Articles - Plague in Edinburgh
In Scotland’s capital, the Old Town thoroughfare running from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace is often referred to as the Royal Mile. Castlehill leads down to the Lawnmarket which continues into the High Street. A short walk past John Knox’s House this becomes the Canongate leading to Horse Wynd which turns past the front of the new Scottish Parliament building. From the Royal Mile, a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways fall away to either side. These alleyways, or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’, once had gates that could be locked at night to protect the inhabitants from thieves and vagabonds.
During much of the year the Royal Mile is busy, thronged with visitors. Some come to wave at the occasional parades of passing royalty. Others delight in spotting politicians or celebrities, busking musicians or street theatre performances. Treading in famous footsteps where dramatic events in Scottish history took place is also an attraction. Then there are those visitors who are prepared to venture below present day street level to learn about the lives of the ordinary people who once lived in the tenements.
Standing up to eight stories high, these buildings were known as the world’s first skyscrapers. Densely populated, they each housed up to 600 people of all classes and trades. Society was then organised vertically. The wealthy lived at the top of a building and the poor lived amongst the filth at the bottom. As there was a general lack of sanitation throughout the town, everybody suffered.
The entrances, or closes off the main street, were often named with a simple description of the businesses or activities carried on there. In Bakehouse Close you would smell baking bread. Fleshmarket Close and Skinner’s Close were less savoury. This was where the slaughtermen, butchers and tanners carried on their trades. A lawyer could be consulted in Advocate’s Close or a ship’s chandler in Anchor Close.
Other closes were named after prominent citizens who dwelt there. For example, Pearson’s Close was named after Alexander Pearson, 17th century merchant, while Stewart’s Close, was probably named after William Stewart, merchant, magistrate and resident in 1710. These names would change over time. Thus, Mary King’s Close came to be named after a comparatively wealthy business lady.
Night time in the Old Town could be dark and dangerous with robbers lurking to waylay the unwary. To help lessen the dangers, the Burgh Council, in the winter of 1554, issued a regulation requiring trades people to light a lantern each evening in front of their booths. It had to be lit between the hours of 5 o’clock in the evening and 9 o’clock the next morning. Failure to comply could incur a fine. Without this early form of street lighting, a walk through these crowded warrens of interlinked passages in falling darkness must have been a frightening prospect.
An apocryphal story that has been retold many times would have us believe that Mary King’s Close was sealed tight with the inhabitants trapped inside at the time of the plague in the 1600’s. This drastic action was supposedly taken to stop the disease spreading further.
The sealing of the building didn’t happen, but what is true is that in 1753, the Burgh Council decided to develop a new building on the site. The houses at the top of Mary King’s Close were knocked down and part of the lower sections were kept and used as foundations for the Royal Exhange Building, now known as Edinburgh City Chambers, on the High Street.The remnants of the houses that remain below have been re-opened, studied in detail and it’s now possible to wander through Mary King’s Close (with a guide) to gain an insight into the lives and times and ghosts of some of the past residents.
From documentary evidence a fair amount is known about Mary King’s life. She owned a market stall selling fine lace collars and dresses. Business was so good that she could afford to raise her four children in relative luxury. Her wood panelled home was higher than ground level and away from the waste and rubbish that would have run down the alleyways. Though her furniture was sparse, she did own a ‘long wooden settle’, the equivalent of a modern day couch or sofa.
Mary was also the proud owner of a ‘tappit hen’ and a quaich. From such fine silver drinking vessels, she enjoyed many a measure of wine or ale. This indulgence was another indication of Mary’s wealth. In her testament she left a number of belongings to her children including gold rings, silver spoons, gowns, considerable quantities of fabric ruffs, tin chamber pots and a velvet doublet.
Her house was lit by lamps called ‘crusies’ in which fish oil or animal fat was burned. Adding to the aromas from these fuels would have been the smells emanating from the contents of a bucket which stood in a corner of a room. This was the early form of Edinburgh’s sanitation system! As well as being used as a toilet, this was a sick bucket and a receptacle for food waste. It was the job of the youngest able member of the family to take this bucket and empty it out – once in the morning and once at night! The waste eventually ran down through the alleyways to the Nor’ Loch – now better known as Princes Street Gardens. Death by drowning in the foetid water of the Nor’ Loch was a punishment handed down to those committing serious crimes such as murder.
On a present day tour of Mary King’s Close, your guide, dressed in period costume will give you more colourful details and ask you to imagine that you have stepped back in time to the year 1645 when the plague was at its worst. You are now standing in the Craig family home near the foot of Mary King’s Close.
You will learn that Mr. John Craig, head of the household, has died of pneumonic plague that very morning. His body lies on the floor, bound in a sheet, awaiting collection. John had been a gravedigger at Greyfriars churchyard and unfortunately, he infected the rest of his family. His wife Janet and three children, young John, Robert and Thomas will be taken into quarantine at Sciennes, a district outside the Old Town.
Pneumonic plague was the worst of the two forms of the disease, the other being bubonic plague. Symptoms were similar to modern day influenza – feelings of lethargy and nausea went with being sick every few minutes into that small bucket now placed by the side of a sufferer’s bed.
As well as internal bleeding, a victim’s skin would turn black. This discolouration gave rise to the common name of the plague - the Black Death. A high percentage of those who caught the plague didn’t survive. There was no cure for the worst form though there was a partial cure for the lesser bubonic plague. In many instances the illness could be a slow death sentence.
Outbreaks of this ‘contagion’ were common place during the 16th and 17th centuries and over the course of many years, the Scottish authorities put great effort into attempts at protecting the country’s ports against infection. But though ships required a bill of health declaring them to be plague-free, the captains of some vessels were frequently fined for trying to sidestep the regulations.
Many people, particularly the wealthy fled the town, so a careful watch was kept on the remaining inhabitants who were threatened with fines and imprisonment if caught trying to leave. Certain everyday activities were banned such as wakes, penny weddings and the wearing of a plaid. It was thought that a person wearing a plaid, a length of tartan material wrapped round the body and often over the head, might be attempting to hide their sickness.
The Craig’s house, like those of other victims, would have been cleaned by specially appointed plague cleaners who wore grey tunics marked with a white saltire, the cross of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland. Goods, bedding and clothing were usually burned. The billowing smoke from the flowering shrub, Broom was thought to ‘cleanse the air’.
Whilst in their homes during the plague, families like the Craigs received charitable donations which included ale, wine, bread and coal. These provisions were delivered on a daily basis from residents who were still healthy enough but who went in fear. This practice was considered better for all concerned and ensured that the infected people stayed in their homes. Thus, the well enough members of the community had good reason to give generously.
If a household could afford treatment, they would send for Dr. George Rae. The good doctor would lance the buboes (abscesses) then cauterize and seal the wounds with a red hot poker. This entire operation was carried out without any form of anaesthetics – that particular process had yet to be discovered. The pain inflicted during this treatment must have been awful. On the other hand, there was a half chance that a life might be saved.
At the time, it was believed that the plague was spread by miasmas – foul smelling poisons in the air. To prevent these smells affecting him while attending to his patients, Dr. Rae wore a floor length, thick, black leather coat type of garment. Over his head and face he wore an equally thick, black leather mask with a long, beak shaped protuberance. The ’beak’ was filled with sweet smelling herbs and spices that acted as a crude filter.
As strange as his costume appears, it did work for Dr. Rae since he lived for another thirty years after the plague left the city. It is known that he was the second plague doctor to take up the jobafter John Paulitious, the first official plague doctor, who died, in June 1645.
Dr. George Rae was employed by the council on June 13th of that year and given the sizeable salary of £100 Scots a month. By November, incredibly, he had negotiated a further £10 Scots per month – he was not expected to live long!
Though it took longer elsewhere, the worst of the plague was over in Edinburgh by the autumn of 1646. By then, the Council had second thoughts regarding the Doctor’s payment. George Rae was still chasing his money almost 10 years later. He won eventually and claimed an unprecedented yearly pension of £1200 Scots.
The Black Death, as we now know, was not spread by miasmas, but by fleas brought in on the backs of rats. The rats probably arrived from Europe on the ships that sailed into Leith harbour. The fleas would jump from the rats and bite into their human victims.
Some of the original passageways off the Royal Mile, as well as now having restaurants and bars, are still used as short cuts between streets. They have long been made safe with modern paving, lighting, and handrails where necessary. No longer will you hear the cry, “Gardyloo,” (from the French ‘regarde l’eau’) as some householder pours the contents of a bucket of filthy waste water from the height of an upstairs window opening. But it’s still possible to get a sense of the conditions that prevailed and the people who lived there hundreds of years ago.
First published in The Highlander
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage
Further Information: www.realmarykingsclose.com