The History of Leith

April 17, 2012

The Old Tolbooth

About the middle of the (Tolbooth) wynd, on the south side,
stood the edifice used, until 1812, as the Customhouse
of Leith. It was somewhat quadrangular,
wi(ji a general frontage of about a hundred feet,
with a depth of ninety.
Riddle’s Close separated it from the old Tolbooth
and Town Hall, on the same side of the wynd.
It 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 west 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.

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