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Edinburgh, High Street, Mary King's Close

Tenement(S) (Period Unassigned)

Site Name Edinburgh, High Street, Mary King's Close

Classification Tenement(S) (Period Unassigned)

Alternative Name(s) Edinburgh City Chambers; Royal Mile; Royal Exchange

Canmore ID 52306

Site Number NT27SE 284

NGR NT 2575 7366

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2019.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Edinburgh, City Of
  • Parish Edinburgh (Edinburgh, City Of)
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District City Of Edinburgh
  • Former County Midlothian

Archaeology Notes

NT27SE 284 2575 7366

See also: NT27SE 285 Edinburgh, 245-329 High Street, City Chambers (Royal Exchange)


2 pages of text with details of City Chambers/Royal Exchange and Mary King's Close - filed under 'THE ROYAL EXCHANGE'


City Architect's Dept, Edinburgh -Plan showing cellars part of Mary King's Close

(Undated) information in NMRS.

There are substantial remains of the 16th-century Mary King's Close, abandoned about the middle of the 17th century, following outbreaks of plague, incorporated beneath the present City Chambers. A 15th-century carved stone, apparently a panel of an altar retable, found when the foundations of a house at the bottom of this close were being cleared in 1859, during the construction at Cockburn Street, is now in RMS(NMAS) (Acc No: KG 35).

J Peddie 1871; J S Richardson 1928; RCAHMS 1951.

Alexander or Mary King's Close is recorded in 1530 as John Towris Close, for Touris of Inverleith, owner on its East side, and also as Livingstoun's Close, probably for Henry Livingstoun, a burgess in 1500. In 1615 and 1621 it is recorded as M(r) Alex(ander) King's Close, which firmly links it with M. Alexander King of Dreden, advocate in Edinburgh from about 1580-1617. In Town Council Minutes 1694 the close is Mary King's Close, but in 1720 it is given as "King's Close, now Alexr King's Close", while a "Protocol" of 1735 refers to it as "Brown's, later King's, now Mary King's Close". Nothing is known of the origin of Brown's Close, but it appears that in the seventeenth century the name Alexr King's Close evolved into King's Close and then into Mary King's Close. It is also evident that Alexander King had no daughter Mary, nor is there a record of any Mary King resident in the close; but the Valuation Roll of 1635 lists a Mary King as tenant in William Fairlie's property, not in the close but in the High Street immediately West of the close mouth, and also records a William King as an owner-occupier on the West side of Stewart's Close, to the East of King's Close. How King's Close became Mary King's Close remains a matter of speculation. The ruinous state of the buildings in the close in 1754 has been exaggerated by Wilson and others: they were only partly demolished when the Royal Exchange was built, and the lower parts of their walls have proved sound enough to support much of that building ever since.

S Harris 1996.

(NT 257 736) A baseline archaeological assessment was carried out between July and August 2002 on the area generally referred to as Mary King's Close, beneath Edinburgh's City Chambers. The programme of work consisted of detailed site inspection, photographic survey and desk-based research. The site is on several levels, due originally to the use of the steep natural slope on the N side of the High Street. Occupation and subsequent building phases saw exploitation of the slope in the form of terracing, cutting or projecting the natural bedrock profile.

Despite the small scale of the programme, a record of the principal archaeological features was completed, and sufficient evidence gathered to define the archaeological sequence:

1. The gradual infill of medieval burgage plots behind the High Street frontages.

2. The sudden imposition of a large complex public building after 1754 on the residual streetscape.

3. The total abandonment of parts of the site after c 1900.

4. Occasional public access.

As the site itself is a combination of residual medieval occupation with 18th- and 19th-century cellars superimposed, its overall archaeological significance centres on how the elaborate streetscape of late medieval Edinburgh was developed as part of a radical new architectural vision for the capital in the later 18th century. The site combines structural evidence of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century occupation which reflects the evolution of the medieval High Street - the focus for prestige building for centuries.

Archive to be deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: PastForward.

G Ewart, D Gallagher and A Hollinrake (Kirkdale Archaeology) 2002

(NT 257 736) Further to an initial programme (DES 2002, 50) of baseline archaeological recording undertaken in the area generally referred to as Mary King's Close, beneath the City Chambers, a more detailed record was made in October 2002 of the suite of rooms towards the E end of the study area.

The rooms are an interesting survival from an Old Town property. They show the development of a 17th-century set of rooms sub-divided due to the increase in multi-occupancy into a single-floor Georgian flat. At this time, the flat was occupied by people with some social aspiration, as exhibited by the decor. As with the rest of the Old Town, the property fell down the social scale after the construction of the New Town in the late 18th and early 19th century, when the wealthier classes abandoned the High Street en masse.

The flat was decorated in a typical 19th-century Edinburgh tenement style, decaying to such an extent that at the end of its domestic life it could be classed as a slum dwelling. It is rare that such a sequence can be followed so clearly, because earlier features are mostly obscured in Old Town tenements still under domestic occupation. After the rooms were merged into the City Chambers, the state of decay accelerated until the intrinsic historic value of this survival was recognised: an example of an evolving Old Town Edinburgh dwelling.

Archive to be deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: PastForward.

G Ewart 2003.


Field Visit (3 December 2007 - 7 December 2007)

NT 2575 7366 Following an archaeological assessment in 2002 the site was revisited, 3–7 December 2007, in order to complete a condition survey using the previous survey results as a baseline record. The survey also aimed to record the alterations made since 2002, to record any deterioration in previously recorded features and to make recommendations to prevent further deterioration.

Since the 2002 assessment the site has been opened as a visitor attraction, leading to an increase in visitor numbers and alterations to some of the components to enhance the visitor experience or improve safety.

The compact earth floors of some rooms along the route of visitor tours have deteriorated, as have some plaster surfaces along the route. However, the impact of tours on the archaeological fabric is significantly reduced by practical measures put in place by the attraction’s staff, such as new flooring and suggestions to visitors to look but not touch. For example, this has resulted in no further deterioration of ‘Mr Chesney’s house’ since 2002.

Themed lighting and installations have had little negative impact on the site. The lighting was suspended from preexisting electrical services. Most of the installations are almost free-standing, secured by rawl plugs in the masonry and would appear to be reversible to pre-2002 conditions if this were deemed necessary.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Continuum Group Ltd

Sarah Hogg (Kirkdale Archaeology), 2008


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