The History of Leith

September 21, 2012

Mary King’s Close

An old gentleman, says Wilson, has often described
to us his visits to Mary King’s Close, along
with his companions, when a schoolboy. The
most courageous of them would approach these
dread abodes of mystery, and after shouting
through the keyhole or broken window-shutter,
they would run off with palpitating hearts; the
popular superstition being, that if these long-deserted
abodes were opened, the deadly pest imprisoned
there would once more burst forth and desolate
the land.
Mr. George Sinclair, Professor of Moral Philosophy
in the University of Glasgow, and afterwards
minister of Eastwood in Renfrewshire, by the publication,
in 1685, of his work, “Satan’s Invisible
World Discovered,” did much to add to the terrors
of Mary King’s Close, by his account of apparitions
seen therein, and recorded ” by witnesses of
undoubted veracity”—a work long hawked about
the streets by the itinerant sellers of gingerbread.
The last, or northern portion of the close, with its
massive vaulted lower storeys, was an open ruin in
1845 ; the south, or upper, had fallen into ruin
after a fire in 1750, and was in that condition
when a portion of the site was required for the
west side of the Royal Exchange, three years
It would appear from the Professor’s narrative,
that Mr. Thomas Coltheart, a respectable law
agent, whose legal business had begun to flourish,
took a better style of house in Mary King’s Close.
Their maid-servant was, of course, duly warned by
obliging neighbours that the house was haunted,
and in terror she gave up her situation and fled,
leaving Mr. and Mrs. Coltheart, to face whatever
they might see, alone.
Accordingly, it came to pass that, when the lady
had seated herself by the bedside of her gudeman,
who. being slightly indisposed on the Sunday afternoon,
had lain down To rest, while she read the
Scriptures, chancing to look up, she saw to her
intense dismay a human head, apparently that of
an old man, with a grey floating beard, suspended
in mid-air, at a little distance, and gazing intently
at her with elvish eyes. She swooned at this terrible
sight, and remained insensible till the neighbours
returned from church. Her husband strove
to reason her out of her credulity, and the evening
passed without further trouble ; but they had not
been long in bed when he himself espied the same
phantom head by the fire-light, floating in mid-air,
and eyeing him with ghostly eyes.
He lighted a candle, and betook him to prayer,
but with little effect, for in about an hour the
bodyless phantom was joined by that of a child,
also suspended in mid-air, and this was followed
by an arm, naked from the elbow, which, in defiance
of all Coltheart’s prayers and pious interjections,
seemed bent on shaking hands with
him and his wife !
In the most solemn way the luckless lawyer conjured
these phantoms to entrust him with the story
of any wrongs they wished righted; but all to no
purpose. The old tenants evidently regarded the
new as intruders, and others came to their aid, for
the naked arm was joined by a spectral dog, which
curled itself up in a chair, and went to sleep; and
then came a cat, and many other creatures, but
of grotesque and monstrous forms, till the whole
room swarmed with them, so that the honest couple
were compelled to kneel on their bed, there being
no standing room on the floor; till suddenly, with
a deep and awful groan, as of a strong man dying
in agony, the whole vanished, and Mr. and Mrs.
Coltheart found themselves alone.
In those days of superstition, Mr. Coltheart—if
we are to believe Professor Sinclair—must have
been a man of more than ordinary courage, for he
continued to reside in this terrible house till the
day of his death, without further molestation; but
when that day came, it would seem not to have
been unaccompanied by the supernatural. At the
moment he expired, a gentleman, whose friend and
law agent he was, while asleep in bed beside his
wife, at Tranent, ten miles distant, was roused by
the nurse, who had been terrified ” by something
like a cloud moving about the room.”
Starting up with the first instinct of a Scot in
those days, he seized his sword to defend himself,
when ” the something ” gradually assumed the form
and face of a man, who looked at him pale and
ghastly, and in whom he recognised his friend
Thomas Coltheart.
” Are you dead, and if so, what is your errand? ”
he demanded, despite his fears, on which the apparition
shook its head twice and melted away. Proceeding
at once to Edinburgh, the ghost-seer went
direct to the house of his friend in Mary King’s
Close, and found the wife of the former in tears
for the recent death of her husband. This account—-a very common kind of ghost story—we
are told, was related by the minister (of course)
who was in the house on this occasion, to John
Duke of Lauderdale (who died in 1682), in presence
of many other nobles. After this the house
was again deserted; yet another attempt was
made to inhabit it — probably rent-free — by a
courageous and drink-loving old soldier and his
wife; but towards midnight the candle began to
burn blue, and the grisly
old head was seen to
hover in mid-air, on
which the terrified couple
fled, and Mary King’s
Close was finally abandoned
to desolation and
decay. No record of its
inmates in the flesh has
ever been handed down,
and thus the name of the
place is associated with
its goblins alone.
Professor Sinclair, who
wrote the history of
these, was author of
several very learned
works on astronomy,
navigation, mathematics,
and so forth; but he
also favoured the world
with a strange “Discourse
concerning Coal”
—a compound of science
and superstition, containing
an account of the
witches of Glenluce, Sinclair
being, like many
other learned men of his
time, a firm believer in
the black art.

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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