Interesting Scottish places: Tolbooths

Glasgow's tolbooth. <em>PIcture: Ron Almog</em>
Glasgow's tolbooth. PIcture: Ron Almog

By Elizabeth McQuillan

A feature in all Scottish cities and burghs, the tolbooth had an important role within the community. They usually served as the city’s council chambers and the meeting place for the sheriff court, with judges travelling widely within the sheriffdom, therefore the buildings tended to be of some significance and built in a prominent position, often in close proximity to the Mercat Cross (market cross).

It is here that the local people would pay their taxes, and travellers would pay a toll when entering the burgh. Those taking beasts and produce to sell at market would pay a toll and there was a levy to be paid on items bought at the market. The official market weighing apparatus would also be housed within the building. Burghs regulated the local weights and measures and this is where the public weighing machine, the tron (probably from old French tronel or troneau, meaning balance) was utilised. The term “tron weight”’ meant according to local standard. This devise would be placed at the Trongate, a place of public meetings, markets and executions.

As an alternative to being dropped down a hole into the bowels of some Scottish baronial castle – a common “gaol” option at that time – those falling short of the law in medieval Scotland would find themselves held in cells within the tolbooths. James VI did try to do a bit of reforming and passed an Act in 1597 ordaining that “Prisoun Houses suld be bigged within all Burrowes” (prison houses should be built within all Burghs). However, little changed until the mid-17th century when some of the bigger cities started to build their larger correctional facilities.

Primarily intended for short-stay prisoners, the captives were usually awaiting trial or had their freedom removed until monies were paid or a debt settled. But the tolbooths were used as required, and bigger city burghs often offered the most appalling conditions throwing debtors, thieves, political prisoners, rapists and murderers in together. A short stay was not a pleasant stay, and many methods were used to shackle, mutilate and torture these unfortunate prisoners. Tiny, filthy cells housed the inmates, and there was no sanitation, so disease was rife. Tolbooths were often in close proximity to the gallows and it was a short walk for those found guilty – often unjustly – of a serious crime. Many were hanged, disembowelled and beheaded, and their heads placed on spikes outside the tolbooth, as a warning to others.

Dubbed the Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott in his novel of the same title, the tolbooth in Edinburgh would have been one such hellhole. Now gone, a cobbled heart was laid into the pavement of the High Street (next to St Giles) marking the entrance to what would have been the tolbooth and the site of a great many executions. There is a local tradition of spitting into the cobbled heart every time you pass it. Even today, it is common to see Edinburgh locals do this ritual but there is disagreement on the reasoning for this.

My understanding, having grown up in Edinburgh and being a real local, was that the gesture represents the loathing of the place itself and is a mark of respect (I know – spitting is an interesting way to do this) to the suffering and injustices of the people who were incarcerated and died there. Another explanation is that it is to bring good luck, possibly love, or to ensure that you will one day return to Edinburgh.

Not always prepared to sit and await trial, and possibly a hanging, breakouts from the tolbooths were reasonably common and it was down to the commissioners of supply in each area to attempt to recapture the escapees. To pay for their endeavours they introduced a local tax known as “rogue tax”.

Many tolbooths continued to function well into the 17th century and beyond and played their part in Scottish history, holding many Scottish prisoners captured fighting for their cause. A few of the old buildings still stand today, often with very interesting history specific to the region, but the majority
have been demolished or are ruins. Here are a few that might be worth a look:

The Tolbooth Museum, Aberdeen

Built between 1616 and 1629, the Wardhouse of the Tolbooth was the prison for the Royal Burgh of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire until the 19th century. It has witnessed a lot of history, not all of it good. After the rebels had been defeated at Culloden hundreds of rebel prisoners were brought back to The Tolbooth where they were interrogated. In the mid-18th century a number of Aberdeen’s merchants and magistrates organised the kidnapping of hundreds of children from both the town and countryside. These children were then stored in various places, including The Tolbooth, before being transported to the Americas and sold as indentured servants.

The Tolbooth, Glasgow

At Glasgow Cross (Mercat Cross), the old heart of the city, stands the 126ft tall Tolbooth steeple. The tower is now a traffic island in the middle of High Street, and is all that remains of the Tolbooth that was built in 1627 to house Glasgow’s council chamber and administrative headquarters. The old building, which was attached to the tower, was demolished after the First World War.

The Tolbooth, Stirling

Now a venue for music and the arts, it was historically the courthouse, council meeting place, armoury and prison. The town’s money was kept there. The original Tollbooth was in such a bad state that it was demolished around 1700 with the present Tollbooth being built around 1703-05 by Sir William Bruce (he designed the Palace of Holyroodhouse). A courthouse and jail were added in 1809.

Greyfriars Kirk and Tolbooth, Edinburgh

Although a very well-known Edinburgh landmark, few are aware that it served as a tolbooth and was deemed to be much grimmer than even its sister gaol at the Canongate. The South Yard of the kirkyard, surrounded by mausoleums, served as a prison for 1200 Covenanters awaiting trial in 1679.

  • An interesting article, but I believe you’ve mixed up your Canongate and Edinburgh Tolbooths… Canongate Tolbooth is still very well in place further down the High St. It was Edinburgh Tolbooth where the Heart of Midlothian is, yeah?

    • Starcane

      Aye, I would have thought a ‘real local’ wouldn’t make that mistake.

  • Thomas Scott

    Thanks for the tollgate article. It is so interesting that, with your
    > permission, I would like to use it in the next issue if Scotia Script, the
    > “Voice of the Scottish Heritage Society of the Blue Ridge.”
    > Tom Scott
    > Editor/Publisher