Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh
Perched along Edinburgh’s storied Royal Mile, the Old Tolbooth stood as an imposing structure that played a vital role in the city’s history for over 400 years. Built in the late 14th century near St Giles’ Cathedral, this medieval building served the pivotal functions of housing Edinburgh’s civic governance and operating as the city’s main jail and site of punishment.
As a Municipal Building
As one of its primary civic duties, the Tolbooth contained meeting spaces for Edinburgh’s early municipal councils, including the Burgh Council which governed city affairs. The building also hosted sessions of the national Parliament of Scotland in its early centuries, as representatives from around the country gathered to debate issues of the day.
In addition to burgh councils, the Tolbooth saw use as a meeting site for Scotland’s national Parliament before its move to more official quarters. The building also accommodated early sessions of the Court of Session, Scotland’s supreme civil court. The prime location next to St Giles’ Cathedral situated the Tolbooth in Edinburgh’s bustling historic centre.
As a Prison
While the Tolbooth served important administrative functions, it also operated as Edinburgh’s main prison for centuries. Within its aging walls, accused transgressors faced ominous sentences and punishments.
As a medieval prison, the Tolbooth routinely inflicted torture upon inmates, utilizing implements like the boot, pilliwinks (thumbscrews), and public shaming devices such as jougs (heavy neck irons fastened to walls). The prison’s dark, cramped confines witnessed countless incidents of authorized brutality.
In addition to deliberate torture, prisoners faced miserable conditions from extreme overcrowding and poor sanitation. Upwards of 30 people at a time were crammed into small, filthy cells lacking basic amenities, as the prison expanded beyond its capacity.
For over 30 years until the jail’s demolition, the Tolbooth maintained a platform for public executions by hanging. Prisoners sentenced to death met their fates while crowds gathered to witness the macabre events, which became a notorious part of Edinburgh’s history.
Due to holding accused witches, criminals, and enemies of the state, the Old Tolbooth incarcerated a range of infamous Scottish historical figures within its walls such as:
- Deacon Brodie – Edinburgh city councillor by day, burglar by night
- Agnes Sampson – accused witch and healer tortured into confessing
- Captain John Porteous – ignoble officer sentenced for murder who inspired riots
- The Marquess of Montrose – national hero turned enemy executed on trumped-up charges
Demise of the Tolbooth
By the early 19th century, the decrepit medieval Tolbooth no longer adequately served Edinburgh’s needs as either civic hall or prison. After the city’s councils relocated elsewhere, the abandoned prison finally met the wrecking ball in 1817.
Though vanished from Edinburgh’s landscape, the dominating presence of the Old Tolbooth has persevered through literature, artifacts, and public memory.
Sir Walter Scott featured the Tolbooth in his novel The Heart of Midlothian, helping cement its notoriety. Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns also incorporated the symbolic prison into their acclaimed works.
Tolbooth relics remain on display today, including its imposing spiked entrance door transplanted at Abbotsford House. The bronze statue marking the site of its notorious public executions endures on Edinburgh’s High Street.
As a site of governance and grisly punishment spanning centuries, the Old Tolbooth’s legacy looms large over Edinburgh’s history. The building witnessed both the heights of Scottish society and the cruel depths of its justice system.
Embodying dual roles at the heart of Scotland’s capital, the dominant presence of the Old Tolbooth left an indelible mark through its immense power over civic life and death. Though vanished for two centuries, its mixed legacy as both municipal hall and torture site continues to capture public imagination.
Where was the Old Tolbooth located?
The Old Tolbooth stood on Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile, next to St Giles’ Cathedral near Edinburgh Castle in the Old Town.
When was the Old Tolbooth constructed and demolished?
It was built around 1400, renovated through the centuries, and finally demolished in 1817.
What PURPOSE did the Tolbooth serve?
It primarily functioned as Edinburgh’s main administrative building housing the burgh council and prison.
How were prisoners tortured and executed?
Common torture methods used included the boot, pilliwinks (thumbscrews), and public head/hand spikes. From 1785-1817, hangings occurred on a platform added to the building.
Why was the prison eventually closed?
By the early 1800s the medieval Tolbooth was outdated and hazardous. After councils moved elsewhere, it was closed and demolished.