The History of Leith

June 8, 2006

The Story of the Old Tolbooth of Leith

The Old Tolbooth and Town Hall was built in 1565 by the people of Leith and on the orders of Mary, Queen of Scot in the face of opposition from Edinburgh. The request was ignored by Edinburgh until the Queen herself wrote-

“Forasmeikle as we have sent our request sundry times to you to permit the inhabitants of our town of Leith to big and edifie ane hous of justice within the samyn and has received no answer from you and so the work is steyit and cessit in your default.

Wherefore we charge you that ye permit our said town of Leith to big and edifie ane said hous of justice within our said town of Leith and make no stop or impediment to them to do the saym for it is our will that the samyn be biggit and that ye desist from further molesting them in time coming as we will answer to as thereupon”

This had the desired effect and the Tolbooth was built within two years with the Coat of Arms of Mary ,Queen of Scots over the front door. This Coat of Arms can now be seen in the West Porch of South Leith Church.

The building was large measuring 60 feet by 40 feet with a large archway in the centre above which were two very large grated windows and on the west an outside stair gave access to the first floor on the east was a turret with windows all grated.

The most famous prisoner held here was Maitland of lethington held on the Orders of the Regent Morton after the fall of Edinburgh Castle in 1573. Instead of facing a public execution he took poison. Although rumours were circulated that he was murdered. In point of fact his body lay unburied for so long that the rats came from the corpse and left by going under the door of the cell. The conditions of the Tolbooth were a disgrace.

During the persecution under the Earl of Lauderdale Mr John Gregg who had been a minister at Stirling was arrested and held in the Tolbooth for holding a conventicle in the house of his brother in law Thomas Stark at Leith Mills. In March 1675 he was removed to the Castle on the Bass Rock.

In 1678 Hector Allan was arrested for abusing Mr Thomas Wilkie minister of North Leith and sent to the Bass Rock. Later he was held for several months in the Tolbooth.

On the 18th of August 1685 the Privy Council sat in the Tolbooth and examined seventy-two Covenanters-

“Those who took the oaths of allegiance and abjuration were released. Those who refused to comply were banished to His Majesties plantations and charged never to return without the Kings or Council’s special leave”

The ship they were transported in sank with no survivors.

In 1713 Jean Ramsay was held in the Tolbooth for dragging an old, sick and infirm man from his bed and abused him to such an extent that he died. She was ordered to be lashed through the town on here bare back.

From 1715 it was used for the quartering troops in Leith. By the beginning of the 19th century the Tolbooth was in a very bad condition and after the Edinburgh Tolbooth was demolished likewise the Leith Tolbooth was to be demolished as well. This was done over the protest of several noted antiquarians including Sir Walter Scott. The Councils reply was “that the expense of new plans had been incurred”. The Tolbooth was demolished in 1819 and all that remains to this day to remind us of this building is the name of the street in which it once stood “Tolbooth Wynd”

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