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#1 Edinburgh’s heart is not in the Castle

A heart shaped in stone, a history of tears, blood and politics behind the Heart of Midlothian in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Edinburgh city, home of the gorgeous Christmas market, the bad weather, kilted bagpipers, a Zoo, bonnie glens, and… Mel Gibson’s buttocks in Braveheart. Indeed, not all monsters dwell at the bottom of Loch Ness! And amidst all the Edinburgh attractions, there’s one that hides a dark secret…

Meme of Mel Gibson. Of course

Either If you’ve taken a ride in the iconic double-decked Edinburgh bus, choose the intimate taxi, or walked the thousand-year-old Royal Mile, linking Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood Palace, you haven’t failed to notice something eerie. I’m not talking about the myriad of souvenir shops, taking over every inch across the street and selling low-quality souvenirs, neither the mysterious location of the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens (I can’t still explain tourists how to get there).

#2 The Heart of Midlothian

Look closer, a few paces from St Giles’ Cathedral, where a group of cobbles form a heart-shaped mosaic. Unless you’ve taken the city tour of Edinburgh, you probably think the Scots are very romantic. That behind the heart, lies a story of lovers forced to hide. Their tragic history immortalised in stone forever. Cute.

Far from the truth. The story behind the Heart of Midlothian, as it is called, is much darker and more… unsanitary, than you could conceive. If you sit and watch a while, observing 30 Chinese cruise tourists trampling on the way to Edinburgh Castle, or 20 years old girls taking selfies for Instagram. Or perhaps you’ll notice the occasional passer-by, speaking incomprehensible English… and spitting on the heart. Aye, they’re true Scots lad. If lucky, you’ll catch sight of one venturing down the Royal Mile, lubricating the heart as they head along to the city offices. But why?

Parting the street, you can spot brass bricks running parallel to the north wall of St Giles’ Cathedral. A building stood there for four centuries. It wasn’t a whisky shop, sorry visitors. It was a Tolbooth. A word you often encounter in Edinburgh, its archaic meaning is Town Hall.

Old drawing of High Street, St Giles and the Tolbooth
Notice St Giles’ steeple and the Tolbooth next to it, in the middle of the Royal Mile

#3 The Tolbooth. Edinburgh’s first tax office

The Tolbooth origins remains obscure, but in 1403 we first hear of a Praetorium of Edinburgh, in this spot. Praetorium, in this context, was a building of public use. This Praetorium was divided in two sections: the first, the Belhouse, hosted local, public and national transactions; the other, the Tolbuith, was where the town council met. Eventually, it also hosted parliament, law and justice courts, and a tax collecting office.

Drawing of the Tolbooth
Old Tolbooth from south-west. St Giles’ at the right hand side

By 1560, the Tolbooth was deemed too small to meet the public necessities.

“What a bloody wee shithole”


Mary Queen of Scots, 1560

Changing the curtains wasn’t enough, therefore queen Mary commanded that the town council tear the Old Tolbooth down, and rebuild it. Either the council didn’t understand royal slang, or decided to act like rebellious teenagers, because instead of demolishing the Tolbooth, they only partially dismantled it, and added a south-west wing on to the original building.

Years later, in 1639, the Scottish Parliament moved to Parliament House, a new building south of St Giles’. This relocation marked the beginning of the darkest period for the Tolbooth.

“The Dark Side, strong in this place is”


Yoda, 1639
Yoda getting money from tourists next to St Giles
Yoda on holidays, next to St Giles

#4 A hotel for the bad guys

From 1481, historical records tells us that part of the Tolbuith was used to lock up bad guys. Mostly wicked English. At that time, prisons weren’t top-notch facilities for tattooed criminals to bulk up in the gym, but rather a place to ward them off, until the magistrate or authorities disposed of them. Creative sentences included the stocks (a variation of pillory in which the feet were restrained), cucking stools (ducking and drowning those suspected of witchcraft in North Loch), nailing the ears of the culprit in the Mercat Cross, hanging, and burning at the stake.

In 1784, the last execution was carried out in the Grassmarket, and the Tolbooth replaced it as the spot for locals to enjoy their favourite pastime: watching criminals and innocents alike hanged, kicking at the end of the noose. The Tolbooth had a projecting balcony, where the scaffold gloomily loomed over the spectators. These gallows were used until 1817. Edinburgh would still have its share of public executions until 1864, when a murderer called George Bryce was hanged at the junction of George IV Bridge with High Street.

Drawing depicting the execution of William Burke, but not in the Tolbooth
Execution of the murderer William Burke in 1829

The Tolbooth also offered a wide assortment of torture treatment for its guests. Devices with original names, like the thumbscrew or the squeezing boot. Not to mention, the heads mounted on spikes above the entrance, scaring away the postman. Finally, in 1817 the Tolbooth was demolished, leaving a nicer, tourist-friendly street to roam.

#5 The centre of Edinburgh’s old town

But why a heart, why it’s called the Heart of Midlothian? Midlothian was the name of the old county, and the city of Edinburgh was its chief town. But in truth the name comes from a novel, The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1818. And why spitting? Prisoners and tax payers didn’t like the Tolbooth customer service, and alongside other locals, spat in the doors. As for why it’s a heart, there’s no definitive explanation. Some theorise the heart symbolises the centre, highlighting where the scaffold stood. A sad heart indeed. Others say it’s because Edinburgh is the heart and centre of Scotland.

Legend says if you spit in the heart you will be lucky, and return to Edinburgh soon. Bullshit. I spat once, and I’m still here, settled down and studying in the university of Edinburgh three years later.

Eager to visit Edinburgh? Or perhaps you want to unravel the mystery under the Kilts? Underwear? Yes? No? Whatever it may be don’t forget to take the Free Walking Tour, and experience in person the picturesque history of the Scottish capital city. Book spots here.
Great opportunity to learn about the history that has always fascinated you! Just drop a suggestion, and I’ll do my best to investigate and bring you a top-notch article. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to subscribe!

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