Terrifying, I think you’ll agree.
The historic site (now tourist attraction) of Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh has long been associated with superstition and fear ever since its supposed closure and sealing off after “the plague”. In fact as the current tour guides SHOULD tell you according to their own script (but might not), the death of the close was gradual, the plague no worse there than anywhere else in the city. It was at least partly occupied until the beginning of the 20th century. In the late 90s it was reopened to one of the many city and ghost tour companies that operate nearby, and in 2003 as another of the lucrative tourist attractions on the tourist route of the Royal Mile.
Things seem to have started out well, with actual historical and archaeological research being done (though to this day pretty inaccessible to the general public outside of the venue – some stuff is with RCAHMS) under the direction of a actual academic and professional historians/archaeologists. The apparent mission statement was to “separate fact from fiction“. But although the new tour draws upon this research and purports to tell the “real stories” of the “real people” that lived there, the superstitious folk history of the Close is alive (or should that be undead?) and well. Ghost-hunting events are regularly held, the media is courted with ghost stories and spooky photos, and at least two ghost stories are incorporated into the main guided tour. In fairness, it’s still not as OTT as many of the other city tours in this regard.
I’m going to focus on perhaps the most famous ghost of the close – “Wee Annie”. She was even featured on Billy Connolly’s World Tour of Scotland – he has apparently since become rather more sceptical (or in fact, cynical!). In the constant retelling of the story, details such as the ghost’s age vary, but the basic elements are fairly consistent. There are many media reports with two things in common – very little info and very little in the way of scepticism. I’d been told this tale on a prior visit and on that occasion, I regret to admit, coughed the word “bullshit” when the story of Annie came up. The second time around I resolved to be more fair-minded about it, and asked the tour guide whether a historical girl called Annie had been found to live in this part of the close. He asserted that this was indeed the case, that she had been the daughter of the merchant that owned that very house. I didn’t think to ask him for his sources, and besides, I was conscious of appearing to be a bit of a git. Later, I decided to contact the person that oversaw the historical side of the research. As predicted, the guide was wrong. There was a reference found to a family with a little girl, but she wasn’t left to die, wasn’t called Annie or Anne, and there’s no evidence that the family even lived in that house, or even that part of the close. I don’t think the guide was lying. I suspect he was a victim of “script creep” and Chinese Whispers conveyed by his colleagues. These are common problems with guided tours, even in environments where academic support is to hand (and in this case, they have long since moved on to other projects).
So history doesn’t support the claim. What about other evidence? It’s always best to go back to source – in this case I couldn’t find any footage from the actual event. Anecdotally, there seems to have been a ghost story about a little girl with the plague walled up within a house in the Close – a friend heard this from the guide on her school trip there back in the early 80s (when I believe the Council provided limited access) and in fact, still believed the old folk tale about the inhabitants being abandoned in this way. The oldest version you’ll find online is fully-developed dates from 1998. The guy in the video wasn’t actually there but heard the story second-hand. Not ideal, but better than version many more generations old and potentially corrupt. Here it is (transcribed below);
“About six years ago there was a Japanese medium down here. She was touring the UK with Japanese television – they were doing a whole series of articles on psychic phenomena. They came to Edinburgh and someone suggested they ask permission to come down here. It was granted, the city official who brought them down told me this story. It was a lady he said, I brought this lady down here with one cameraman, and he said to her “right I’m going to take the cameraman into this room behind me, probably used for the butler or housekeeper – they invariably had a separate pantry. And he said “I want you to come in”. But she stopped at the door there, “oh no” she says, “I’m not going to come in”. The guide says “why not?”. The lady says “well, I sense there’s great sadness in that room. I feel the room is full of very very sick people”. But then two minutes later she changed her mind, she walked in. The guide says “well, two minutes ago you wouldn’t go near the place, why’ve you suddenly gone in?” “Oh” she says, “a little girl’s asking me.” Guide says “what little girl?”. “Oh” she says, “she’s standing here beside me”. Of course the guide says “oh yeah?” <sarcastic> “What does she look like?” She says well, she’s told me her name was “Annie”, she’s about 8 years old, very ragged clothing, she’s very dirty, and she’s crying.” “Now” she says, “I’ve asked her why she’s crying, the child says ‘well, I’ve the sickness'”. Now that is how they’d have referred to the plague they merely called it “the sickness”. This child says “I’ve got the sickness, I’ve been taken away from my family, I didn’t even have time to bring a doll with me”. The Japanese medium says to the cameraman, “go up to one of these tat shops on the Royal Mile and buy a doll. And she put it in the room and she said to the guide “you will never see the child again”. She explained (that) in Japanese culture, it is very important that the ancestor’s spirits are at rest. And she said “when we come across this kind of thing, we leave a symbolic gift. Once the doll was put there, she’s never been seen since.”
There’s a much more modern (hence shorter!) retelling as part of the Ghost Hunters International TV programme. Note that the tour guide (not, as billed, an “historian”) is unequivocal about “Annie’s” existence, story, and status as a ghost. Real people, real stories? Hmm. He doesn’t even mention the psychic, interestingly, but let’s stick with her for a moment.
The psychic in question, Aiko Gibo, seems to have made a career of touring the world giving tourist attractions the gift that keeps on giving – that of ghostly publicity. What’s interesting is her specialism (or lack of imagination, depending upon your point of view) seems to have been seeing ghostly little girls. For instance;
“…Aiko Gibo – a psychic from Japan who was visiting us, said the ghost of a little girl was present…She said that the girl’s ghost was tugging her right hand.”
Sound familiar? How about this?
“The psychic was standing still, her arms held in front of her. She claimed that a little girl was tugging on her right thumb — an accurate description of one of the ghosts she was supposed to be seeking.”
No names are given in those cases, you’ll notice. Did Gibo actually provide one herself at Mary King’s Close? Who knows. If she did venture a name, was it actually “Annie” right off the bat? Or was it the old “I’m getting an “A”-name” psychic schtick, refined into “Annie” after the fact? Again, all we have is the oral tradition presented at Mary King’s Close. In fact the very basis for the psychic’s claim is flawed. At the time she visited (and sometimes even now) guides would tell visitors the same thing Edinburgh locals believed – that people with plague were walled up in the close and left to die by the authorities. “Knowing” this, it wouldn’t even take a “psychic” with a penchant for imagining lonely little girls to “see” one here. As (ironically) the tour company now running the place are at pains to point out this just didn’t happen. Plague victims were quarantined in their homes, but they were afforded supplies and medical care (such as it was in those days) and if they recovered (as some did) they would have been permitted to leave. The Close was only finally abandoned wholesale when the City Chambers were built over the top of it (and even then some remained). You could of course rationalise that it was just this girl that was locked in a room. But the obvious explanation is that this is just a modern descendant of the whispered tales of imagined horror exchanged by bored locals in that part of the city from very early on. It only takes a generation or two for people to forget the reality and begin concocting a folk explanation for mysterious places (and of course for “ghost” sightings).
Thanks largely to Gibo, Annie and the growing tasteless mound of dusty toys are both now long-standing fixtures of the tour and associated publicity. As the authors of an Edinburgh guidebook have commented;
“It’s hard to tell what’s more frightening – the story of the ghostly girl, or the bizarre heap of tiny dolls and teddies left in a corner by sympathetic visitors”.
Annie and the close have entered the digital age with an equally tasteless MySpace marketing site. And you know you’re on to a winner when the Most Haunted buffoons roll up outside. Amateur ghosthunters have had a field day since then. One group (featured on this blog before and a charming bunch) even claims to have recorded “EVP” evidence. Listen to it for yourself and see if it sounds like “she’s a good girl”, as they claim, or something other. I propose “it’s a load of poo”. At least mine has the right number of syllables. Even the “professionals” of the Most Haunted team found nothing more than anecdote – some from staff to the effect of nondescript creepy feelings, noises, apparitions etc, and one from a member of the crew who claims that one of the toys from the shrine flew past his face. Ciaran O’Keefe (who would later out Derek Acorah as a fraud) does well to point out that this is far from secure evidence. Acorah doesn’t even get the well-publicised story right, calling the girl “Mary” (probably conflating the name of the woman for which the Close is claimed to be named (itself a dubious claim) with its most famous ghost. If you’d like to see them, the relevant sections of the episodes are here and here (timecode 6:35, also 8:30).
It’s worth noting that these people (and indeed visitors) may not imagining all of their feelings of dread, lowered temperatures etc. O’Keefe, Richard Wiseman, Chris French and others (online articles available for any interested readers) are still looking into the possibility that environmental factors can create “hauntings” – that natural electromagnetic fields, infrasound, certain lighting conditions etc, might trigger these ghosty responses in us, in specific locations. It seems likely that imagination and suggestibility still play a large part however (e.g. one experiment showed that people will report a lowering of temperature even where none has occurred).
So I think what we have here is an interesting survival of a piece of folklore – the original ghost story was an emotionally powerful way of retelling the old myth that the mysterious mostly-abandoned Close was a) the result of the authorities’ disdain for common people and b) haunted as a result. And the MKC attraction perpetuates it despite the fact that their tours were designed specifically to debunk the myths of the Close, and even cites that research to enhance the “truthiness” of the story. As a money-making (though not for profit) company, it’s easy to see why they would retain such a great piece of marketing. Sex may sell, but so do ghosts! Even my misinformed tour guide later made noises to the effect that the Annie story’s veracity didn’t really matter – it was just an exemplar for the sort of short, brutish, poverty and disease-ridden lives that a majority of people in Edinburgh/Scotland’s history have suffered. And a way to raise money (see also here) for ill young children at an Edinburgh hospital. Needless to say, it also maintains the attraction of the place to a wider range of visitor types and therefore helps keep the funds coming in. Periodic ghost “sightings” and other press and media work must help keep heads above water too. But do these ends justify the means? Does misrepresenting facts of history and of science justify the money it brings in? Are we content to prostitute unique pieces of built and cultural heritage in order to help keep them going? I suspect the answer is “yes”, but we don’t all have to like it, and we should try for better.
NB A very interesting discussion of this issue (mentioning MKC) can be found here.