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Edinburgh's alleys hold a trove of historical treasure

By BRIAN J. CANTWELL | The Seattle Times | Published: September 28, 2017

In long-ago days, this venerable town became known — oddly, affectionately — as “Auld Reekie.”
It’s believed the nickname came, in part, from the smell generated as residents of yesteryear greeted each new day by opening their windows and flinging the contents of their chamber pots into the street below.
This was before indoor plumbing — if you get my drift.

Founded in the 12th century, bordering a marsh and clustered around its castle fortress for safety, Edinburgh in its early days built upward instead of outward — creating a crowded warren of five- or six-story apartment dwellings, the skyscrapers of their day (many of which still exist). From that height the, er, flingings could have devastating impact on a wayward pedestrian.

But on this sunny spring morning in Scotland’s capital, my wanderings are relatively safe. My objective: exploring Old Town’s fascinating network of narrow walkways and alleys between those crowded buildings. Most alleys are known by the Scottish term “close.”

Some are no more than dimly lit tunnels where passers-by brush shoulders between walls of ancient cobbles or roughly hewn bricks.  They’re great places for exploring with camera in hand.

And they all have names. Historically, a close would be named for a prominent occupant of a bordering building (such as Stevenlaw’s Close, named for Steven Law, a supporter of Queen Mary during the Civil War of 1571) or a business (such as Fleshmarket Close, named for a slaughterhouse, not a brothel). Or it might take its name from its location, such as the tellingly named World’s End Close, historically the last close before reaching the original town wall (which encompassed, for many medieval townspeople, their world).

Often, I discover on my walk, a bronze plaque on a wall will explain the name of a close, which might go under variant names such as “wynd” or court.

A close may be a simple passageway from one street to another. Sometimes it will include steep stairways between levels of the hilly town.

Occasionally, you’ll discover a secret nightclub, a dramatically framed view across the city, or colorful doors to hidden dwellings.

Down Advocate’s Close, where Lord Advocate Sir James Stewart lived from 1692 to 1713 (a plaque tells me), I am surprised when a white-haired gentleman, nattily attired and walking with a cane, suddenly bids me “good morning” after emerging from a wooden door above which crumbling masonry bears the inscription, “Blissit Be God of Al His Gifts.” There’s also a date: 1590.

But even as in olden days, do watch your step. Sometimes locals are less than careful about cleaning up after their dogs in the dim confines of closes. “Auld Reekie” still has its reekie bits.

KNOW & GO

You can discover Edinburgh’s hidden history with a one-hour tour of Real Mary King’s Close,  the remains of a medieval Old Town alleyway that was sealed off when the city built an 18th-century city council chamber above it.  A costumed actor will guide visitors through a 17th-century tenement room, the supposedly haunted bedroom of a little girl named Annie, and other features of the old city that haven’t changed in 250 years. Located off the High Street opposite St. Giles’ Cathedral, opens 10 a.m. daily, about $12-$20; www.realmarykingsclose.com.

High, narrow buildings such as seen on curving Victoria Place are typical of Edinburgh's Old Town. It can be fun to explore the narrow pedestrian "closes," or alleys, that often bisect the joined structures.
BRIAN J. CANTWELL/THE SEATTLE TIMES/TNS

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