Unlocking the tales of historic Tolbooth

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THE Netherbow Bell rings out, signalling another public execution, and a vast crowd begins to gather around the Tolbooth on the Royal Mile.

It is 1650 and James Graham, the first Marquis of Montrose – who has been found guilty of treason – steps on to the scaffold on the High Street. A short while later, he is hanged in front of the cheering crowds, his body dismembered and his head placed on a spike over the Tolbooth gates.

"The Tolbooth was an ideal site on which to place the body parts of those who were deemed traitors," says author Douglas Skelton, whose book Dark Heart: Tales from Edinburgh's Town Jail is published next month. "For centuries, this was the custom of authorities bent on discouraging anyone from challenging the might of King, Parliament or the Kirk."

During its existence over five centuries, the Tolbooth – situated next to St Giles Cathedral – was used as the city's council chambers, and it was the site of the Scottish Parliament and the High Court. Latterly, it became the old town jail, and it is this part of its history that appealed to Douglas.

"My previous books have been about true crime or history, and Dark Heart straddles both," he says. "The ghoulish side of the Tolbooth attracted me, but I also wanted to find out more about its history. I'd read bits and pieces in other books over the years, and heard about the more well-known characters such as Deacon Brodie, but I wanted to write a full account of this fascinating place."

His research involved trawling through the 39 warding, liberation and relief books which are kept in the National Archives of Scotland.

"These bound documents supposedly record all the comings and goings of inmates," Douglas explains. "However, some names are missing from books, while some books have pages missing, where they have been neatly cut out by a knife. Perhaps they were taken by memento hunters, but the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if it was the authorities, trying to cover up unpopular decisions."

Among the stories is that of smuggler Andrew Wilson, which was used in Walter Scott's novel The Heart of Midlothian. When he helped a friend escape from Tolbooth Prison in Edinburgh, his efforts made him popular among the city's citizens, so when he was sentenced to hang a riot broke out at the gallows.

Nine died when they were fired on by the City Guard, and the deaths were blamed on the captain, John Porteous. Found guilty of murder, he was sentenced to death but was reprieved. Learning of this, an armed mob broke into Tolbooth Prison, took Porteous and hanged him in the street.

But Douglas found he was also intrigued by lesser-known stories. When doing research, he came across the tales of Thomas Muir – an advocate banished to Botany Bay in the 18th century because he didn't see eye to eye with the powers that be in Scotland – and Maurice Margarot, a like-minded radical held in the Tolbooth in 1793. "There was quite a brief account of Margarot," recalls Douglas, 51. "But it was the wee bits and observations that made it interesting. A man was arrested during the trial for creating a disturbance, then a witness in the case, a lawyer, was drunk while giving evidence and sent to sober up in one of the cells. Images like that really bring it to life, and I like the idea of these more obscure pieces of history adding to the story as a whole."

There were some who spent time within the confines of the Tolbooth jail who made a lucky escape. One such story that Douglas stumbled upon was that of Katherine Nairn, whose execution was delayed due to her pregnancy – in the days of capital punishment the child in the womb was deemed innocent of the crimes for which its mother had been found guilty. When her daughter was born on January 27, 1766, a date was set for her execution. But on March 15, Katherine escaped, leaving her baby daughter behind.

In 1817, the Tolbooth was demolished to widen the road. To mark the area where prisoners had entered the gaol, the Heart of Midlothian stones were laid. And that was how it was remembered, until 2006, when the remains of the Tolbooth were unearthed during road repairs on the Royal Mile.

The archaeological investigations, carried out as part the upgrade of the street, discovered a large section of the lost building's northern wall, which is believed to date back to the late 14th century. The site was preserved, and when the road was relaid, copper setts were laid to mark the location.

However, given its long and tumultuous history, Douglas believes there should be a bigger symbol marking the site of the Tolbooth.

"The setts are an attempt to show the size of the Tolbooth, but I think a lot of tourists would just walk past them. And other than that, there are some spittle-covered cobbles," he laughs. "It was such an important site that it would be nice to have something more tangible marking its place in history."

&#149 Dark Heart: Tales From Edinburgh's Town Jail by Douglas Skelton will be published next month by Mainstream, priced 7.99. To pre-order a copy, visit www.mainstreampublishing.com