What Does “Close” Mean in Scotland?

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one, I may earn a commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Key Takeaways:

  • In Scotland, “close” refers to a passageway leading into a tenement building.
  • These are narrow alleyways or courtyards named after a memorable occupant or trade plied by residents.
  • Closes are narrow with tall buildings on both sides, giving a canyon-like appearance.
  • “Close” can also refer to an enclosed space by a building, courtyard, or narrow space between buildings.


Scotland’s urban landscape is dotted with numerous unique architectural features that have distinctive Scottish names. One such characteristic element is the “close” – narrow, covered alleys that lead into blocks of apartments or tenement-style housing. But what exactly does “close” mean in the Scottish context and what is the history behind these alleyways? This article will provide a comprehensive explainer on the meaning of “closes” in Scotland.

Defining what constitutes a close requires first understanding some key aspects of Scottish urban design. We’ll look at how closes fit into the layout of Scottish towns and cities and what purpose they served for residents. The distinct origins and connotations of the word “close” will also be analyzed before diving into the visual and experiential qualities of these urban passageways. By the end, readers will have a fuller appreciation for this quintessential feature of Scotland’s architectural heritage.

With their abundance of history and distinctive aesthetics, closes are an integral part of what makes Scottish cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow such intriguing places to explore. Learning more about them provides insight into the living conditions and spatial constraints that shaped medieval Scottish urban planning. The resilience of closes today illustrates how even the narrowest urban spaces can have an enduring impact on national identity.

What Is a Close in Scotland?

A close is a covered passageway, typically located between two high-rise buildings, that provides access to the entrances of dwellings within. These dwellings tended to be tenement-style apartment blocks that housed multiple families in attached units, stacked vertically up to 5-6 floors high.

Closes are also sometimes referred to as a pend, wynd, or vennel in Scotland. They are most prevalent in medieval Scottish burghs, particularly Edinburgh and Glasgow where tenement housing and multi-story dwellings were common.

Key Identifying Traits of a Close:

  • Narrow width, often only 1-2 meters across
  • Located between two tall buildings
  • Covered passage with limited light penetration
  • Provides access to entrances of tenement flats or apartments
  • May be named after historical occupants or trades

In essence, a close is the Scottish equivalent of an alleyway that leads into an urban housing block. Unlike a typical back alley though, closes in Scottish cities are fronted with dressed stonework and decorative elements reflecting their role as the primary entrance.

Origins and History of Closes

Closes emerged as a practical urban housing solution in medieval Scottish towns and cities. As populations grew within fortified settlements, the only direction to build was upward resulting in multi-story tenement blocks.

With limited ground floor street access, developers constructed covered closes as shared passages leading into interior courtyards and stairwells. This allowed dozens of families access to dwellings stacked vertically in buildings up to 14 stories high.

By maximizing usable space, closes facilitated high-density urban living conditions in Scotland’s crowded medieval burghs. For residents, the close formed an important social nexus and communal space within these multi-family housing blocks.

Archaeological evidence indicates that closes and tenement-style housing first appeared in Scotland in the late 12th century, with a rapid growth in numbers over the 14th and 15th centuries. By the Victorian era, approximately half of Scotland’s population lived in tenement housing served by myriad closes throughout urban areas.

So in summary, closes evolved as a medieval urban housing solution that then expanded rapidly as population densities grew in Scottish cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Naming Conventions for Closes

Closes are more than just utilitarian passageways – they often have colorful names that provide insight into their history and past occupants. Unlike streets or avenues, closes were typically named after:

  • Memorable residents – such as artists, merchants, or clergy who once lived in an adjacent dwelling. For example, Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh.
  • Trades or guilds – reflecting the dominant profession of their occupants. Fleshmarket Close in Edinburgh denoted its butcher tenants.
  • Notable local families – closes took on the aristocratic surnames of prominent regional families. Craigentinny Close in Edinburgh referred to the Craigentinny Estate owned by the Nisbet family.
  • Geographical attributes – sometimes a close’s name simply described its physical state. Dark Entry Close referred to the close’s limited light.

So in addition to their architectural utility, closes offer a fascinating glimpse into the social history and commercial activities of a neighborhood through their vibrant naming conventions.

Why Are They Called “Closes” in Scotland?

The term “close” derives from the Latin word ‘clausum’ meaning an enclosure or enclosed space. Originally “closes” referred to enclosed courtyards adjacent to city dwellings.

Over time in Scotland, the meaning evolved to refer more specifically to the narrow covered lanes leading into these courtyards between tall buildings. But the connotation of a “close” as an enclosed, intimate urban space remained.

Other definitions of the word “close” that resonate in the Scottish context include:

  • A narrow space between buildings
  • A blind alley
  • Private grounds or a courtyard near a house

So in summary, the term close refers both to the physical enclosure of the walkway between buildings as well as its role providing private access to dwellings and courtyards.

Distinctive Architectural Features of Closes

Beyond just the narrow width, closes have several characteristic architectural details that create a unique style and atmosphere. These design elements evolved both for functionality and aesthetic harmony with the adjoining multi-story tenements.

  • Stonework – Sandstone brickwork along the walls and inset entryways
  • Wooden doors – Intricately carved shared entry doors to stairwells
  • Cobbled floors – Sturdy stone cobblestones underfoot
  • Carved inscriptions – Masons marks and homeowner initials etched into walls
  • Decorative elements – Ornate plaques, wrought iron fixtures, wall sconces
  • Overhanging upper floors – Stories above jut outward, blocking light

The narrowness, enclosed feeling, textures, decorative details, and play of light and shadow create an unmistakable medieval ambiance that transports visitors back in time. Even today, closes retain their authentic historic architectural charm.

The Close Experience and Access

Walking through a historic close offers a one-of-a-kind experience unlike any other urban environment:

  • The tight, enclosed feeling almost like moving through a stone canyon or maze
  • Echoing sounds of footsteps amplified off the walls
  • Glimpses of the sky visible overhead between tenement tops
  • Textured stonework, carvings, and plaques at eye level to discover
  • Faint rays of sunlight filtering in during midday

For travelers,CLOSE many closes can be found by simply exploring Edinburgh or Glasgow’s Old Town on foot. Occasionally, tours may provide access inside certain closes that have interior dwelling entrances still in use by residents.

Unfortunately some closes were demolished or closed due to population decline and 20th century urban renewal. But a number still exist as accessible narrow alleyways leading into quiet courtyards or rear street access. Wandering through them offers an immersion into medieval Scottish life.

Closes in Literature and Popular Culture

Due to their uniquely Scottish identity, closes have made frequent appearances in literature, film, and television when conveying a sense of setting.

Famous literary examples include:

  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh – A vivid depiction of the Edinburgh’s closes as both a dangerous yet communal environment in the 1980s.
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson – Set in 18th century Edinburgh, the protagonist escapes assassins through the maze of closes and alleys.
  • Poems by Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns portray closes as claustrophobic yet full of vibrant working class life.

On screen, closes have been featured in:

  • The 1970s BBC Scotland drama Dr. Finlay’s Casebook
  • Cloud Atlas by the Wachowskis – Grimy 19th century Edinburgh scenes set in closes.
  • Greyfriars Bobby – Based on the loyal terrier that visited his owner’s grave through closes.
  • Outlander – Protagonist Jamie Fraser lived on a close off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

So in many creative works, closes serve as powerful settings that evoke a distinct sense of Scottish locale – narrow, shadowy, gritty yet historic.

Conservation Efforts and Threats

Due to their cultural heritage, many closes in city centers have obtained protected architectural status. However, outside of major hubs, countless others have been lost over time.

Major threats closes have faced include:

  • Demolition – For urban renewal programs or new constructions
  • Decay – Lack of maintenance leads to collapse
  • Closure – Access banned due to crime, structural issues, or privacy

Ongoing conservation work focuses on:

  • Designation – Listed as protected historic structures by councils
  • Renovation – Masonry repairs, structural reinforcement
  • Adaptive reuse – Integration into new businesses like cafes, bookstores
  • Tourism promotion – Boosting public access and appreciation

For centuries, closes have epitomized a piece of Scottish national identity. Preserving them for generations to come remains an important heritage priority.

Closes Remain an Iconic Part of Scottish Urban Design

In Scottish cities, the narrow alleys and passageways of closes have endured as an iconic urban housing solution born out of the crowded conditions and vertical expansion needs of medieval-era burghs. Though once ubiquitous, the remaining closes stand as fascinating glimpses into Scotland’s deep architectural history and cultural identity.

Beyond just utilitarian accessways, closes acquired colorful local names and a rich patina of decorative details over their centuries of use. Their distinctive visual and sensory experiences – enclosed spaces, textures, light play, and echoes – make wandering historic closes an evocative way to explore Scottish cities and transport oneself back through time. Though facing the threats of decay and demolition, increased recognition of their heritage value has sparked preservation efforts to save these unique reminders of everyday life for generations to come. For travelers and history enthusiasts alike, exploring the hidden world of Scotland’s closes offers an impactful dive into the enduring lore and legacy in the country’s urban landscapes.

Frequently Asked Questions About Closes in Scotland

What were closes originally designed for?

Closes were originally designed in medieval Scottish towns to provide covered passageways into central courtyards between tall tenement buildings. This allowed dozens of families access to dwellings stacked vertically up to 14 stories high.

Why are the buildings so tall on either side of closes?

The multi-story tenement blocks maximized usable dwelling space as populations grew within confined fortified settlements. Building vertically was the only direction possible, resulting in tenement blocks up to 14 stories high flanking either side of closes.

Are closes still used and accessible today?

Many closes are still actively used as passageways, storage, or rear access in Scottish cities today. Others have been closed off or demolished over time. Visitors can often wander through ancient closes that are now open public alleyways in medieval parts of cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Did closes have windows or other openings?

Most closes were built windowless since dwellings had exterior windows opening onto interior courtyards. Some might have small arched openings high up to allow in limited light and ventilation. But most were nearly enclosed from the claustrophobic surrounding buildings.

Why were closes significant spaces for residents?

In crowded stacked housing, closes were one of the only semi-private community spaces for residents to gather, socialize, draw water, and even run small shops. They formed an important nexus point for daily medieval life in Scottish cities.

How can I experience and explore closes today?

Many closes can simply be discovered by wandering around Old Town areas in cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow. Occasional tours may offer insider access. But simply walking through preserved public alley-like closes conveys an immersive sense of their medieval origins.


Closes are a uniquely Scottish urban feature – narrow covered alleys leading into blocks of dwellings stacked vertically up to 14 stories high. Originating in medieval cities like Edinburgh, their distinctive canyon-like appearance, vibrant names, and ornate architectural details reflect the social history and living conditions of Scots across the centuries. Still present in many city centers today, historic closes transport visitors back in time with their claustrophobic ambience, stonework textures, and filtered light. Though facing threats from development, increased awareness of their cultural heritage has brought a focus on preservation to safeguard the legacy of these iconic Scottish spaces for generations to come.

About The Author

Scroll to Top