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Edinburgh, High Street, Tolbooth

Tolbooth (14th Century)

Site Name Edinburgh, High Street, Tolbooth

Classification Tolbooth (14th Century)

Alternative Name(s) The Heart Of Midlothian; The Old Tolbooth

Canmore ID 52447

Site Number NT27SE 4

NGR NT 2568 7359

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Edinburgh, City Of
  • Parish Edinburgh (Edinburgh, City Of)
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District City Of Edinburgh
  • Former County Midlothian

Archaeology Notes

NT27SE 4 2558 7359.

(NT 2558 7359) Old Tolbooth (NR) (Site of)

OS 25"map, (1953)

A charter of 1386 provides for the site of a new "Bell-House", successor to the praetorium of 1369. Nothing is on record about this building until 1403, when a praetorium in which were accommodated the Town Council, the Justice Ayres, the Law Courts and Parliament. This tolbooth stood on the S side of the High Street, just W of the nave-gable of St Giles' Church, with its S wall in alignment with the N wall of the church. The site is outlined in the street with brass markers. If the building occupied the whole of the site specified in 1386, its overall dimensions must have been 60ft in length by 30ft in breadth. Although from 1480-1 onwards the building included a prison, it appears to have remained without material alteration until 1561 when the magistrates decided to extend their premises by taking in part of St Giles' Church. A new building for the use of the Lords of Session and of the Town Council was built on a site at the SW corner of St Giles' Church, now occupied by part of the Signet Library. It was linked up with that part of the Church that had previously been marked out for secular use. The old Tolbooth was not demolished, but was eventually reconstructed and extended; it survived as the common prison until 1817. Early 19th century drawings show it as consisting of two adjoining blocks. The W one, of four storeys and an attic, served by a central turnpike projecting from the S side, had rubble walls relieved by four string-courses and represented a substantial reconstruction made in 1610-1. The E block, known to the very last as the Bell-House, was of ashlar and had been restored at least 50 years before its neighbour. It had four storeys and an attic, served by a turnpike stair projecting from the SE corner.

A door, complete with fittings, and various building fragments from the Tolbooth are at Abbotsford (NT53SW 41) and several other relics are in the NMAS.

P Miller 1886; RCAHMS 1951; 1967.

As stated, metal studs in the road delineate the outline of this building.

Visited by OS (J L D) 25 December 1953.

Architecture Notes

Depicted on the coloured 1st edition of the O.S. 1:1056 scale map (Edinburgh and its Environs, 1854, sheet 35).

Demolished 1817.


Publication Account (1981)

The earliest reference to a tolbooth (pretorium) in Edinburgh occurs in 1369 (RCAM, 1951, xl). It was apparently burned during the English invasion of 1385, for in the following year Robert II gave a piece of ground sixty feet (18.29m) in length by thirty feet (9.14m) in breadth on the north side of the High Street for the erection thereon of houses and biggings, a charter endorsed as relating to the site of the 'Belhous' (RCAM, 1951, xl). The 'Belhous' was undoubtedly a public building, for a bell was the usual means of summoning public gatherings. The fourteenth-century tolbooth, which may have been erected next to the 'Belhous', was situated. a. few feet west of the gable of St. Giles. From 1480-1, the tolbooth appears to have included a prison, but remained without material alteration untjl 1561 when town officials decided to extend the tolbooth to St. Giles (its south front was in a continuous line with the north wall of the church) (RCAM, 1951, 127; Miller, 1886, 363). These expansion plans were blocked by Queen Mary and the town council was forced to build a new tolbooth.

The new tolbooth, again situated at the western end of St. Giles, was paid for entirely by the citizens of Edinburgh, even though it included meeting space for Parliament and the Lords of Session, as well as the town council. It appears that the tolbooth consisted of two adjoining blocks, the west one of four storeys and an attic served by a central turnpike projecting from the south side. The eastern block, known to the very last as the 'Belhouse', was altogether finer with four storeys and an attic all built of polished ashlar (RCAM, 1951, 127). In 1817, the tolbooth was taken down and its stone removed to Fettes Row, there transferred into 'the common sewers and drains' (Wilson, 1891, i, 254). Maitland's claim (1753, 181) that there was an 'old tolbooth' in the Bank Close off Lawnmarket is erroneous. He confuses this with Robert Gourlay's House, a fine residence which lodged from time to time important prisoners but which was never used as a tolbooth;

Information from ‘Historic Edinburgh, Canongate and Leith: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1981).

Publication Account (1996)

In 1365 David II granted to the burgh a strip of ground measuring 30.5m by 9.75m on the W side of their old tholoneum, to build a new one. This building may have been the pretorium mentioned in a rental of 1369 which, it has been suggested, lay in a venell SE ofSt Giles's Church, and it was probably burnt in the English invasion of 1385. In the following year Robert II granted an area of 18.3m by 9.15m on the N side of the market-place, by a charter endorsed 'the charter of the Belhous'. The original building was probably the 'towre of the auld tolbuith' which was repaired in 1575. The E block that survived until 1817 appears from its style to have been an addition of the 15th century. In 1501 a contract was made with John Marser, mason, for 'completing of the towre' with ashlar.

Extensive repairs were carried out in 1555-6, especially in the area of the 'gre(a)t yet'. By 1562, however, the building was so ruinous that Queen Mary ordered it to be demolished and the Lords of Session threatened to remove their court to St Andrews. The council provided accommodation nearby (infra), and temporarily repaired the tolbooth for used as a prison, but the older W part was evidently demolished in or before 1610. In that year, following instructions from the privy council 'to big ane wairdhous', a contract was made with Andrew Symsoun, mason, for building 'the new Brysoun Hous in the awld Tolbuith bewest the present Tolbuith quhair the grund is presentlie red (cleared)'. A series of booths outside the W gable of this new block was rebuilt in 1678 as a twostoreyed extension, whose flat roof was used from 1785 for public executions. The tolbooth was demolished in 1817 despite protests led by Waiter Scott, who was to immortalise it as the 'Heart of Midlothian' in his novel published the following year.

The outline of the building is marked by brass studs in the paving, and the position of its main entrance by a heart-shaped setting of cobblestones. The 15th-century E block measured about 10.5m from N to S by 7.5m and that of 1610 was 11.5m from E to W by 10.5m, the overall dimensions being close to those spec ified in the charter of 1386. Both blocks were fourstoreyed, with dormer windows in the building of 1610 whose upper storey was an addition to the original contract. The older building was ashlar-built and decorated on the N and S gable-walls with ornate niches, and the ogee-headed entrance-doorway was in a circular stair-tower at the SE angle. There was also a projecting tower for an internal stair at the centre of the S wall of the addition of 1610, flanked at each side by a window-bay. The upper stages of the N wall of this block, which were defined by string-courses, were also of two bays, but the round-headed windows of the ground storey may have occupied an infilled arcade.

The ground storeys of both blocks were vaulted and contained shops as well as accommodation for the jailer and, from about 1787, the guard-house. The principal hall, lit originally by large windows in the end-walls and E wall, occupied the first floor of the E block, with a felons' room containing the stocks and an iron cage on the floor above. Latterly the hall was used as a day-room for debtors, and a pulpit was kept there for the use of the minister who acted as chaplain. Most of the rooms on the upper floors of the 1610 block were allocated to debtors, but the first-floor one nearest the hall was used as a tap-room.

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

Watching Brief (30 March 2006 - 30 November 2006)

An archaeological watching brief was undertaken on the machine and hand excavation of an area of the Royal Mile, extending from the George IV Bridge at the North end of the High Street to Cockburn Street to the south of the High Street in Edinburgh's Old Town. The works were carried out between 30th March and 24th November 2006 and were the culmination of road improvement works that began in 2005/6 on George IV Bridge. Six cellar walls, a substantial multi phased wall postulated to be the remains of the old Tolbooth and Luckenbooths of medieval or post-medieval date and a Well were identified during the extensive road works on the High Street. No physical remains of the documented Guardhouse which was originally located in the middle of the High Street were uncovered during the works.

AOC Archaeology 2008 (S. Lynchehaun, M. Cross)


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