Saturday, February 25, 2012

Close in Auld Reekie

Auld Reekie is the ol' timey slang name for Edinburgh.  The city was old... and it reeked.  As I previoulsy mentioned, before toilets were invented the residents of Edinburgh used to throw their fecal waste in the streets.  The butcher used to throw the left over cow guts in the street.  The leather maker used to throw his leftover skin soaking solution (aka horse urine) into the streets.... Luckily it rains often and it never gets too hot around here.

Today was my first full day on my own in the city. I woke up at the crack of 10:30am.  In my haste to see as much of the city as I can in one day, I decided to skip the shower (waking up earlier would be out of the question).

I grabbed a chicken bake and a cappucino at the bakery on my way to the Old Town.  I started walking around 11:30 and didn't stop but for maybe 40 minutes until 7:30pm.

My first stop:  The Real Mary King's Close

Closes are old narrow walkways in between the densely crowded buildings in Old Town Edinburgh.  The closes ran prependicular to the Royal Mile which is the main street that headed out from the castle.  The closes provided a nice little slope down to the loch (a slope to drain their toilet buckets that is).  They were labeled after the important people or businesses that were located on them.  Not too much is know about Mary King, but it is known that she paid very high taxes, inferring that she made a lot of money and was worth a lot of money.  She was a merchant. Her husband had died.  She took over his business. This somehow gave her the right to vote back in the 1600s.  She was a big deal.  And she lived on this close around 1629 and hense the close was named after her.

Mary King's Close is now completely underground. In the 1800s (that's a guess) it was partially demolished and buried under the Royal Exchange which is now the House of Chambers.   It has recently opened up to the public as a tourist attraction. The complex has became shrouded in myths and urban legends; tales of ghosts and murders, and stories of plague victims being walled up and left to die.  It has been a popular target for ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts. 

Life wasn't easy on the close back in the day.  One story tells the tale of a mother/daughter duo.  The mother wanted to see her daughter married to a nice, successful man.  She conned a rich man into marrying her daughter by promising him a nice expenisve salary.  The two are wed.  But momma doesn't pay up.  The disgruntled husband obtains a court order that momma must pay him.  He shows up at the house with his orders in hand and she madly clubs him over the head with a fireplace poker.  Kills him.  The daughter walks in and screams in horror.  The poilce sirens (aka babies crying) go off.  Neighbors start turning on their lights.  The police show up.  The two laides are arrested for murder. 

Now in those days punishment was harsh,  They didn't use imprisonment as punishment.  Torture and death were punishment.  Imprisonment was intended to hold on to you until you could be properly tortured and killed.  If you were a nobleman, you would be beheaded.  If you were a commoner, you would be hanged.  But if you were a woman, your hands would be nailed to your knees, you would be dragged down to the bottom of the close, you would be deposited into the festering loch, and left to slowly drown.  That was the fate of the murdering mother-in-law.  The wife, on the other hand would have been equally as guilty, however, Scottish law at time stated that an unborn child shall not be killed under any circustances.  And luckily for the lady, she was obviously pregnant.  Her life was spared.  She escaped from Edinburgh, moved to London, had her baby, and lived happily ever after...Let's face it that's probably not how her story ends, but no one knows what happened to her.

Times were even tougher in the closes once the plague hit.  The last time the plague hit Edinburgh was 1645.  Ships coming into port to drop off goods also dropped off some very unwanted invaders...rats!  Some of these rats carried around tiny little fleas and some of these fleas carried inside of them the microorganism, Y. pestis, a deadly bacterium that was the culprit behind the black plague.

With cramped quarters and dispicable sanitation standards the rats ran a muck.  And if the rats were happy, eating, and mating then the fleas were happy, and eating, and mating; and the plague was happy and spreading and killing.  There were pretty serious outbreaks of serious illness and mortality amongst the tenants of these unclean streets and closes.

If you had the pneumonic plague you would first notice signs of fever, headache, weakness.  Then followed by the rapid onset of pneumonia, with shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, the victim would vomit profusely sometimes watery or bloody sputum.  Their hands, feet, and tongue would turn black. The person would puke so much their organs would rot.  Not able to obtain any nutrients, they would die.  If you had the bubonic plague you would have all of the above plus large pus-filled boils that would cover your body.
Now the medicine at the time was nont very advanced, but it was pretty obvious that the disease was spreading from person to person.  The Bubonic plague occurs when an infected flea bites a person or the Y. Pestis enters into a new host from a break in the skin of the infected victim.  With the infected victim covered in open, pussy sores,  this presented a very opportunistic situation for the bacteria.  Pneumonic plague is spread in airbourne particles from person to person.  With the infected victim coughing and puking their brains out, this also presents a very opportunistic and uncontrollable situation....
Once symptoms of the plague became apparent, there was little hope for the sick person.  The sick people wouild be quarantined for 2-6 weeks until their symptoms inmproved or until they died, whichever came first.  Most of them died.  In Mary King's Close it has been rumored that in a desperate measure to reduce contamination over 300 plague victims were entombed alive.  Portions of the close were bricked up until the plague had passed.

John Paulitious was the doctor of Edinburgh at the time who attempted to care for the plague victims.  It is no surprise that he also died of the plague in June 1645, less than 6 month on the job. He didn't really stand much of a chance. In a panic, the town council promised a large to the second plague doctor in Edinburgh, George Rae.

Dr. Rae was a much more successful plague doctor.  He dressed in a truly frightening ‘costume’ designed to protect him from the plague as they perceived it at that time... as bad air and an infestation of the devil. He wore a large beaked mask along with a leather cloak, goggles, and big clunky boots. The mask was filled with sweet smelling herbs to keep out the "evil air." Iit actually did serve as a modern day type gas mask, preventing him from contracting the pneumonic version.  His intention with the black leather cloak, goggles, and boots ...was again to keep the bad air from reaching his skin and again to scare away the evil spirits.  The get up also provided an unintended alternative protection for the doctor...protecting him from the biting fleas and rats:

During his care the residents also developed more preventative measures to keep the plague from spreading.  Once a person began showing symptoms, a white sheet was hung outside the window to let other know to stay away. Once the ill were put in quarantine the clean-up crew would come in and burn everything in the house to destroy the bad air.  The smoke from the fire also drove away the rats, and with it, the plague.

Dr. Rae survived the plague epidemic and was able to help so many sufferers. He also started using a hot iron poker to burst open and sterilise the wounds of bubonic victims.  This gave them a 50/50 chance of survival.  And hey, that's plenty better then guarenteed death.  There were not however, any anaesthetics available in Edinburgh at that time.. ouch...

The Edinburgh town council never intended to pay the large salary which was promised to Rae, as the plague doctor wasn’t expected to survive. It is not known if they ever paid up, but it was reported that George Rae rigorously pursued the town council for the money for years....

I don't know about you, but if this guy was knocking at my door demanding money, I would give it to him!

The celebrity of the close's supernatural residents is Annie, a ghost child 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 claims she felt the ghastly tug of a ghostly hand on her leg.

Poor Annie's life has been fleshed out and it is believed that she had been left to die by her family after becoming infected with the plague. Since then, people from round the world have come to "Annie’s room" leaving gifts for her which have become a nice little shrine to the little girl ghost.

Other reports of ghostly activity come from staff members:

At around midnight on Saturday 10th May, the general manager at “The Real Mary King’s Close”, Stephen Spencer activated the infra-red camera to check that the computer system had been switched off for the night. The camera is static and was installed just a couple of months ago to take photographs of tourists, as a keepsake for them to take home with them. Stephen certainly got more than he bargained for; not only was the system still on, but a large ghostly image was captured apparently standing in front of the archway.  You can see the picture here.

No pictures were allowed during the tour unfortunately because of laws regarding pictures on government property (the close is belowe the current House of Chambers).  I did get my picture taken during the commercial aspect of the tour.  My photo did have a few orbs in it, but everyone else's did as well in practically the same spot.... I have not been converted into a true believer.  But I highly recomment the tour.



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