it’s height at Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace. The Closes were originally simple passage ways between plots of land that provide access to the open space down slope from the Mile. (One good way I’ve heard this described is as a herring bone layout. Imagine a fish skeleton. The spine would be the streets of the Royal Mile, and the ribs would be closes and wynds. Wynds were very similar to closes, only a bit wider and open to the public, while closes were private entrances.)
As the population of Edinburgh grew, frequent wars made it necessary for residents to live within the protection of the city walls; which in turn led to high population density. Multi-level tenements sprung up on the city’s lots, and while the closes remained open to the sky and bustling with commerce they took on a cavernous feel as tall buildings rose to either side. Keep in mind these were not modern apartments as we might imagine today. There was no indoor plumbing, little natural light and living conditions, especially on the lower levels, were quite poor. Sanitary deficiencies led to outbreaks of disease, most notably the bubonic plague, which ravaged the populace.
In time as Edinburgh grew upward the closes and their adjacent housing were just built over and became sealed off underground chambers. Many of the grand sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings that now line the Royal Mile stand above these dungeon-like remains of the city’s darker past. More recent decades have revealed efforts to embrace these features and their historical significance, with excavations and efforts to preserve and restore the closes ongoing.
Advocate’s Close, seen above, is one of the more photogenic as it allows a view of the Scott’s Monument across Princes Street Gardens. (The illuminated blue tower you see is a carnival ride that was part of the Christmas Market- I’ll have more on that tomorrow.) Closes were often named for one of their more prominent residents, and in this case it was named for James Stewart of Goodtree, Advocate of Scotland. An advocate, in this sense, is a highly esteemed lawyer. (The Devils Advocate sign refers to a trendy bar down the stairs.)
Probably the best known close and I believe the only one open for guided public tours is Mary King Close. My father-in-law Steve and I took one of these tours on our second afternoon in Edinburgh (the girls had all done this before, and chose instead to continue shopping.) Though the tour company might go a little over-the-top on the theatrics, it was really fascinating. Our group was led underground and through the various levels of the long-condemned housing complex. It was about as you’d imagine; dank, dark, small rooms with low ceilings and old wooden support beams. In a way it reminded me of going through the basement of an old barn, which may have been fitting because livestock took residence here as well. This certainly contributed to the horrible sanitation, as did the practice of using a bucket when nature called, and when full tossing the excrement out onto the Close. Our tour guide explained that this is how the term “loo” became part of the English vernacular. It actually originated from the French phrase “guardez l’eau” which translates to “watch out for the water.” This was adapted to “Gardyloo!” in English, and yelled when people went to empty their buckets as a warning to anyone below. Thus loo became British slang for toilet.
All told, the tour was great and what an amazing interactive opportunity to gain a better understanding of life in the closes and the history of Edinburgh. I would highly recommend it for anyone who visits this fair city, but as a primer check out these links that I think will provide you an even better visualization than I’ve been able to offer above.