A prison for the 'better sort'
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The Canongate Tolbooth is a highly distinctive building, and its clock if often photographed by passing tourists. As well as being an interesting and important building, the Tolbooth is a reminder that at one time the Canongate was separate from the Royal Burgh of Edinburgh.
The Tolbooth was built in 1591 and would have formed the local hub for the Canongate burgh, along with the nearby Mercat Cross where merchants met and conducted their business. The Tolbooth would have had many functions, serving as courthouse, burgh jail and meeting place of the town council. The building was constructed for Sir Lewis Bellenden, the justice-clerk for the burgh, and his initials can still be seen over the archway to Tolbooth Wynd.
As the Canongate’s main public building it was designed to look impressive and express the burgh’s pride in its long history. The tower over Tolbooth Wynd has small turrets added, known as ‘bartizans’, as well as gun loops to give a sense of ancient battlements. Next to it is the courthouse block, with a staircase, or ‘forestairs’, leading up to its main entrance on the first floor. Look out for the plaque celebrating King James VI as well, complete with latin inscription and a large thistle.
The ground floor was used as a prison, mainly for those unable to pay fines or for minor misdemeanours, but on occasion it was used to hold people on behalf of the government. Certainly during the 17th century many captured Covenanters were held in the Canongate Tolbooth, accused of treason.
However there were several escapes, leading to the jailer James Park and his assistant being sent to prison themselves in 1681. This did not stop the breakouts though, and in 1684 around ten prisoners escaped by breaking into the lofts of the house next door. The following year five more prisoners escaped, and the new jailer Walter Young was brought before the Privy Council and sentenced to a spell in prison himself. By the 18th century the Tolbooth’s jail seems to have been mainly used for debtors, and it was said that: “…the better sort are commonly taken to this prison, which is well aired, has some decent rooms, and is kept tolerably clean.”
As the city grew in the 19th century so the importance of the Canongate as a separate burgh declined, and the Tolbooth became less and less important, and in 1856 the burgh was finally incorporated into the city of Edinburgh. In 1875 the city architect Robert Morham started renovations of the Tolbooth, attempting to bring it back to its original appearance, while adding touches of his own. The most obvious change came in 1884 when the clock was added, sticking out into the street on brackets and enhancing the building’s characteristic silhouette.
Today the Tolbooth is open as a museum, the ‘People’s Story’, telling the history of ordinary Edinburgh folk over hundreds of years. It comes complete with a reconstructed jail cell, enabling visitors to perhaps imagine how they themselves could have escaped.