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The Old Tolbooth

The Old Tolbooth

Brian Robertson

The Old Tolbooth was an important municipal building in the city of Edinburgh for more than 400 years. The medieval structure, which was located at the northwest corner of St Giles’ Cathedral and was attached to the west end of the Luckenbooths on the High Street in the Old Town, was first established in the 14th century by royal charter. Over the years it served a variety of purposes such as housing the Burgh Council, early meetings of the Parliament of Scotland and the Court of Session. The Tolbooth was also the burgh’s main jail where, in addition to incarceration, physical punishment and torture were routinely conducted. From 1785 public executions were carried out. In 1817 the buildings, which had been rebuilt and renovated several times, were demolished.

Montrose was held here prior to his execution. Following his sentence of death he was continually tormented by the ministers and gaolers, who has been instructed to make his final days as miserable as possible. He remained defiant however and told them that he was much beholden to the Parliament for the honour they had put upon him, ‘for I think it is a greater honour to have my head standing on the ports of this town than to have my portrait in the King’s bedchamber’.

The gaolers were instructed to blow tobacco smoke in his face since it was known that he disliked the smell of it. Sometime in the night his thoughts turned to his hero Raleigh – his sonnet ‘Even such is fine’ – and with a diamond, it is said, he scratched a similar epitaph on the window of his cell. On 21 May 1650 he was led from the tolbooth to his place of execution, close to the Merket Cross.

Scarcely any images of the old tolbooth exist, but the etching shown here gives a good depiction of the building and its close proximity to St Giles. The outline of the building has been marked on the ground by steel plates inset into the cobbles, and these can be clearly seen by the visitor.

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