Letters Home: A Deep and Dark City


Dear Mammoth Cave,

Have you heard of a close? Surely not because you are older than the city of Edinburgh. But, did you know that there are man-made caves that people once lived in?

Edinburgh is not a skin deep city. Below the cobblestones and ancient buildings lies a whole other city enclosed in the steep of the Royal mile. Many moons ago, about 400 years from now, life breathed day to day in these underground closes. You would never know about this hidden gem unless there were some friendly tour guides to take you down deeper into Edinburgh’s past. So say goodbye to the sun, step off the Royal mile and follow the tour guide below into the damp and deep closes.

The underground world of Edinburgh is steeped in rich history. It was a walled city back then and when the population grew, so did the height of the buildings. They couldn’t build new living quarters out because of the wall, so they stacked on a top another letting the rich live up top and the poor down below. The average close was only a few feet wide, but Mary King’s Close was the second widest in the city, apart from the Royal mile, and was the place to be at the time. Mary King was a widower merchant who retained a high status in the city, a rarity really.

At every corner there is a new bit of history underground. From the plague inflictions to merchant life, there is an interest for anyone who may wonder underneath the bustle above.

The first room had a low ceiling and close together walls. It was all stone stacked into a sturdy structure. Twelve people lived in this single room abode. Those twelve people would have been the poorest of the poor, kept in the lowest of the low houses in the maze of closes. The poor were not only on the bottom of the pay scale, but also physically at the bottom of society, privy to street sewage and fish oil candles. They were the furthest from the sun.

As you move closer to the sun the houses become bigger and a bit better, though they still offered rough living conditions. There were rooms in houses and walls that taxed wall paper once adorned. The richest of the rich lived on Mary King’s Close.

Though they were slightly higher up to the sky and higher up in society, they were still just as susceptible to the plague. Close quarters and scarce bathing created a festering pool for the bubonic and pneumonic plagues to flourish. There primary vehicle was fleas on rats. The bubonic plague covered the skin in ghastly boils filled with poison. Once the poison reached the blood stream, the poor soul didn’t have much time left. The Pneumonic plague is a bit more wicked. The inflicted becomes dehydrated from excessive diarrhea and vomiting then causing the walls of intestines to constrict. Cough paroxysm would then cause the small, frail intestines to rupture, leading the inflicted to die from internal bleeding. The Pneumonic plague also became known as black death because when vessels in the hands burst, they would turn the hands black.

There was not much to be done. Doctors with falcon beaks and leather coverings could burst the boils, let out the poison, and suture them with a hot rod, but still only some of the inflicted survived. When a person is inflicted they are quarantined or locked into their house. When a whole house died it would be “sanitized,” or rather set fire too. Little did they know the fires actually scared the rats away.

In the hidden tunnels of Edinburgh darkness is not just physical. Back when the closes were home to the citizens of Edinburgh dim lit houses, disease, and grave diggers were the norm. Today we know that sunlight is vital to our health, supplying us with vitamin D. It is also vital to our mental wellbeing, shedding light on life rather than a shroud of darkness.

The darkness is almost dehumanizing. Even the rich had to pay taxes for a bit of beauty on the walls. Were they really rich without the sunshine? Some issues are everlasting, like poverty and social ladders, but at least the sun is accessible.

The tour went above what I could expect, but I am not sure that I would go on it again. It is very dark and perturbing and only can be explored in small quantities. I can’t even imagine having to live down there. Though, everyone should go on it at least once, because it will make you appreciate the sunshine and plumbing. You also get a real sense of how humanity has come to be. It sure is sobering.

So, your natural tunnels are quite stunning and hold a lot of memory, just like the closes of Edinburgh. You are dark, but underneath Edinburgh may be darker.



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