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Kirkcudbright, 60 High Street, Tolbooth

Tolbooth (16th Century)

Site Name Kirkcudbright, 60 High Street, Tolbooth

Classification Tolbooth (16th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Tolbooth Art Centre; Kirkcudbright, High Street, Tolbooth, Market Cross And Well; Tollbooth; Kirkcudbright Coast Guard Office

Canmore ID 64066

Site Number NX65SE 29

NGR NX 68065 50896

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2018.

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council Dumfries And Galloway
  • Parish Kirkcudbright
  • Former Region Dumfries And Galloway
  • Former District Stewartry
  • Former County Kirkcudbrightshire

Archaeology Notes

NX65SE 29 68065 50896.

(NX 6806 5089) Old Tolbooth (NR)

OS 6" map (1938)

The Tolbooth, with its eastern tower, is a three-storied building of three periods, the first begun in 1625; the last about 1751 (J Robison 1926). Internally it measures 65 ft by 15 1/2 ft with walls 4 ft thick. It occupies the site of still older buildings (J H Maxwell 1912).


The old Tolbooth was described as "recently demolished" in 1570. The present Tolbooth was erected soon after 1579 and a grant of money was made in 1591 towards the cost of its erection (Town Council records, 16th century).

W Dickie 1908

A limited excavation within the tolbooth revealed a thick layer of floor make-up composed of river cobbles and silt. At least four phases of floor surfacing made of cobbles, wood and brick were recorded. The foundations of the building were seen to rest on the natural and no indication of earlier structures were found. No dating evidence earlier than the 19th century was recovered.

Sponsors: SUAT, HS, Stewartry District Council.

R Cachart 1991.

Architecture Notes

NX65SE 29 68065 50896

NX65SE 29.01 6806 5089


Non-Guardianship Sites Plan Collection, DC/28133 to DC/28140.

1955 and 1964


Edinburgh Public Library-

James Grant's Sketch Book in MSS No 309 - 1 drawing.



Prospect Magazine-

Converted to Arts Centre by Stewartry Technical Services Department (C.H. Fazakerley and A.C. Frame), 1994.



Publication Account (1978)

Kirkcudbright Tolbooth stands at the west end of the south branch of the High Street. The original position of the burgh Tolbooth is debatable, although it was located near the present one. St. Andrew's church served only a short apprenticeship as a Tolbooth when it was taken down and proper edifice built in its place. In 1580 the new structure was ordered to be kept in 'sklaits' yearly and to be made 'ticht waterfast' (KTCR, 1939, 106). The Tolbooth with its striking eastern tower is a three-storied building which has undergone numerous repairs and alterations.

Information from ‘Historic Kirkcudbright: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1978).

Publication Account (1986)

This large church-like building stands at the corner of the High Street in Kirkcudbright, a striking terminal feature of the vista from each direction. Together with the group of 17th and 18th century houses to the east, it symbolises Kirkcudbright in a manner which no other building manages to achieve. The tower and spire contribute to its visual qualities, but it is by no means the most refined, the biggest, nor even the oldest building in the town. What the tolbooth possesses in strong measure is quite simply-character.

The building betrays much evidence of additions and alterations. The western third was added, as was the eastern end, accompanied by the forestair. The tower itself is of a distinctly different masonry and style, and represents a third addition. There are now only vestiges of the main doorway with its round-headed moulded surround. Large windows lit the main rooms on the fIrst floor, and small ones were associated with prison-cells on the upper floor.

On the landing of the forestair is the mercat cross of 1610. It was moved here in the 19th century from a position now marked by a flat sunken stone in the High Street north of the tolbooth. The base of the forestair contains a well, and a plaque commemorates the introduction of gravitation water-supply in 1762-3. Other details include 'the old iron 'jougs', by which malefactors were publicly manacled, and on top of the spire a weather-vane in the form of a sailing-ship, said to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The clock is modem, but its square-dialled, one-handed predecessor is still preseIved in the Stewartry Museum. Possibly of Dutch origin, it was in existence by 1576 and was installed in this building in about 1642. There is a bell of 1646, and one of 1724 which is now in the museum.

The nucleus of this building was erected during a two year period after 30 March 1625. At that date the provost and magistrates of the burgh obtained a grant (taken out of the fines of the commission of the justices of the peace) towards building a tolbooth and strong prison-house 'within the heart and body of their town'. A subvention towards works of repair was recorded in 1731. It was eventually replaced as town hall by the building erected in 1878 at the junction of St Mary's Street and Church Street.

Literary fame arrived earlier, for the tolbooth was almost certainly the model for the prison in the denouement ofScott's Guy Manneling.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Dumfries and Galloway’, (1986).

Excavation (1991)

A limited excavation within the tolbooth revealed a thick layer of floor make-up composed of river cobbles and silt. At least four phases of floor surfacing made of cobbles, wood and brick were recorded. The foundations of the building were seen to rest on the natural and no indication of earlier structures were found. No dating evidence earlier than the 19th century was recovered.

Sponsors: SUAT, HS, Stewartry District Council.

R Cachart 1991.

Publication Account (1996)

The tolbooth with its impressive steeple occupies a prominent position at the SW angle of the right-angled High Street, adjoined by houses of early 17th-century date to the E. Its main (N) front faces up the NW limb of High Street. The mercat cross of 1610, which originally stood at the centre of the High Street in front of the tolbooth, was set on the platform of the forestair in 1760.'

The greater part of the three-storeyed main block, which measures 22.1m by 6.6m, dates from 1627-9, but some 6.6m of this length resulted from its extension to the W in 1754. The lower part of the steeple, which extends the N front to the E for 4m and is 4.8m in depth, was built in 1642-4, but the upper part was extensively rebuilt, probably after a severe fire in 1723. A straight forestair rises against the N wall to a first-floor doorway in the steeple, and the adjacent platform was rebuilt in 1763 to incorporate a water-supply. The building is of sandstone rubble with dressed margins, except for the N front of the steeple above wall-head level, and the forestair and platform, which are of ashlar.

The irregular disposition of the openings in the N front reflects various periods of alteration. The remains of a segmental-arched opening towards the centre ofthe main block, and evidence of bloc kings in the rear wall, indicate that originally a pend gave access to the rear of the building. Its archway had a roll-and-hollow moulding, and the W jamb was later incorporated in an inserted square-headed doorway which also re-used other moulded stones. There are an early doorway and a small window, both with roll-moulded surrounds, near the foot of the forestair. The first floor is lit from the N by four large windows with quirked-roll-and-hollow surrounds. Disturbed masonry between the two E windows at first-floor level may mark the site of an original doorway approached by a forestair.

However, the main entrance in the period before 1754 was at the Wend of the original building, close to the present entrance, and it evidently gave access to a stair marked at firstfloor level by a blocked slit-window and a reduction in the internal wall-thickness. This was presumably the 'turnpike' whose top rose above the wall-head until 1732 when it was 'thrown doun' and made level with the main roof. A recess above the pend, which held an armorial panel within a moulded surround, was replaced in 1955 by a panel commemorating the quincentenary of the burgh. At second-floor level, three slit-windows for prison use have been created within earlier embrasures, but two circular pistol-loops with curved internal recesses remain. The rear wall of the main block appears to retain no unaltered early windows, but a chimney-breast is corbelled out at first-floor level.

The W extension of 1754 comprised a single bay, of the same height as the main block, with barrel-vaulted cells at ground- and first-floor levels. The junction with the old work is marked by a rough vertical break at the upper level, 6.6m E of the present W gable. Below this joint, a doorway which was inserted at this time, and probably re-uses masonry from the original main entrance (supra), gives access to the main staircase. Another plain doorway provides the only access to the dark ground-floor cell. The lower part of the NW angle of this block is bevelled, and set into the stonework at a height of about 1.5m there is a set of jougs.

A second set of jougs hangs beside the first-floor doorway to the steeple. This has a roll-moulded surround and like the blocked window above, which may have been remodelled in 1724, it has a relieving-arch. The ashlar-faced N front of the steeple, which rises from a chamfered intake at wall-head level, was probably rebuilt in 1724 along with the upperworks.There are clock-faces to N and E, and pointed belfry openings in each wall below the parapet, which projects on an arched corbel-course. Each face of the parapet has two stone water-spouts at the base and three semi-circular apertures below the coping, and its angles are surmounted by ashlar pyramids with ball-finials. The conical spire is also of ashlar, and has at least one blocked square vent at about mid-height. 'Ane ship maid of bras for putting upone the top of the steipill' was obtained from the Netherlands in 1646, but the present weather-vane, in the form of a three-masted sailing-ship, is believed to have been erected after 1805 to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar.

In 1763 a lead water-cistern was installed below the platform of the forestair, restricting the original ground-floor access to the steeple. In its ashlar-faced N front there is a panel (renewed in 1840 and 1985) with the inscription:






To the E of this panel there is a slot for a pump-handle, and two water-spouts of 'sun-face' type flank a small doorway below.

The interior of the tolbooth has been much altered, and even before its recent adaptation as an Arts Centre the existing partitions were modem, except in the ground storey. This originally contained three booths, which were sold in 1629 to finance the new building, and it is likely that two of these were in the E part, which until recently was divided from the former pend by a solid wall. The first floor contained a large room which served as court-room and council-chamber and there is a blocked fireplace in the S wall. Until modem alterations there was a cross-wall some 3.9m from the E gablewall, originally forming an ante-chamber which would have been entered from the presumed forestair, and subsequently an inner room. The present staircase, in the W extension of 1754 but close to the site of the earlier 'turnpike' , is of stone to the first floor, but of modem timber construction above. The vaulted first-floor cell in the W extension, formerly guarded by double doors in the SE angle, had a slop-sink in the sill of its S window, now altered. The second-floor rooms, which rise into the roof-space, were used at various times for social functions or as debtors' accommodation, but retain no early features.

The interior of the steeple contains at ground-floor level a cell, known as the 'Iaich seller', with two aumbries in the SE corner. It is now entered by a doorway slapped through the E wall of the main block, presumably in 1763 when the room became the main reservoir for the new piped water-supply. At the same time, the original vault was removed, and until recently a large block of inserted masonry supported the floor above. The upper floors originally had no communication with the main block and access was by timber stairs. The spire is supported by arches spanning the angles of the top storey. The principal bell in the steeple measures 0.52m in height and 0.61 m in diameter, and below a dragonesque strapwork frieze it is inscribed: SOLI DEO GLORIA. MICHAEL BVRGERHVYS ME FECIT ANNO 1646. This was evidently the bell cast, 'in ane mold of ffour hundreth wecht', from three bells sent to Veere in the Netherlands in that year. The second bell was cast by Thomas Mears, London, in 1841. Also displayed in the building is 'the toun 's Iitle bell ', 0.34m in height and 0.44m in diameter, which was cast in Rotterdam to replace one damaged in the fire of 1723 and is inscribed: QUIRfN DE VISSER ME FECIT 1724 / KJRKUDBRlGHT.

Stewartry Museum houses a single-hand clock set within a wrought-iron frame, which remained in use until 1897. This is believed to be of Dutch manufacture and may have been in existence by 1580 when a 'knock-keeper' is referred to.


The present tolbooth had at least two precursors, its immediate predecessor being situated a short distance to the E, on the site of the County Buildings on the N side of High Street. This was the former church of St Andrew, which was acquired by the burgh in 1570 and converted into a tolbooth. The 'auld tolbuith', which it replaced, may have stood further W, and in 1577 its site and building-materials were sold. Although contracts were made for the maintenance of the former church and other repairs were carried out, in 1625 the town council 'complained that their tolbooth was 'ane aId decayit kirk ... now altogidder decayit and fallin doun'. Declaring their resolve 'to big ane Tolbuith and strong prisone-hous within the hairt and bodie of thair toun', the council was granted a share of the fines imposed by local justices for two years. Funds were also raised from landowners, including a loan of £2000 from Sir John Gordon of Lochinvar which was repaid from rents owed to the council and the sale of the booths in the new tolbooth. For temporary accommodation the council leased from one of the baihes 'the meikill hall of his tenement to be ane tolbuithe and the northe chalmer to be ane jevill Gail)'. The new building was not begun unti 1627, and it appears to have been completed two years later.

The old tolbooth, although ruinous, continued to house the clock and bell, but in 1642 the council considered 'the necessitie of ane steiple and bel hous ... quhilk is ane special) ornament belanging to every burgh'. The inhabitants 'cheirfullie ' agreed to a local tax for this purpose, and by 1644 the steeple was ready to receive the bell from the old church. It was probably built by John Dunbar and Herbert Anderson, two masons who entered the town's service in 1642, and it is said to incorporate re-used masonry from Dundrennan Abbey.

Various alterations and repairs were made to the building in the 17th and 18th centuries. The fire of 1723 broke out in the steeple, in straw illegally stored there by the clock-keeper, and although it was contained when 'men of a venturous spirit got up to that west window above the tolbooth and got water carried to them', the internal timberwork was destroyed. Extensive repairs were carried out in the following year, and it was probably at this time that the upper storeys were rebuilt. At about the same time repairs were required to 'the Councell Chamber which wes brought doun to the ground by an unlucky accident'. In 1732 the tolbooth was described as 'ruinous' and its roof was repaired, with alterations to the stairhead.

Between 1744 and 1747 Thomas Kerr, mason, repaired the steeple at a cost of £3 17s 2d. In 1751 he produced a plan for 'making a sufficient prison on the West end of the Tolbooth', and in 1754, when he was burgh treasurer, he was employed to build this extension. Bailie Kerr also supervised the bringing in of 'fresh soft water' in 1763-4, and altered the steeple and forestair to house the reservoir and cistern. The upper storey of the town-house was also repaired in 1763, and was made available for dancing-classes.

The burgh had no convenient place to keep its records, and for many years these were stored in the houses of the magistrates, or in a rented house. The council-room was also found ' too confined' for county meetings and elections, and in 1774 it was agreed that the county should 'contribute largely' to the cost of its enlargement. It was not until 1788 that a new Town and County House was completed on the N side of the High Street, with a council-chamber in the front half of the lower storey and the County Hall, also used as the burgh courtroom, on the upper floor.

The tolbooth was the model for the 'old-fashioned dungeon' of Freeport in Scott's Guy Mannering, and it remained in use as a jail until the early 19th century. At that period it contained two rooms for debtors and two for criminals. In 1815-16 a new jail was built adjoining the court-house to the N, the estimated cost of £3,978 being shared between the burgh and the county. The massive castellated tower, containing seventeen cells and with a higher SE angle-tower, was designed by Richard Crichton, the Edinburgh architect, who also undertook the contract. The court-house was rebuilt in baronial style, as the County Buildings, about 1870. The tolbooth was used for a variety of purposes including storage, a glove factory, government offices and coastguard station, and in 1993 it was converted and opened as an Arts Centre.

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


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