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Book of Scottish Story
Traditions of the Old Tolbooth of Edinburgh by Robert Chambers


Chapter I

Whosoever is fortunate enough to have seen Edinburgh previous to the year 1817—when as yet the greater part of its pristine character was entire, and before the stupendous grandeur, and dense old-fashioned substantiality, which originally distinguished it, had been swept away by the united efforts of fire and foolery—must remember the Old Tolbooth. At the north-west corner of St Giles's Church, and almost in the very centre of a crowded street, stood this tall, narrow, antique, and gloomy-looking pile, with its black stancheoned windows opening through its dingy walls, like the apertures of a I hearse, and having its western gable penetrated by sundry suspicious-looking holes, which occasionally served—horresco referensfor the projection of the gallows. The fabric was four stories high, and might occupy an area of fifty feet by thirty. At the west end there was a low projection of little more than one story, surmounted by a railed platform, which served for executions. This, as well as other parts of the building, contained shops.

On the north side, there remained the marks of what had once been a sort of bridge communicating between the Tolbooth and the houses immediately opposite. This part of the building got the name of the "Purses," on account of its having been the place where, in former times, on the King's birth-day, the magistrates delivered donations of as many pence as the King was years old to the same number of beggars or "blue-gowns." There was a very dark room on this side, which was latterly used as a guard-house by the right venerable military police of Edinburgh, but which had formerly been the fashionable silk-shop of the father of the celebrated Francis Horner. At the east end there was nothing remarkable, except an iron box, attached to the wall, for the reception of small donations in behalf of the poor prisoners, over which was a painted board, containing some quotations from Scripture. In the lower flat of the south and sunny side, besides a shop, there was a den for the accommodation of the outer door-keeper, and where it was necessary to apply when admission was required, and the old gray-haired man was not found at the, door. The main door was at the bottom of the great turret or turnpike stair, which projected from the south-east corner. It was a small but very strong door, full of large headed nails, and having an enormous lock, with a flap to conceal the keyhole, which could itself be locked, but was generally left open.

One important feature in the externals of the Tolbooth was, that about one third of the building, including the turnpike, was of ashlar work—that is, smooth freestone—while the rest seemed of coarser and more modern construction, besides having a turnpike about the centre, without a door at the bottom. The floors of the "west end," as it was always called, were somewhat above the level of those in the "east end," and in recent times the purposes of these different quarters was quite distinct— the former containing the debtors, and the latter the criminals. As the "east end " contained the hall in which the Scottish Parliament formerly met, we may safely suppose it to have been the oldest part of the building—an hypothesis which derives additional credit from the various appearance of the two quarters —the one having been apparently designed for a more noble purpose than the other. The eastern division must have been of vast antiquity, as James the Third fenced a Parliament in it, and the magistrates of Edinburgh let the lower flat for booths or shops, so early as the year 1480.

On passing the outer door, where the rioters of 1736 thundered with their sledge-hammers, and finally burnt down all that interposed between them and their prey, the keeper instantly involved the entrant in darkness by re-closing the gloomy portal. A flight of about twenty steps then led to an inner door, which, being duly knocked, was opened by a bottle-nosed personage denominated "Peter," who, like his sainted namesake, always carried two or three large keys. You then entered "the hall," which, being free to all the prisoners except those of the "east end," was usually filled with a crowd of shabby-looking, but very merry loungers.

This being also the chapel of the jail, contained an old pulpit of singular fashion,—such a pulpit as one could imagine John Knox to have preached from; which, indeed, he was traditionally said to have actually done. At the right-hand side of the pulpit was a door leading up the large turnpike to the apartments occupied by the criminals, one of which was of plate-iron. This door was always shut, except when food was taken up to the prisoners.

On the north side of the hall was the "Captain's Room," a small place like a counting-room, but adorned with two fearful old muskets and a sword, together with the sheath of a bayonet, and one or two bandeliers, alike understood to hang there for the defence of the jail. On the west end of the hall hung a board, on which—the production, probably, of some insolvent poetaster— were inscribed the following emphatic lines:—

A prison is a house of care.
A place where none can thrive.
A touchstone true to try a friend,
A grave for men alive—
Sometimes a place of right,
Sometimes a place of wrong.
Sometimes a place for jades and thieves,
And honest men among.

The historical recollections connected with "the hall" ought not to be passed over. Here Mary delivered what Lindsay and other old historians call her "painted orations." Here Murray wheedled, and Morion frowned. This was the scene of Charles's ill-omened attempts to revoke the possessions of the Church; and here, when his commissioner, Nithsdale, was deputed to urge that measure, did the Presbyterian nobles prepare to set active violence in opposition to the claims of right and the royal will. On that occasion, old Belhaven, under pretence of infirmity, took hold of his neighbour, the Earl of Dumfries, with one hand, while with the other he grasped a dagger beneath his clothes, ready, in case the act of revocation were passed, to plunge it into his bosom.

From the hall a lobby extended to the bottom of the central staircase already mentioned, which led to the different apartments—about twelve in number— appropriated to the use of the debtors. This stair was narrow, spiral, and steep—three bad qualities, which the stranger found but imperfectly obviated by the use of a greasy rope that served by way of balustrade. This nasty convenience was not rendered one whit more comfortable by the intelligence, usually communicated by some of the inmates, that it had hanged a man! In the apartments to which this stair led, there was nothing remarkable, except that in one of them part of the wall seemed badly plastered. This was the temporary covering of the square hole through which the gallows-tree was planted. We remember communing with a person who lodged in this room at the time of an execution. He had had the curiosity, in the impossibility of seeing the execution, to try if he could feel it. At the time when he heard the psalms and other devotions

of the culprit concluded, and when he knew, from the awful silence of the crowd, that the signal was just about to be given, he sat down upon the end of the beam, and soon after distinctly felt the motion occasioned by the fall of the unfortunate person, and thus, as it were, played at "see-saw" with the criminal.

The annals of crime are of greatest value than is generally supposed. Criminals form an interesting portion of mankind. They are entirely different from us—divided from us by a pale which we will not, dare not overleap, but from the safe side of which we may survey, with curious eyes, the strange proceedings which go on beyond. They are interesting, often, on account of their courage—on account of their having dared something which we timorously and anxiously avoid. A murderer or a robber is quite as remarkable a person, for this reason, as a soldier who has braved some flesh-shaking danger. He must have given way to some excessive passion; and all who have ever been transported beyond the bounds of reason by the violence of any passion whatever, are entitled to the wonder, if not the admiration, of the rest of the species. Among the inmates of the Old Tolbooth, some of whom had inhabited it for many years, there were preserved a few legendary particulars respecting criminals of distinction, who had formerly been within its walls. Some of these I have been fortunate enough to pick up.

One of the most distinguished traits in the character of the Old Tolbooth was, that it had no power of retention over people of quality. It had something like that faculty which Falstaff attributes to the lion and himself—of knowing men who ought to be respected on account of their rank. Almost every criminal of more than the ordinary rank ever yet confined in it, somehow or other contrived to get free. An insane peer, who, about the time of the Union, assassinated a schoolmaster that had married a girl to whom he had paid improper addresses, escaped while under sentence of death. We are uncertain whether the following curious fact relates to that nobleman, or to some other titled offender. It was contrived that the prisoner should be conveyed out of the Tolbooth in a trunk, and carried by a porter to Leith, where some sailors were to be ready with a boat to take him aboard a vessel about to leave Scotland. The plot succeeded so far as the escape from jail was concerned, but was knocked on the head by an unlucky and most ridiculous contretemps. It so happened that the porter, in arranging the trunk upon his back, placed the end which corresponded with the feet of the prisoner uppermost. The head of the unfortunate nobleman was therefore pressed against the lower end of the box, and had to sustain the weight of the whole body. The posture was the most uneasy imaginable. Vet life was preferable to ease. He permitted himself to be taken away. The porter trudged along the Krames with the trunk, quite unconscious of its contents, and soon reached the High Street, which he also traversed. On reaching the Netherbow, he met an acquaintance, who asked him where he was going with that large-burden. To Leith, was the answer. The other enquired if the job was good enough to afford a potation before proceeding farther upon so long a journey. This being replied to in the affirmative, and the carrier of the box feeling in his throat the philosophy of his friend's enquiry, it was agreed that they should adjourn to a neighbouring tavern. Meanwhile, the third party, whose inclinations had not been consulted in this arrangement, felt in his neck the agony of ten thousand decapitations, and almost wished that it were at once well over with him in the Grassmarket. But his agonies were not destined to be of long duration. The porter, in depositing him upon the causeway, happened to make the end of the trunk come down with such precipitation, that, unable to bear it any longer, the prisoner fairly roared out, and immediately after fainted. The consternation of the porter, on hearing a noise from his burden, was of course excessive ; but he soon acquired presence of mind enough to conceive the occasion. He proceeded to unloose and to burst open the trunk, when the hapless nobleman was discovered in a state of insensibility; and as a crowd collected immediately, and the City Guard were not long in coming forward, there was of course no farther chance of escape. The prisoner did not revive from his swoon till he had been safely deposited in his old quarters. But, if we recollect aright, he eventually escaped in another way.

Of Porteous, whose crime—if crime existed—was so sufficiently atoned for by the mode of his death, an anecdote which has the additional merit of being connected with the Old Tolbooth, may here be acceptable. One day, some years before his trial, as he was walking up Liberton's Wynd, he encountered one of the numerous hens, which, along with swine, then haunted the streets of the Scottish capital. For some reason which has not been recorded, he struck this hen with his cane, so that it immediately died. The affair caused the neighbours to gather round, and it was universally thought that the case was peculiarly hard, inasmuch as the bird was a "docker," and left behind it a numerous brood of orphan chickens. Before the captain had left the spot, the proprietrix of the hen, an old woman who lived in the upper flat of a house close by, looked over her window, and poured down upon the slayer's head a whole "gardeloo" of obloquy and reproach, saying, among other things, that "she wished he might have as many witnesses present at his hinder-end as there were feathers in that hen." [It is but charity to suppose Porteous might, in this case, be only endeavouring to introduce a better system of street police than had formerly prevailed. It is not many years since the magistrates of a southern burgh drew down the unqualified wrath of all the good women there by attempting to confiscate and remove the filth which had been privileged to grace the causeway from time immemorial.]

Porteous went away, not unaffected, as it would appear, by these idle words. On the night destined to be his last on earth, he told the story of the hen to the friends who then met in the jail to celebrate his reprieve from the execution which was to have taken place that day ; and the prophetess of Liberton's Wynd was honoured with general ridicule for the failure of her imprecation. Before the merry-meeting, however, was over, the sound of the " dead-drum," beat by the approaching rioters, fell upon their cars, and Porteous, as if struck all at once with the certainty of death, exclaimed, "D-------n the wife! She is right yet!" Some of his friends suggested that it might be the fire-drum ; but he would not give ear to such consolations, and fairly abandoned all hope of life. Before another hour had passed, he was in eternity.

Nicol Brown, a butcher, executed in 1753 for the murder of his wife, was not the least remarkable tenant of the Tolbooth during the last century. A singular story is told of this wretched man. One evening, long before his death, as he was drinking with some other butchers in a tavern somewhere about the Grassmarket, a dispute arose about how long it might be allowable to keep flesh before it was eaten. From less to more, the argument proceeded to bets; and Brown offered to eat a pound of the oldest and "worst" flesh that could be produced, under the penalty of a guinea. A regular bet was taken, and a deputation of the company went away to fetch the stuff which should put Nicol's stomach to the test. It so happened that a criminal —generally affirmed to have been the celebrated Nicol Muschat—had been recently hung in chains at the Gallow-lee, and it entered into the heads of these monsters that they would apply in that quarter for the required flesh. They accordingly provided themselves with a ladder and other necessary ' articles, and, though it was now near midnight, had the courage to go down that still and solitary road which led towards the gallows, and violate the terrible remains of the dead, by cutting a large collop from the culprit's hip. This they brought away, and presented to Brown, who was not a little shocked to find himself so tasked. Nevertheless, getting the dreadful "pound of flesh" roasted after the manner of a beefsteak, and adopting a very strong and drunken resolution, he set himself down to his horrid mess, which, it is said, he actually succeeded in devouring. This story, not being very effectually concealed, was recollected when he afterwards came to the same end with Nicol Muschat. He lived in the Fleshmarket Close, as appears from the evidence on ; his trial. He made away with his wife by burning her, and said that she had J caught fire by accident. But, as the door was found locked by the neighbours who came on hearing her cries, and he was notorious for abusing her, besides the circumstance of his not appearing to have attempted to extinguish the flames, he was found guilty and executed. He was also hung in chains at the Gallowlee, where Muschat had hung thirty years before. He did not, however, hang long. A few mornings after having been put up, it was found that he had been taken away during the night. This was supposed to have been done by the butchers of the Edinburgh market, who considered that a general disgrace was thrown upon their fraternity by his ignominious exhibition there. They were said to have thrown his body into the Quarry Holes.

Chapter II.

THE case of Katherine Nairne, in 1766, excited, in no small degree, the attention of the Scottish public. This lady was allied, both by blood and marriage, to some highly respectable families. Her crime was the double one of poisoning her husband, and having an intrigue with his brother, who was her associate in the murder. She was brought from the north country into Leith harbour in an open boat, and as fame had preceded her, thousands of people flocked to the shore to see her. She has been described to us as standing erect in the boat, dressed in a riding-habit, and having a switch in her hand, with which she amused herself. Her whole bearing betrayed so much levity, or was so different from what had been expected, that the mob raised a general howl of indignation, and were on the point of stoning her to death when she was with some difficulty rescued from their hands by the public authorities. In this case the Old Tolbooth found itself, as usual, incapable of retaining a culprit of condition. Sentence had been delayed by the judges, on account of her pregnancy. The mid-wife employed at her accouchement (who, by-the-by, continued to practise in Edinburgh so lately as the year 1805) had the address to achieve a jail-delivery also. For three or four days previous to that concerted for the escape, she pretended to be afflicted with a prodigious toothache ; went out and in with her head enveloped in shawls and flannels; and groaned as it she had been about to give up the ghost. At length, when all the janitory officials were become so habituated to her appearance, as not to heed her "exits and her entrances" very much, Katherine Nairne one evening came down in her stead, with her head wrapped all round with the shawls, uttering the usual groans, and holding down her face upon her hands, as with agony, in the precise way customary with the midwife. The inner door-keeper, not quite unconscious, it is supposed, of the trick, gave her a hearty thump upon the back as she passed out, calling her at the same time a howling old Jezebel and wishing she would never come back to annoy his ears, and those of the other inmates, in such an intolerable way. There are two reports of the proceedings of Katherine Nairne after leaving the prison. One bears that she immediately left the town in a coach, to which she was handed by a friend stationed on purpose. The coachman, it is said, had orders from her relations, in the event of a pursuit, to drive into the sea and drown her—a fate which, however dreadful, was considered preferable to the ignominy of a public execution. The other story runs, that she went up the Lawnmarket at the Castlehill, where lived a respectable advocate, from whom, as he was her cousin, she expected to receive protection. Being ignorant of the town, she mistook the proper house, and, what was certainly remarkable, applied at that of the crown agent, who was assuredly the last man in the world that could have clone her any service. As good luck would have it, she was not recognised by the servant, who civilly directed her to her cousin's house, where it is said she remained concealed many weeks. In addition to these reports, we may mention that we have seen an attic pointed out in St Mary's Wynd, as the place where Katherine Nairne found concealment between the period of her leaving the jail and that of her going abroad. Her future life, it has been reported, was virtuous and fortunate. She was married to a French gentleman, was the mother of a large and respectable family, and died at a good old age. Meanwhile, Patrick Ogilvie, her associate in the dark crime which threw a shade over her younger years, suffered in the Grassmarket. This gentleman, who had been a lieutenant in the----------regiment, was so much beloved by his fellow-soldiers, who happened to be stationed at that time in Edinburgh Castle, that the public authorities judged it necessary to shut them up in that fortress till the execution was over, lest they might have attempted, what they had been heard to threaten, a rescue.

The Old Tolbooth was the scene of the suicide of Mungo Campbell, while under sentence of death for shooting the Karl of Eglintoune. In the country where this memorable event took place. it is somewhat remarkable that the fate of the murderer was more generally lamented than that of the murdered person. Campbell, as we have heard, though what was called "a graceless man,'' and therefore not much esteemed by the Auld Light people, who there abound, was rather popular in his profession of exciseman, on account of his rough, honourable spirit, and his lenity in the matter of smuggling. Lord Eglintoune, on the contrary, was not liked, on account of the inconvenience which he occasioned to many of his tenants by newfangled improvements, and his introduction into the country of a generally abhorred article, denominated rye-grass, which, for some reason we are not farmer enough lo explain, was fully as unpopular a measure as the bringing in of Prelacy had been a century before. Lord Eglintoune was in the habit of taking strange crotchets about his farms-crotchets quite at variance with the old-established prejudices of his tenantry. He sometimes tried to rouse the old stupid farmers of Kyle from their negligence and supineness, by removing them to other farms, or causing two to exchange their possessions, in order, as he jocularly alleged, to prevent their furniture from getting mouldy, by long standing in particular damp corners. Though his lordship's projects were all undertaken in the spirit of improvement, and though these emigrations were doubtless salutary in a place where the people were then involved in much sloth and nastiness, still they were premature, and carried on with rather a harsh spirit. They therefore excited feelings in the country people not at all favourable to his character. These, joined to the natural eagerness of the common people to exult over the fall of tyranny, and the puritanical spirit of the district, which disposed them to regard his lordship's peccadilloes as downright libertinism, altogether conspired against him, and tended to throw the glory and the pity of the occasion upon his lordship's slayer. Even Mungo's poaching was excused, as a more amiable failing than the excessive love of preserving game, which had always been the unpopular mania of the Eglintoune family. Mungo Campbell was a man respectably connected, the son of a provost of Ayr; had been a dragoon in his youth, was eccentric in his manner, a bachelor, and was considered at Newmills, where he resided, as an austere and unsocial, but honourable, and not immoral man. There can be no doubt that he rose on his elbows and fired at his lordship, who had additionally provoked him by bursting into a laugh at his awkward fall. The Old Tolbooth was supposed by many, at the time, to have had her usual failing in Mungo's case. The Argyll interest was said to have been employed in his favour, and the body, which was found suspended over the door, instead of being his, was thought to be that of a dead soldier from the castle, substituted in his place. His relations, however, who are very respectable people in Ayrshire, all acknowledge that he died by his own hand ; and this was the general idea of the mob of Edinburgh, who, getting the body into their hands, trailed it down the street to the King's Park, and inspired by different sentiments from those of the Ayrshire people, were not satisfied till they got it up to the top of Salisbury Crags, from which they precipitated it down the "Cat Nick." Aged people in Ayrshire still remember the unwonted brilliancy of the aurora borealis on the midnight of Lord Eglintoune's death. Strange and awful whispers then went through the country, in correspondence, as it were, with the streamers in the sky, which were considered by the superstitious as expressions on the face of heaven of satisfied wrath in the event.

One of the most remarkable criminals ever confined in the Old Tolbooth was the celebrated William Brodie. As may be generally known, this was a man of respectable connexions, and who had moved in good society all his life, unsuspected of any criminal pursuits. It is said that a habit of frequenting cock-pits was the first symptom he exhibited of a defalcation from virtue. His ingenuity as a joiner gave him a fatal facility in the burglarious pursuits to which he afterwards addicted himself. It was then customary for the shopkeepers of Edinburgh to hang their keys upon a nail at the back of their doors. or at least to take no pains in concealing them during the day. Brodie used to take impressions of them in putty or clay, a piece of which he would carry in the palm of bis hand. He kept a blacksmith in his pay, of the name of Smith, who forged exact copies of the keys he wanted, and with these it was his custom to open the shops of his fellow-trades men during the night. He thus found opportunities of securely stealing whatsoever he wished to possess. He carried on his malpractices for many years. Upon one shop in particular he made many severe exactions. This was the shop of a company of jewellers, in the North Bridge Street, namely, that at the south-east corner, where it joins the High Street. The unfortunate tradesmen from time to time missed many articles, and paid off one or two faithful shopmen, under the impression of their being guilty of the theft. They were at length ruined. Brodie remained unsuspected, till having committed a daring robbery upon the Excise-office in Chessel's Court, Canon-gate, some circumstances transpired, which induced him to disappear from Edinburgh. Suspicion then becoming strong, he was pursued to Holland, and taken at Amsterdam, standing upright in a press or cupboard. At his trial, Henry Erskine, his counsel; spoke very eloquently in his behalf, representing in particular, to the jury, how strange and improbable a circumstance it was, that a man whom they had themselves known from infancy as a person of good repute, should have been guilty of such practices as those with which he was charged. He was, however, found guilty, and sentenced to death, along with his accomplice Smith. At the trial he had appeared in a fine full-dress suit of black clothes, the greater part of which was of silk, and his deportment throughout the whole affair was completely that of a gentleman. He continued during the period which interrened between his sentence and execution to dress himself well and to keep up his spirits. A gentleman of our acquaintance, calling upon him in the condemned room, was astonished to find him singing the song from the Beggar's Opera, "'Tis woman seduces all mankind." Having contrived to cut out the figure of a draught-board on the stone floor of his dungeon, he amused himself by playing with anyone who would join him, and, in default of such, with his right hand against his left. This diagram remained in the room where it was so strangely out of place, till the destruction of the jail. His dress and deportment at the gallows were equally gay with those which he assumed at his trial. As the Eat! of Morton was the first man executed by the "Maiden," so was Brodie the first who proved the excellence of an improvement he had formerly made on the apparatus of the gibbet. This was the substitution of what was called the "drop," for the ancient practice of the double ladder. He inspected the thing with a professional air, and seemed to view the result of his ingenuity with a smile of satisfaction. When placed on that terrible and insecure pedestal, and while the rope was adjusted round his neck by the executioner, his courage did not forsake him. On the contrary, even there, he exhibited a sort of joyful levity, which, though not exactly composure, seemed to the spectators as more indicative of indifference; he shuffled about, looked gaily around, and finally went out of the world with his hand stuck carelessly into the open front of his vest.

The Tolbooth, in its old days, as its infirmities increased, showed itself now and then incapable of retaining prisoners of very ordinary rank. Within the recollection of many people yet alive, a youth named Reid, the son of an innkeeper in the Grassmarket, while under sentence of death for some felonious act, had the address to make his escape. Every means was resorted to for recovering him, by search throughout the town, vigilance at all the ports, and the offer of a reward for his apprehension, yet he contrived fairly to cheat the gallows. The whole story of his escape is exceedingly curious. He took refuge in the great cylindrical mausoleum of Sir George Mackenzie, in the Grey-friars churchyard of Edinburgh. This place, besides its discomfort, was supposed to be haunted by the ghost of the persecutor—a circumstance of which Reid, an Edinburgh boy, must have been well aware. But he braved all these horrors for the sake of his life. He had been brought up in the Hospital of George Heriot, in the immediate neighbourhood of the churchyard, and had many boyish acquaintances still residing in that munificent establishment. Some of these he contrived to inform of his situation, enjoining them to be secret, and beseeching them to assist him in his distress. The Herioters of those days had a very clannish spirit, insomuch, that to have neglected the interests or safety of any individual of the community, however unworthy he might be of their friendship, would have been looked upon by them as a sin of the deepest dye. Reid's confidants, therefore, considered themselves bound to assist him by all means in their power against that general foe, the public. They kept his secret most faithfully, spared from their own meals as much food as supported him, and ran the risk of severe punishment, as well as of seeing ghosts, by visiting him every night in his horrible abode. They were his only confidants, his very parents, who lived not far off, being ignorant of his place of concealment. About six weeks after his escape from jail, when the hue and cry had in a great measure subsided, he ventured to leave the tomb, and it was afterwards known that he escaped abroad.

The subsequent history of the Old Tolbooth contains little that is very remarkable. It has passed away with many other venerable relics of the olden time, and we now look in vain for the many antique associations which crowded round the spot it once occupied.


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