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Aberdeen, Castle Street, Municipal Buildings And Tolbooth

Sundial (19th Century), Tolbooth (17th Century)

Site Name Aberdeen, Castle Street, Municipal Buildings And Tolbooth

Classification Sundial (19th Century), Tolbooth (17th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Aberdeen, 2 Broad Street, Old Town House; Lodge Walk; Tolboth Tower; Sheriff Courthouse; Aberdeen City Chambers; Town House; Town House Extension

Canmore ID 20154

Site Number NJ90NW 33

NGR NJ 94370 06358

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Digital Images

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Aberdeen, City Of
  • Parish Aberdeen
  • Former Region Grampian
  • Former District City Of Aberdeen
  • Former County Aberdeenshire

Archaeology Notes

NJ90NW 33 94370 06358

(NJ 9440 0635) Tollbooth (NR) (Remains of)

OS 1:500 map, Aberdeenshire, 2nd ed., (1901).

For Old Aberdeen Town House (NJ 9391 0848), see NJ90NW 184.

The remains of the tolbooth dating from 1615 to 1627, stand on the site of its predecessor built in 1394. The frontage to Castle Street is now obscured by modern buildings but a square three-storey, ashlar tower with corbelled bartizans and spire is still exposed in Lodge Walk.

Visited by OS (JLD) 22 August 1952.

R Anderson 1910; HBD List No.56, 17

A five-storey tower, with battlemented and turreted parapet and a spire, engulfed within 19th century offices. It was built between 1615 and 1630, the spire being repaired in 1648 and renewed in 1839.

J Neild 1812; Spalding Club 1844-8; J Rettie 1868; G Stell 1981.

During consolidation work, mortar-bonded walls were discovered below the floor of the Old Town House, in the area in which the 17th-century Tolbooth is incorporated. The area uncovered seemed to include a small chamber or cell c2.7 by 1.4m with part of a narrow entrance passage. The chamber had the remnants of a brick vaulted roof which may not have been part of the original structure.

J A Stones and A S Cameron 1989

During continued alterations in and around the 17th-18th century structure, previously obscured openings and other details were recorded in cooperation with RCAHMS.

J Stones 1990.

(GRC/AAS sites NJ90NW 45 and NJ90NW 168 ). Tolbooth dating from 1615-27 on site of predecessor built in 1394. The frontage to Castle Street is now obscured by modern buildings but a square three-storey tower with corbelled bartizans, steeple and spire is still exposed in Lodge Walk. The great square tower was built in 1615 and a belfry and spire added in 1627, although the present spire dates from 1726 when the first clock was installed; the present clock dates from 1817.

The main function of the building was as a prison, the town house proper lying to the W; this was repaired in 1670 and rebuilt in 1729 when a staircase was added.

(Bibliographic and newspaper references cited).

NMRS, MS/712/83.

Air photographs.

Marischal College and City Chambers: AAS/00/08/CT, AAS/00/12/CT and AAS/00/12/G30/13.

Town House and King Street: AAS/00/12/CT.

NMRS, MS/712/100.

Architecture Notes


Aberdeen, Castle Street, Municipal Buildings.

Comprises of:

Tolbooth Tower - remnant of original tolbooth, later incorporated into Courthouse as vestibule.

Courthouse - 19th Century courthouse entered through Tolbooth Tower.

County and Municipal Buildings - 19th Century building including a tower sometimes known as Steeple.

The whole now catalogued as Municipal Buildings.

Not to be confused with High Street, Town House.


Publication Account (1996)

The 17th-century 'wardhouse' or prison-tower, with its elaborate spire, rises at the E end of the massive Municipal Buildings of 1867-74. These replaced a tolbooth or townhouse which since the late 14th century had occupied this same site on the N side of Castlegate (Castle Street), the main market-area ofthe burgh. In 1393 Robert III granted the burgesses permission to build a p retorium measuring 24.4m by 9.1m, anywhere in the burgh 'except in the middle of the market-place'. Early views show that until the 18th century the building occupied what was virtually an island site.


In 1616 the town council employed Thomas Watson, mason, to build a wardhouse 'within the tolbuith ... in the east end thairof' , and the contract describes in detail many features which are still identifiable, despite numerous later alterations. The tower was formed by building a massive internal crosswall, and part of the E end-wall of the earlier building is preserved. The most substantial addition, undertaken in 1704-6 after a visit by the Edinburgh architect James Smith, was the extension of the tower to the N to provide an extra cell at each level. In 1756 the main entrance was moved from the E to the S side, and a new entrance-facade with a forestair was created facing Castle Street. At the same time a charter-room and additional cells were provided in a two-storeyed addition above a pend to the E, at the entrance to Lodge Walk. The S front was rebuilt in 1820 by the local architect John Smith, who transferred the entrance to ground-level and removed the lowest internal yaults to form a high entrance-corridor to the new court-house, adjacent to the N. Smith's S front was in turn rebuilt in Kemnay granite by Peddie and Kinnear in 1871, matching the baronial style of their Municipal Buildings. An extensive renovation was carried out in 1992-4, and the accompanying drawings and description incorporate information revealed by the removal of later plaster and wall-linings.


In its present form the wardhouse comprises a rectangular tower some 15.8m from N to S by 7.2m and rising to a battlemented parapet at a height of 15m. This encloses a square belfry carrying an elaborate lead-covered spire 35m in overall height. Except for the rebuilt S front the external wallfaces are wholly or partly abutted by later buildings, and the only visible areas of early masonry are the NE angle and the upper parts of the Nand E walls, while the E wall-face is also exposed in the room above the pend. The contract of 1616 required Watson to incorporate substantial parts of three walls of the earlier tolbooth, including the E gable-wall up to a ' tabling' or string-course which survives at a height of 11m. The masonry visible below this string-course in the room over the pend is random rubble of moderate size, while larger and more regular dark rubble is used in the upper part ofthe same wall. The N end of this E wall, however, and the whole of the N wall, are built of irregular blocks of red granite and evidently represent the addition of 1704. It is also clear that the earlier N wall, which contained the garderobe-chutes, was completely removed at this time, and the surviving cross-walls in the second and third floors were probably inserted, before its demolition, to support the steeple above. A change of alignment, most clearly identifiable in the W wall at second-floor level, is close to the recorded position of the N wall of the pre-1871 town-house. This suggests that the length of the original tower was about 11.3m, and that the addition of 1704 extended it by about 4m. The series of rectangular slits in the E wall, which light an internal newel-stair, is probably at the junction of the two phases. These and the other openings in the N extension have plain surrounds, while the few surviving earlier openings are narrow slits with rounded arrises. At first-floor level in the E wall of the extension there are remains of a roll-moulded doorway, later contracted to a window, which gave access to a newel stair.

The corbelled and crenellated parapet at the E wall-head is partly of sandstone ashlar, as specified in 1616, although the S part was rebuilt in granite in 1871. It incorporates remains of original spouts 'to convoy the watter off the platforme', and the bases of two mid-wall turrets (that to the N being at the original NE angle) whose upper masonry was probably reused in the NE angle-turret of the 1704 addition. The parapet of the extension shows a polychrome mixture of grey granite and sandstone, probably made necessary by the scarcity of the latter, but preserves a panelled treatment of vertical ribs which is also seen in pre-1820 views of the S wall-head. The parapet encloses an ashlar-built belfry, 6.4m square, which is entered from a newel-stair at the S wall-head and has large double-lancet louvred openings of Gothic character, linked by two string-courses. A corbelled balustrade with angle-finials, much restored in 1840 and incorporating central clock-faces, surrounds a slightly intaken stage, 2m in height, which carries the spire. This has a broad lead-covered ogival lower stage, and an arcaded timber octagon below the concave two-stage fleche. Set in the E recess of the octagon there is a lead plaque bearing the date 1630 and a shield: on a field vair, a chief. This is a variant of the Menzies arms and evidently for Paul Menzies of Kinrnundy, provost of Aberdeen when the steeple was completed in that year. A plaque to the NW names the plumber John Blaikie, who repaired the leadwork in 1839.

The 1616 contract was for a wardhouse containing five vaulted storeys, but in 1618 Watson offered a deduction from his contract-price since the fifth vault was 'unbiggit'. The main tower remained four-storeyed, and with a first-floor entrance, until Smith's alterations of 1820. The most remarkable features of the interior are the immense E wall, which contains three newel stairs, and the consequent restricted width, of only 3m in the lower storeys rather than the 4.6m of the contract. The N stair, with its original external doorway, was presumably built in 1704-6 to serve the new N cells, II and about 1820, after the prison was removed, it was extended down to ground-floor level as well as being linked with other upper-floor rooms. The two original stairs were distinct in function, that 'in the southeast nuik' rising direct from the first floor to the wall-head and steeple without any communication with the prison-rooms on the upper floors. The position of its doorway, either inside or outside the building, was left undecided in the 1616 contract. It is now reached by a straight flight of steps, possibly original, rising from the S wall of the main entrance-passage. This served an original central doorway, now blocked by the end, in the E wall of the tolbooth, and has a vaulted roof reinforced with a metal grille.

To the N of the main door there was to be a door to the jailer's house and prison, reached from an extension of the pre-1616 forestair This door was associated with an access to the ground storey, and with a stair, either straight or spiral, to the jailer's house on the second floor. From here a narrow spiral stair, built, as was specified, on the crown of the vault of the entrance-passage, rises to the third floor. In 1820 an additional newel-stair linking the ground floor to the steeple stair was built, in the floor of the former main entrance passage.

The first floor was the vestibule for the court-room in the town-house, to which it opened through an elaborate arcade. Watson's contract specified that the vaulted entrance-passage in the E wall was to be flanked by two small chambers, continuing a similar earlier arrangement of timber 'houses'. These chambers may have been infilled to produce the existing thick E wall, but it is more probable that the final location of the stairs caused a change of plan. To the W, where there was no older work to incorporate, Watson was required 'to big ane massie wall of fyve futes (1.5m) in thiknes ' at ground level, and upon it to build a first-floor arcade 'of hewin wark, twa pileris and thrie bowis (arches), fynelie wrocht with chapture heidis (capitals)', with archmouldings and decorated spandrels. All of these features are visible in the E face of the infilled arcade, as partly exposed in 1993, along with sub-classical bases and fluted faces on the

slab-like pillars, which penetrate the thickness of the wall vault of three compartments was to spring from above the arcade, but the existing axial barrel-vault again probably represents an early change of plan. In 1820 the lower part of the cross-wall between the vestibule and the lowest of the three cells of 1704 was removed, and a brick arch formed to support the remainder of it. At the same time the ground floor of the N extension of 1704 was converted into an inner lobby, and it retains most of its groined plaster vault springing from moulded corbels.

The large room in the S half of the second floor was intended in 1616 to be the jailer's dwelling, but after the failure to build the fifth storey it is probable that it was adapted for prison use, and by 1782 it served as a day exercise-room. It has a blocked fireplace with roll-moulded jambs, and remains of another, both in the W wall. The criminal cell of 1704 to the N has splayed slits in E and W walls, as does the cell above where a blocked fireplace was formerly visible in the N wall. Fixed to the floor of the latter room there is an iron 'gad' or bar to which prisoners were chained, and manacles are fixed to the walls of all three rooms at this level. The central room was probably contracted in size in 1704, and was described in the late 18th century as the 'dark room' or dungeon. These second-and third-floor rooms have stone-flagged floors, iron-bound timber doors with elaborate bolts and padlocks, and narrow windows which in several cases have yett-Iike inner as well as outer grilles.

The interior of the steeple contains a heavy timber bell frame which, like the timberwork of the spire, was extensively renewed in 1839 and subsequently. The bell, which is 0.9m in diameter, was recast by Thomas Mears in 1799.18 The tolbooth clock was sent to Flanders for repair as early as 1535. In 1616 it was specified that the clock was to be erected on the S wall-head of the wardhouse, and a passage for the weights was to be provided near the SE newel-stair. It was subsequently set up in the intaken stage above the belfry, and the existing clock is of early 20th-century date.

When the New Inn was built to the E in 1756, the original first-floor entrance-passage remained in use for access to a charter-room above the pend that abutted the wardhouse. Two cells at second-floor level were entered by separate doorways from the day-room, and one of these entrances was retained in 1841 when a brick-vaulted charter-room was formed above the much-heightened pend as part of the new bank designed by Archibald Simpson.

A sundial was provided for the town-house in 1598, and in 1733-4 payment was made 'for a fine peuther Dial and for cutting, calculating, painting and gilding the same' . This may be the square dial, with the motto: UT UMBRA SIC FUGIT YITA ('As flies the shadow, so does life'), that is now built into the S front ofthe wardhouse at second-floor level.


In 1317 the burgh court was held in the tolloneum, but the site of this early tolbooth is not known, although it has been assumed that it stood close to the harbour. In or shortly before 1358 the sheriff was allowed £4 for the cost of building the prison (career) of Aberdeen. Following the grant of a site by Robert III in 1393 (supra,p.24), courts were regularly held in the retorium and burgesses were imprisoned there, although labour services 'until the pretorium will be completed' were still being required in 1407. Between 1507 and 1596 various repairs were carried out to tolbooth and steeple, including in 1569 the addition of royal and burgh arms to two blank 'housines' (frames) in the S wall. At this period the building contained six booths on the ground floor with a court-room above. In 1597 alterations were made to the prison doors, and in the same year the tolbooth was extended by 'ane hous biggit oftymmer, on the wast gavill of the tolbuyth, tua stair hicht, and [ten] futtis in breid'. This was to contain, on the first floor, the town clerk's offices and a charter-room, with access to the council-house, and on the upper floor a room where the magistrates could discuss cases and the council could hold occasional meetings. The ground floor was also to provide shelter for the flesh-market, but in 1628 this was replaced by four shops.

It was decided in 1612 to build 'ane ward andjealhous for resett of his Maiesties rebellis, and all sic transgressours of his laws', but the contract with Thomas Watson, mason in Auldrayne, was not drawn up until 1616. Watson was to be paid 5,000 merks for the work, which was financed from a variety of sources including the Common Good, various loans and a tax levied on the inhabitants of Aberdeen in 1619. An approach was also made to the Marquis of Runtly, as sheriff, since the wardhouse would be 'for the gude and benefitt of the whole shyre', but no aid seems to have been obtained. The contract specified that freestone from Kingoodie (near Dundee) or Stonehaven was to be used, and partially-dressed stone from John Mylne's Kingoodie quarry was ordered in 1619 and in 1622, when Watson was employed on 'the wark of the tolbuith steppill' . In the following year 40 merks were paid to John Bla(c)k, wright in Dundee, 'for coming to advise about the timber work for the tolbooth'. Instructions were given to build the 'pricket' of the steeple in 1629, and the lead plaque dated 1630 (supra) probably marks its completion.

The decision not to build the fifth vaulted storey limited the space available for prison use, and it is likely that the payment to a mason working in 1627-8 in the 'new laigh prison house' referred to the adaptation of the ground storey for that purpose. The proposed jailer's house on the second floor was also used as a prison by 1673, when Francis Irvine and others broke through the floor and escaped by the town-house.

The wardhouse was extended to the N in 1704, when 20 guineas were given to Mr James Smith, Architect, forcomeing north to give his advice nent the said Tolbooth'. The surviving accounts are copious, listing such items as the bringing of the great windlass from King's College, but not specific. It is possible that other work was carried out as well as the N addition, but the amount paid, £8,087, is impressive.

In 1730-1 a higher two-bay block, containing a council room and staircase, replaced the timber structure at the Wend of the tolbooth, after a plan by William Adam for a wider addition was rejected as too elaborate. Adam supplied the marble chirnneypiece for the principal room, which was panelled throughout. In 1750 the rest of the tolbooth was in a poor condition, and it was decided to rebuild the frontage and heighten it to a design by Patrick Barron, producing a uniform three-storeyed seven-bay front to the W of the wardhouse. The second floor of the five-bay main section contained the elaborately furnished 'Great Room' (Introduction, p.18), with the court-room below it and the council-chamber in the W block.

The main entrance to the court-room remained through the E wall ofthe wardhouse, but in 1756 the Society of Free Masons proposed to replace this with a new S entrance since they were building a tenement to the E to accommodate the lodge and the New Inn. The E forestair was removed and pend was created into what is still known as Lodge Walk. The new tenement completed an impressive fifteen-bay front with the wardhouse at the centre. Its first-floor S entrance was reached by a double forestair which also incorporated a ground-floor doorway, and the tall doorway with fanlight was set in a pedimented projection. Since 1734 part of the first floor of the wardhouse had been used as a charter-room and this function was transferred to one of the new rooms above the pend.

In 1818-20 a new court-house was built to John Smith's designs, on the W side of Lodge Walk to the N of the townhouse. This involved massive reconstruction of the interior of the wardhouse as an entrance-lobby to the new building, and Smith rebuilt the S front in granite, in Tudor style. At this time the prisoners were rehoused in the Bridewell until the completion of a new prison to the N of the court-house, again to Smith's designs, in 1831. Part of the second floor of the wardhouse was converted into a record-room, and the charterroom above the pend was enlarged in 1841 when Archibald Sirnpson heightened the arch to match his new Town and County Bank (later Clydesdale Bank) on the site of the New Inn. The masonry and lead work of the steeple were extensively repaired at this time under Smith's direction.

The erection of new County and Municipal Buildings was under discussion from 1862, and after a limited competition the elaborate baronial design by Peddie and Kinnear was chosen. The new building was to replace, and extend W of, the old town-house, only the wardhouse being preserved. Even there, although the building committee wished to retain Smith's S front, the architects argued that the fac;ade was splitting from the adjoining walls, and their own design was accepted in 1871. The town-house was demolished in the same year, after alternative accommodation for the council including a high clock-tower, had been completed at the W end of the site. The wardhouse was opened as the Tolbooth Museum in 1995.

Information from ‘Tolbooths and Town-Houses: Civic Architecture in Scotland to 1833’ (1996).


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