£720k project sheds new light on ancient Edinburgh closes

A demonstration lighting event at Bakehouse Close in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson
A demonstration lighting event at Bakehouse Close in Edinburgh. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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A DOZEN medieval closes and wynds along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh are to be given a new lease of life with lighting effects and art installations.

Around £720,000 is to be spent on the first phase of a project which emerged from a summit held four years ago to transform the fortunes of the Royal Mile in the heart of the city’s Old Town.

The project aims to capitalise on what is believed to be the huge untapped potential of a network of closes described by community leaders as “dilapidated and neglected”.

After several years of planning, the “Twelve Closes Project” is to be rolled out across a large swathe of the Old Town over the next four years and will see each of them turned into unique “rooms” where visitors will be encouraged to linger rather than pass through.

It is hoped the work, being led by the Edinburgh World Heritage charity, will be the catalyst for many more of the Royal Mile’s 90 closes to be overhauled by groups, businesses and organisations.

Dark and forbidding closes will be cleaned up and restored before being turned into new visitor attractions celebrating well-known Edinburgh luminaries, forgotten characters, cultural links and historic achievements.

The venture is aimed at encouraging more tourists to venture off packed pavements on the historic thoroughfare and head into little-seen squares and courtyards to discover some forgotten chapters of the city’s history.

The first batch of closes will include Riddle’s Close, where philosopher David Hume lived from 1751; Fleshmarket Close, named after the site of a nearby meat market and the location which inspired one of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus bestsellers; and Stevenlaw’s Close, home of an 18th-century cookery school where the first-ever recipe for haggis, by Susanna MacIver, was drawn up.

Also included are Old Playhouse Close, the site of the city’s first public theatre, Lady Stair’s Close, which leads to the Writers’ Museum, and Crichton’s Close, the current home of the Scottish Poetry Library.

The project was piloted last year at a one-off event to light up Bakehouse Close, which is home to a cluster of 16th and 17th-century properties near the Canongate Kirk.

Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: “One of the things that came out in an action plan for the Royal Mile a few years ago was a feeling that the street was just not fulfilling its potential.

“We have inherited an urban structure in the Old Town which still has the same basic format as it had a thousand years ago. The idea for the project was to do something with maximum impact and change public perceptions of bits of the city that are currently undervalued.

“The intricate network of closes and courtyards that bind the Old Town together gives it a unique identity. It now has the opportunity to be revitalised, used and celebrated by all.”

Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh City Council and the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust have already agreed to back the project, while EWH – which has pledged £180,000 from its own funds – is also planning to raise substantial backing from private donors.

Around £60,000 will be spent giving each close a makeover, with the first due to be unveiled in the summer.

Residents living around each close will be asked to help design the lighting shows and art installations.

They will be semi-permanent features left switched on throughout the year, like Callum Innes’s work on Calton Road, which was instigated by the Edinburgh Art Festival.

John Thompson, secretary of the Old Town Community Council, said: “The closes were once busy thoroughfares, buzzing with all the life of the city, and it would be wonderful to see some of that atmosphere return.”