The History of Leith

October 19, 2011

The old Tolbooth and Town Hall

The old Tolbooth and Town Hall, was built in 1565 by the citizens of Leith, though not without strenuous opposition by their jealous feudal over-lords the community of Edinburgh, and was a singularly picturesque example of the old Tolbooth of a Scottish burgh.
Anxious to please her people in Leith Queen Mary wrote several letters to the Town Council of Edinburgh, hoping to soothe the uncompromising hostility of that body to the measure; and at length the required effect was produced by the following epistle, which we have somewhat divested of its obsolete orthography :—
” To the Provost, Bailies, and Counsale of Edinburgh
“Forasmeikle as we have sent our requisite
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 samyn;
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.
” Subscribit with our hand at Holyrood House,
the ist day of March, this year of God 1563.

This mandate had the desired effect, and in two years the building was completed, as an ornamental tablet, with the Scottish arms boldly sculptured, the inscription, and date, ” IN DEFENS, M. R.,
1565,” long informed the passer-by.
This edifice, which measured, as Kincaid states, sixty feet by forty over the walls, had a large archway in the centre, above which were two
windows of great height, elaborately grated. On the “.vest of it, an outside stair gave access to the first floor ; on the east there projected a corbelled oriel, or turret, lighted by eight windows, all grated.
Three elaborate string mouldings traversed the polished ashlar front of the building, which was surmounted by an embrasured battlement, and in one part by a crowstepped gable.
Few prisoners of much note have been incarcerated here, as its tenants were generally persons who had been guilty of minor crimes. Perhaps the most celebrated prisoner it ever contained was the Scottish Machiavel, Maitland of Lethington, who had fallen into the merciless hands of the Regent Morton after the capitulation of Edinburgh Castle in 1573, and who died, as it was said, “in the old Roman fashion,” by taking poison to escape a public execution.
This was on the 9th of July, as Calderwood records, adding that he lay so long unburied, ” that the vermin came from his corpse, creeping out under the door where he died.”
Such an occurrence, it has been remarked, said little for the sanitary arrangements of the Leith Tolbooth, and it is to be hoped that it had few other prisoners on that occasion.

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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