A Day out with Elspeth in The Real Mary King’s Close

When I say a day, I mean an hour. That’s how long it lasts. For £15.

Let me put this Edinburgh Royal Mile attraction’s entry fee into perspective. It’s up to double a cinema ticket, which lasts twice as long. £15 is what you’d pay to go round a stately home – with grounds. It’s almost 50% more than the palace less than a mile away, and unlike many other museums (of course many of which are free, even the big ones), you can’t spend half a day here, and you can’t come back unlimited times within a year, or even the week. Nope, £15 (or £13 for concessions, which they are miserly about) and you have your 60 minutes, once – and then it’s over.

You don’t get a guidebook with that – that is extra. They try to flog you a photo they take during the tour – unwarned – which also means that they have a record of who’s been. Once you leave, you are greeted by staff in tacky Scots outfits saying, buy a guide and that photo we took.

I believe that photography is banned for two reasons – for this snap to be exclusive so that you buy it, and to not reveal how little there is to see for your money.

We knew we needed no gismos, just great story telling, say the Continuum group who run the attraction. They created the sight, sound and sometimes smell historic experiences at Canterbury Tales, York’s Jorvik (no longer theirs – they’ve now got chocolate instead), Oxford’s Story (now they’ve just got the castle) and they also had Dover’s White Cliffs Experience. But York and Canterbury’s rides through history are about 1/3 less money than this is.

And in these other cities, Continuum created worlds – Saxon streets, medieval pilgrimages. You often rode round on something – at Oxford, it was a bike. There are tableaus and recreated sets; famous actors often provided the voices for the audio guide.

 

Yet at Edinburgh, they recreate nothing. The city’s only ride is to be found at the Whisky distillery (also cheaper, as are the other tours). Unlike at Great Yarmouth which also has wee streets to pack in its pre-Georgian population, there’s no recreated row here. You only see actual Mary King’s Close at the end – with the photo – and it’s the best looking part. The hanging washing’s not accurate, we we told – so why is it there, at a site which often boasts of its authentic and academic research?

We are often in the homes of the relatively wealthy, but there’s only the tiniest mock up of one – like a no budget movie. The “Changing Room” is a delicate chamber held up with joists. The guidebook shows how this might have looked in successive centuries. There is nothing down there to show this – no model, picture or projections over the walls.

You quickly realise that you are being taken down into a series of indistinguishable windowless rooms, lit by tiny torches – a joke much like the Blarney Stone. Is that why it’s called the “Real” close – is that shorthand for “we’ve done sod all to how we found it, even after 15 years of having the site, yet charge as if we’d rebuilt it!”

They do use gismos once: talking portraits which interact with each other, but it’s that false acting with little information, and it didn’t last long.

And everyone working at the Close is very young – too young for the roles they play. This is the post student, aspiring actor den of the distinctly under 30. Yet the quality of the tour I went on was not something requiring an equity card. The stories (and there were really few actual narratives) are not engagingly regaled.

So with tours of up to a dozen every fifteen minutes, daily, year round (and some evenings too) these are the best paid heritage interpreters I’ve come across. Or is the money making its way higher up the echelons of the close?

The cost of entry is omitted from the leaflets ubiquitous across Scotland and even from the boards outside.

And what are we really paying for? Insurance? Bumping up the taxes of the City Council above, who own the site?

The guide book is more informative than the tour – and also hints that the lack of pictures of the actual tour must mean that there is little to see. When you’ve got a full page of 17th C handwriting, you know they’re scrabbling to illustrate the book.

The latest leaflet claims that there is new for this year an “enhanced visitor” experience and a pre tour exhibition. You stand for about 15 minutes in a tiny room not big enough to accommodate the size of the tour with a model of the Close (which was already there – I have an older guidebook to prove it) and a very short video which constantly tells you that this is a world class award winning visitor attraction.

It is no such thing, and the boast set up higher expectations which rankled all the more when, unlike Continuum’s claim about their brief, was not fulfilled at all. The tone of their website and its trendy business speak did nothing to impress or appeal.

And using universities just keeps knowledge in a small preserve, one which eschews spirituality (or in the past, propounds only its own brand), speaks for the establishment (ie Edinburgh’s council) and therefore offers no critique of the treatment in all senses of those who lived here. Spirituality is important to Mary King’s Close: the faiths of those who lived there and those infamous spirits that visitors came for a score before Continuum opened the attraction in 2002.

The supposed sign of academic kudos comes in the form of continuous mentions of money – which is not of interest or the way to evaluate.

I had no sense of a story of Ms King (yet another successful trader, something we hear too much about in history tours) or anyone else.

It seems the council is making money from its uninhabitable basement.

It’s not funny, informative, interesting or even scary. I was often bored.

Edinburgh’s is stuffed with closes, freely accessible in both senses. They are other cheaper tours, some of which also take you underground. You can visit contemporary buildings along the Mile at The Writers’ Museum, Riddell’s Court, Gladstone’s Land, John Knox’s House and The Museum of Edinburgh.

You don’t need this.

Save your money and time and go and find another of the nearly 30 attractions that Edinburgh has – many of which are on the same street.

After fulfilling a 10 year ambition, I felt a real sense of being cheated.

Hence I have been as cauterizing as those plague doctors.

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