Edinburgh is a very pictoresque city that offers visitors and tourists several nice locales to take a picture. One such place is located along the Royal Mile, in an area known to locals as the Canongate, and it is the Tolbooth Tavern, situated in an impressive stone building with an ornate clock tower. But what many tourists may be unaware of is that this building hides a quite macabre past.
Originally built in 1591, the building that contains The Tolbooth Tavern was used to collect tolls from travelers who wished to enter the city as the Canongate was separate burgh, established by King David I in 1143.
The building also functioned as a council chamber, police court, but also a prison that incarcerated many individuals who fought alongside Charles Edward Stuart, last serious Stuart claimant to the British throne and leader of the unsuccessful Jacobite rebellion of 1745–46. They were often beaten and, in some cases, even wrongly accused.
The building was commissioned by Sir Lewis Bellenden of Auchintoul who also served as the Justice-Clerk for the Burgh of the Canongate and whose initials can still be seen engraved over the archway today.
Indeed, the same Lewis Bellenden was said to have exorcised a suspected warlock. The accused was so frightened by this experience that he died soon afterwards.
In the middle of the 1600s, Oliver Cromwell’s army detained several Scottish enemies of the state within the structure. Fortunately, these incarcerated men were able to make their escape by fashioning bedclothes to make a rope and climbing out an upper window.
But, if these stories weren’t enough, nearly a decade later, the cells would be filled with Covenanters, religious inmates who objected to the king being the Head of the Church.
If they weren’t sent to Greyfriars, they were shipped off to the Caribbean to endure years of hard labor.
In addition, they would be physically marked for their offense: men would have an ear cut off and women would be branded on their faces.
In time the Canongate was engulfed by the City of Edinburgh and the importance of the Tolbooth slowly faded but, in any case, this impressive five-story building is one of the oldest structures remaining from the Early Modern Period along this stretch of road.
It didn’t become an official drinking establishment until 1820 when the Canongate was officially absorbed into Edinburgh.
The clock structure was eventually added in 1884, emblazoned with the symbol of King David I and Holyrood, a stag with a cross-centered in its horns.
The rear area of the bar was not incorporated until the 1900s and the entire premises has operated as an alehouse ever since.
Of course, a building as old as this one is bound to have its fair share of unwanted guests and more or less decent ghost stories.
Not by chance, staff and clients have both reported the presence of the spectral nature, from objects being moved around, to items falling off walls and tables. An entity allegedly concentrates its activities at the back of the pub and specialises in knocking over glasses and bottles. However, occasionally staff have reported seeing an apparition out of their peripheral vision, with activity centred on one particular upstairs door when it is left open, while some customers reported seeing two gentlemen literally “in old-fashioned military costume.”
Maybe the tormented souls of the former prisoners or maybe ill-fated warlock still haunt the premises but, in any case, looking up towards the roof, to the left of the clock tower, one will notice sea shells implanted into the structure.
And, not by chance, It has been suggested that these offered protection from spirits….
Author’s note: Tolbooth Tavern website