A dark passage to city's history

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Children step back in time for role-play set in 16th century Edinburgh.

It's raw, revolting and real in every way except the rats, reports Miranda Fettes

No rats, no rotting stench or decaying corpses, but The Real Mary King's Close is as close as it gets to the history of life in Edinburgh's Old Town through tales of people who lived, worked and died there in centuries past.

With the help of teachers Alison Barbour, of Law Primary in North Berwick, East Lothian, and Fiona Brown, of Broxburn Primary in West Lothian, the Continuum Group, which operates the Mary King's Close, has launched curriculum-based tours for school groups.

Mrs Barbour and Miss Brown have adapted the general tours, which are based on research and cross-referencing between various archives, for children in P5 and above and compiled a companion teaching pack.

"It works well with environmental studies: people in the past," explains Mrs Barbour. "They study how people lived and worked, what they ate, clothes they wore, diseases suffered and so on, and make comparisons with their own lives."

Mrs Barbour is accompanying fellow Law Primary teacher Alison Smith and her P5P6 class on the tour.

The tour guide introduces himself as Stephen Boyd, a merchant who lived at the top of the close between 1630-1640. The children hear how the surface of the close was bare earth in Mr Boyd's day. Rats would be scuttling around and, unless you were rich, you might not have been able to afford shoes.

"You worked almost as soon as you could walk," he says. "If you were wealthy, you might get an education."

The children are shown Mary King's house at the head of the close, its wood panelling and expensive material, revealing her relative wealth as a cloth merchant and seamstress.

In contrast, the laigh (low) houses are basic and bare. The pupils learn that the family would have burned fish oil in lamps for light and a portable lavatory would have been in the corner of the room. It was the job of the youngest member of the family to empty it daily into the close, from where its contents would have trickled down to Nor Loch, now Princes Street Gardens.

"You'd be walking in raw sewage," says Mr Boyd.

"People used to say of Edinburgh you could smell it before you saw it.

"You'd be lucky if you lived to see your 40th birthday," he adds, reeling off a string of diseases and ailments that might have claimed then, including diphtheria, leprosy, typhoid, smallpox, cholera, dysentery and, of course, plague.

The Craig family, stricken by plague in 1645, are crammed in one room. The father is wrapped up in one corner, dead. His wife looks as though she'll be not long after him. One of their three young sons has just had a bubole in his armpit lanced and the doctor, wearing a waxed cloth gown and a beaked mask filled with herbs, is using a red-hot iron to cauterise it.

Anaesthetics are still two centuries into the future.

The children are taken into a dark room and hear how some people believe the close is haunted, particularly by the ghost of a little girl named Annie.

"That was amazing. I liked the scary story," says one P5 boy.

The education pack contains a series of exercises, including a timeline worksheet, recall skills, letter writing, drawing, fashion design, analysis and formative assessment.

As part of the tour package, one of the guides visits the school before the pupils take the tour. That visitor, from the 16th century, was a servant named Agnes Chambers.

"The children asked her who she worked for, what her living conditions were like and what she was paid," says Mrs Barbour. "She said that the fastest she had ever travelled was on her own two feet, so it was quite amazing for her to come on the train to North Berwick."

The children filled in worksheets during Miss Chambers's visit to the school, describing and drawing what she was wearing.

Before the tour, they read a letter from Mary King, addressed "Dear Future Visitor" and dated September 1635, telling them about her life. After the tour, their first task is to write back to her, tell her about life today and about their impressions of life in the close.

They will also complete tables based on the items left in Mary King's will, design a 16th century cushion cover, write a newspaper report on the murder of a 16th century merchant burgess and describe the differences and similarities between the lives of a poor person and a rich person living in the close and how they would improve the living conditions of the poor. All of this fits in with 5-14 curriculum drama guidelines.

The almost unanimous verdict of the children is that, while they enjoyed learning about life in Mary King's Close centuries ago, they would rather live in 2006.

"I definitely would not have liked to have lived in that time," says one boy, while one of the girls says she wouldn't have minded living then "as long as I could be Mary King" rather than one of the poor people.


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