THE portrait on the wall has come alive. In true haunted house style, her eyes are moving and she is looking directly at us. And speaking.
The woman in the “portrait” – a framed projection hanging on the wall – is Mary King, the prominent trader and burgess who the famous underground street, Mary King’s Close, was named after.
And thanks to a project that mirrors the haunted pictures that line the halls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels, Mary is getting the chance to interact with visitors and tell her own story.
The innovative idea has been put together as part of the popular visitor attraction’s ten-year anniversary celebrations. Mary is one of three characters, based on real people who lived in the close, who all come alive to tell their stories as part of the £20,000 interactive gallery within one of the rooms beneath the City Chambers.
The company behind the Real Mary King’s Close tours wanted to add the “wow factor” to the attraction to celebrate its ten-year anniversary, and came up with the idea of the talking portraits, which interact with the tour guides.
The close was named after Mary King because of her social standing amongst the 17th century residents and business owners who lived and worked in the homes on either side of the steep, narrow street which ran all the way from the Royal Mile to the Nor’ Loch.
When her husband passed away in 1629, Mary received his title as burgess of Edinburgh, which meant she was a member of the council and had voting rights in the town – uncommon for a woman at that time.
She also ran a little market stall -n the close where she sold clothes and cloth to support her family.
And now the woman herself – played by a former tour guide – can finally tell her tale.
“We are an established five-star visitor attraction and obviously want to remain that, so we really wanted to bring the wow factor that was very unique to us and Edinburgh,” explains Craig Miller, general manager of the Real Mary King’s Close.
“We wanted to bring some of the most important characters from the close to life because we’re all about social history.
“It increases people’s understanding and their education. It’s one thing if I’m telling you about it, but it’s completely different when the actual person tells you about it.”
Though the underground streets undoubtedly feel spooky – especially in the room supposedly haunted by Annie, a little girl left behind by her family after contracting the plague – the experience is designed to give an accurate account of historical events and people.
In fact, its tour guides are more than happy to dispel the gruesome myth that plague victims were bricked up in their own homes and left to die in order to contain the disease.
“We do everything based on fact and have a very strong research team and an on-site archivist who is one of our tour guides,” says Craig.
“We have people who can do the research for us and people who can put that research into layman’s terms so we can translate history in a fun and interesting way. The new gallery epitomises that.”
As well as Mary King, visitors can now also hear from Doctor Arnott, who owned one of the largest houses in the close and was a master of uroscopy, the study of urine.
He made his fortune by taking samples of urine and comparing the colour with traditional medical charts, then analysing the smell and even the taste – a sweetness would indicate what is known today as diabetes.
It is believed that if the close hadn’t been named after Mary, it would have been named after Dr Arnott.
The third talking portrait is Archibald Johnston of Warriston, who the neighbouring Warriston’s Close was named after. Archibald was at the forefront of the covenant movement, which eventually led to him being executed, with his head being displayed at the Netherbow Port.
Mary, Queen of Scots also features in the new gallery room – much to the disdain of the interactive Mary King – though as a simple canvas portrait and not a talking head.
Although she didn’t live on the close, she spent her last night in Edinburgh under house arrest in the home of the Lord Provost at the top of neighbouring Stewart’s Close, which forms part of the warren of underground streets in the tour.
The attraction will be launching a full programme of events later in the year to celebrate its tenth anniversary.