Edinburgh attraction brings history to life with The Dark Truth Tour.
Something is lurking in the dark underneath the city, perhaps right under your feet.
Voices from the past cry out and up to those on the surface, telling the spine-chilling and violent tales of their struggle through life and their untimely deaths. The years have tried to bury them, but it seems they didn’t dig down deep enough.
The question is – are you brave enough to go down in to the darkness with them, or do their restless spirits have to come looking for you?
Enter one hardy journalist and photographer who steeled their nerves for a sneak preview of the new tour being offered by Mary King’s Close, which promises to show the grislier side of life – and death – in Auld Reekie’s rich and often bloody past.
While most people will already be familiar with the basic history of the 400-year-old street hidden under the Royal Mile, The Dark Truth tour ventures away from the quainter aspects of life in the 1600s onwards, wading guests through centuries of blood and hardship before allowing them to emerge blinking into the safety of the modern world.
Spokeswoman Caroline McIntosh explains: “This tour probably isn’t for the easily offended or upset. As it’s for over-16s only this allows us to cover topics like murder, plague, witch pricking, body snatching, hanging, squalid living and the victims of poverty.
“Unlike our standard tour, which is conducted by one of our five character guides, The Dark Truth Tour introduces visitors to lots of different characters and offers a far greater interactive and more theatrical experience.”
We walk through what at first glance seems like an innocuous enough doorway off the gift shop. It leads us into a dark space, where the only illumination is some weak light trickling up from a staircase leading down to who knows where and what. It’s here that we are met by the first of our guides, John the Caretaker, who seems less than thrilled to see us.
Squinting at our faces in the darkness, he declares: “It’s after hours, we’re shut. I really don’t think it’s that safe down there at this time of night.”
Within seconds of beginning our descent all sense of being in a 21st century city is gone. Even if you’ve seen it before, the first view of the main close as you arrive at the bottom immediately sets the imagination wondering about all the thousands of other souls who have stood exactly where you are now. Who were they? What kind of life did they have to look forward to within these cramped walls?
Suddenly, a woman appears from a side close and while she may be carrying a lantern, she is more memorable for the shadows she casts than the light she brings our little group. This is Mary Knox, wife of the first famous, then notorious anatomist Robert Knox. She leads us off the main close to the place where her husband would conduct his experiments, and we call in to find he already has company . . .
“This corpse is about three months old,” Mary tells us, indicating the misshapen object on her husband’s table. “He needed fresher bodies to work with and they told him they could help. How was he to know, I ask you?”
Any Edinburgher worth their salt and sauce probably needs no hints as to who “they” were, and after a few more twist and turns – which coincidently leave the casual visitor with no real idea of where they came in and more importantly, how to get out – we find ourselves in the company of the men themselves: Burke and Hare, plotting the fate of their next unfortunate victim.
And this is where things start to get really nasty. A young woman arrives, making the last mistake she will ever make by choosing to drink with two men she considered friends.
From here on, chilling scenes and events await at every turn. We are interrogated by a baillie, the policeman of his day, whose commission-based wage makes him eager to find guilt in the eyes and hearts of all who are unlucky enough to cross his path.
After narrowly escaping his clutches, we are urged into a low-ceiling dank, dark room where our next guide awaits with his back to the group, only turning round to reveal his nightmarish guise when it’s already too late to back away. Dressed all in black leathery robes, gloves, a black hat and a leather face mask with a huge distended nose, he wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day horror film, and does cause this particular hack to instinctively recoil in fright.
This is Dr George Rae, the plague doctor, and it would perhaps be an understatement to say this man is happy in his work – though his patients, two of which lie swollen, discoloured and quite possibly dead around us – may not have felt his standard of care was much to shout about, though they probably did do some screaming.
Indicating his long leather nose, he explains: “It is our belief that the plague is spread by miasmas and foul airs, so I stuff this beak with special herbs and poultices to keep them out. It’s a terrible thing, the plague. In the end you’ll cough so much your organs burst. We can’t have people spreading it around . . .”
And no sooner has the threat of infection been raised, than we find ourselves quarantined, sitting on benches, locked in the dark. Thankfully we aren’t required to wait in the full six months that was required back then. In reality it’s probably only a few minutes, but it feels much longer as the darkness seems to almost push against you. Not to be outdone, sounds begin to come at you along with and out of the blackness, the voices of those for whom this was no excursion, who didn’t have the comforting thought that it’s not “really real” fighting to make itself heard above the growing din of the dead and damned.
We have one more hurdle to cross before we ourselves can escape these catacombs, but unfortunately our next guides aren’t in the habit of letting their charges go quickly. Meet John Dick and John Kincaid, witch-prickers, who thankfully already have their hands full by the time we reach them. We watch as they literally put a poor, unfortunate through her paces as they attempt to make her admit to witchcraft. The pair were eventually tried for “fraud and deceit in their work of pricking witches for the Devil’s mark”.
As they begin to outlay their more persuasive ways of extracting confessions it’s not hard to see why those they inflicted their methods upon may have said whatever it took to make them stop.
And with this final room behind us, we find ourselves back at the stairs which brought us to this underworld, stumbling as we hurry back up towards the relative sanctuary and sanity of the present day.
But they are still down there, waiting for you . . .
• The Dark Truth Tour will run from August 5-24 at 10.30pm.
THERE are many different theories as to why those once bustling streets were named after Mary King.
Caroline McIntosh, spokeswoman for the attraction which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, says: “Mary, who became a prominent businesswoman in the 1630s, which was very unusual for women in those days, was born towards the end of the 16th century.
“In 1616, her marriage to a local merchant burgess, Thomas Nemo or Nimmo, is recorded, and together they had four children – Alexander, Euphame, Jonet and William. Sadly, Thomas died in 1629, leaving Mary alone, and soon after, she moved her young children, who were between five and 12 years old, into what was then known as King’s or Alexander King’s Close.
“Until his death in 1619, Alexander King of Dryden had been a prominent lawyer in the city and although he was no relation of Mary’s, the coincidence of the
same surname was probably at least partially responsible for the close’s gradual change of name to Mary King’s.”