Photograph of A Typical High Street Close Today
Conceived wisdom has it that the City Chamber's site was selected because of the ruinous and burnt-out state of the High Street Closes on the chosen spot. This was true of parts of Mary King's at the High Street end - but only on its eastern side. Mary King's Close-head (see map) was still the site of the Edinburgh Fishmonger Company's Oyster Bar which advertised opening hours from eight in the morning till ten at night, selling Lobster and fresh and pickled Oysters and, on the western side, of a substantial eight+ (garrets) storey tenement, which the City could not buy outright and remained in place, dominating the City Chambers quadrangle, until its final demolition in 1897. Neither before the building of the City Chambers nor until its demolition was this tenement, other dwellings and businesses further down the close, ever deserted. On the contrary, the whole close thrived along the same lines as any other in the High Street - only probably more so, since it acquired a variety of new and prestigious addresses in no way directly associated with plagues and spirits although the legend lingered on. The Fishmonger's Company had to go though, since, with the construction of the Royal Exchange, direct access was no longer possible to the High Street. But far from "swallowing up" Mary King's Close, the City Chambers only reduced its total length of 350' by a mere 50'.
The City Chambers Today
At the top of the Close the name "Mary King" was lost and the residents gained a series of new addresses. The tenement was split into four sections and all the properties directly beneath the City Chambers building were given one postal address.
The tenement's original first storey was now below the level of the Exchange and reached down a flight of stairs at the western side of the quadrangle to a newly opened front entry. This became No. 6 Royal Exchange, and started and finished its new semi-subterranean life as four flats, although, in the mid-nineteenth century, it served as a tavern and coffee house.
The second, third and fourth storeys were split into a main office floor (the old second) and smaller office units, all entered through a new door at quadrangle level. This became No. 7 Royal Exchange and, along with a host of smaller companies, was home during the next 150 years to such bodies as the Caledonian Loan Company, Heriot's Hospital Trust and finally the Edinburgh Working Men's Club and Institute.
Access to the tenement's top four storeys was knocked through from an upper entry at Writer's Court and the tenants then rejoiced in the new address of No.6 Writer's Court. Access to their cellar spaces was provided by stairs built down from a passage between the Royal Exchange quadrangle and Writer's Court to the original main entry in Mary King's Close which was given no new address.
A further staircase was built under the portico of the City Chambers down to Mary King's Close and maintained the old established link between High Street and Market Street.
This became No.8 Royal Exchange and provided a home and business base for several people through to demolition of the stairs and tenement in 1897. No trace of the tenement is apparent either above or below ground but remains of both staircases can be seen in the famous City Chambers "street of mystery". All the premises at the low or northern end of the Close were still addressed as Mary King's although this changed around 1845 to No. 18 Market Street. Thus the still extant and thriving Mary King's Close disappeared from the map to be resurrected variously as: No. 6, 7 and 8 Royal Exchange, No.6 Writer's Court and No. 18 Market Street.
Cockburn Street Today
The building of Cockburn Street in 1855-60 wiped out most of the remaining low or haunted end of the Close, although access to the City Chambers still continued between Cockburn Street and the quadrangle through the stairs at No. 8 Royal Exchange. This was the stretch of Mary King's that remained in living memory until within the last twenty-odd years - and oddly enough, being best preserved beneath the City Chambers has led to the greatest amount of misguided speculation.
The last active business in this part of the Close belonged throughout most of the nineteenth century to the Chesney family of saw-makers - and finally, for the last four years until demolition of the stairs in 1897, to Mr. William Marshall following the same trade. The dwelling and workshops to the east of the Close have been variously guessed at as Smiddy Forge (close!) and Bakehouse. They were in fact the residence and business premises of the Chesneys and here they manufactured, repaired and sharpened saws. The technique for storing saw-blades was then, as now, for safety and protection reasons, simply to suspend them from hooks - hence the much-pondered hook-hung ceiling in their storeroom which is now almost universally but wrongly accepted as having belonged to a butcher curing joints of meat.
This might be seen as the explosion of a finely toned Edinburgh legend when in fact, the fun should only start here.
There are unfortunately access and security problems, but here exists, almost in original condition, a prime example of Edinburgh's seventeenth century domestic, commercial and cottage-industry architecture which survived in productive use almost right into the present century. If no others exist then here would be the opportunity to preserve for exactly the same reasons as the splendid Georgian House in Charlotte Square, an artisan's home in the centre of town - and give some boost to the often mooted suggestion of Mary King's Close as a tourist attraction.
And if ghosts are essential to the story then there is one part of the original Mary King's Close still standing from the days before addresses were changed and Cockburn Street was built. This is at the newly-named Hebrides bar at 17 Market Street which was there at the mouth of Mary King's Close before it became No.18 Market Street and is certainly on the site of the marsh gas hauntings - something that their regulars might confirm. The entry to Mary King's is now reduced to a small but still visible niche between the pub and the old Cockburn Temperance Hotel.
In view of Mary King's reputation and even without full-blown renovation of the higher regions, a small plaque(as opposed to plague) might help lay a few ghosts at this place.