Saturday, 7 December 2013


Aerial view of modern Edinburgh with overlay of old map showing Tolbooth and Luckenbooths
to the north of St Gile Cathedral
For centuries the tall, grim walls of Edinburgh's Tolbooth sat astride the centre of the main thoroughfare and dominated the High Street of the Old Town just a few feet from the north-west corner of St. Giles' Cathedral. The location of the building, along with its neighbouring structure of the Luckenbooths, set squarely in the centre of the road formed a narrow chokepoint in the otherwise wide expanse of the Royal Mile. 

In 1386, Robert II granted Edinburgh a charter which gave the burgh an area of land 60 feet (18 m) by 30 feet (9.1 m) in the market place with license to develop the site for the ornament and use of the city. The charter, written in Latin, was endorsed "Carta fundi de la Belhous" (English: Charter of the site of the Belhous), and may be translated:
Know ye, that we have given, granted, and by this our present charter have confirmed, to our beloved and faithful, the Burgesses and Community of Edinburgh, and their successors in time to come, 60 feet in length and 30 feet in breadth of land lying in the market place of the said burgh, on the north side of the street thereof; giving and granting to them, and their foresaid successors, our special license to construct and erect houses and buildings on the foresaid land, for the ornament of the said burgh, and for their necessary use.

There is no record of construction of the Tolbooth, but the building is mentioned in Burgh records from October 1403 where it is referred to by the Latin term of Pretorium.   Over the years it served a variety of purposes such as housing the Burgh Council, early meetings of the Estates of Scotland and the Court of Session but by the time of Mary, Queen of Scots it had become chiefly used as the main prison for Edinburgh. It was this use which gained it notoriety and fear among the people of town.
a grim fate

The Old Tolbooth was used as a gaol where judicial torture and executions were routinely carried out. The roof of a two-storey extension on the west side of the Old Tolbooth provided a platform equipped with a gallows so that the public could view hangings. Prisoners taken to the Old Tolbooth, were tortured using implements such as the Boot or Pilliwinks. Jougs were attached to the exterior of the building. These were iron collars for chaining up offenders in public view, like a pillory where they could be either ridiculed and pelted with filth, or cared for by loved ones. Spikes atop the roof were also used to display various body parts cut from executed prisoners to serve both as warning, and as spectacle for the general public. The heads of the most notorious were placed on a spike on the Tolbooth's northern gable facing the good folk of the city as they walked down the High Street. How many hundreds, perhaps thousands of unfortunates meet their end in that grim building will never be known.

By the 18th Century the building was falling deeper and deeper into disrepair and it's already grim reputation was causing more and cause for concern. Hugo Arnot (1749-1786) was in his time both lawyer and historian whose book History of Edinburgh published in 1779 described his visit to the Tolbooth and is worth quoting in full.

"The liberality and humanity of the English, in erecting so magnificent a building for a jail as Newgate, deserve the highest applause. (...) The state of Edinburgh tolbooth is far otherwise. There the austerity of the law, and the rigour of an unfeeling creditor, may be gratified, in their utmost extent. In the heart of a great city, it is not accommodated with ventilators, with water-pipe, with privy. The filth collected in the jail is thrown into a hole within the house at the foot of a stair, which, it is pretended, communicates with a drain; but, if so, it is so compleatly chocked, as to serve no other purpose but that filling the jail with disagreeable stench.
The Tolbooth from the Lawnmarket showing how
the building narrowed the street 
This is the more inexcusable, since, by making a drain to the north, over a very narrow street, such a declivity might be reached, that, with the help of water, of which there is command, the sewer might be kept perfectly clean. When we visited the jail there were confined in it about twenty-nine prisoners, partly debtors, partly delinquents; four or five were women, and there were five boys. Some of these had what is called the freedom of the prison, that is, not being confined to a single apartment. As these people had the liberty of going up and down stairs, they kept their rooms tolerably clean swept. They had beds belonging to themselves; and in one room, we observed a pot on the fire. But, wherever we found the prisoners confined to one apartment, whether on account of their delinquencies, or that they were unable to pay for a little freedom, the rooms were destitute of all accommodation, and very nasty. All parts of the jail were kept in a slovenly condition; but the eastern quarter of it (although we had fortified ourselves against the stench), was intolerable. This consisted of three apartments, each above the other. In what length of time these rooms, and the stairs leading to them, could have collected the quantity of filth which we saw in them, we cannot determine. The undermost of these apartments was empty. In the second, which is called the iron room, which is destined for those who have received sentence of death, there were three boys: one of them might have been about fourteen, the others about twelve years of age.
Model of the Tolbooth
They had been confined about three weeks for thievish practices. In the corner of the room, we saw; shoved together, a quantity of dust, rags, and straw, the refuse of a long succession of criminals. The straw had been originally put into the room for them to lie upon, but had been suffered to remain till, worn by successive convicts, it was chopped into bits of two inches long. From this, we went to the apartment above, where were two miserable boys, not twelve years of age. But there we had no leisure for observation; for, no sooner was the door opened, than such an insufferable stench assailed us, from the stagnant and putrid air of the room, as, notwithstanding our precautions, utterly to overpower us"

Finally it was felt that the Tolbooth had served its purpose and it was time to go. The building which had dominated both the physical landscape and psyche of Edinburgh for so many centuries was finally demolished in 1817. The old door to the Tolbooth was saved and can be seen at the Borders home of the writer Sir Walter Scott. The location of the building is marked by brass plates set in the cobbles of the Royal Mile. 
Demolition of Tolbooth in 1817

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Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries
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  1. Brilliant post of a dreadful place.

  2. Stuart, next time I visit Edinburgh I will look out for the plates!