#1 The capital of Scotland

Edinburgh city, capital of Scotland, is home of many world-class attractions, like Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, or attractive men in kilts, amongst others. The city is also famous for its Ghost tours, dwelling in the dark and murky history of the capital, with hair-rising stories such as Half-Hangit Maggie, the serial killers Burke and Hare, and it’s most famous ghost, George Mackenzie, whose mausoleum was actually opened and his head cut by two teenagers. Read about it here.

Edinburgh. City of history, and ghosts. Picture taken by the author of this blog and article from the roof of the National Museum of Scotland

Whether you’ve taken a ride in the iconic double-decked bus or walked the thousand-year-old Royal Mile that links Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood Palace, I’m sure you haven’t failed to notice something particular there . And I’m not talking about the myriad of low-quality souvenir shops that take over the whole street like a plague, or the fact that the bagpipers play the same four tunes over and over again.

#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.

Far from the truth. The story behind the Heart of Midlothian, as it is called, is way darker and more… unsanitary, than you’d imagine. If you sit and watch for a while, I’m sure you’ll notice the 30 Chinese cruise tourists trampling on the way to the castle, or the classic girl taking selfies for her Instagram. But if you’ve a keen eye, you’ll also notice the occasional passer-by speaking the endearable Scottish accent and spitting on the heart as he goes. Aye, that’s a true Scotsman, lads. But the crux of the matter is, why in hell do the locals lubricate the heart in such manner as they pass by?

Now, parting the street you can observe a row of brass bricks running parallel to the north wall of St Giles’ Cathedral. It marks the outline of a building that stood there for four centuries. I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t a whisky shop. It was a Tolbooth. A word you often encounter in Edinburgh, an archaic form for Town Hall.

A depiction of the old Tolbooth in the mid 19th century. If you stand on the same spot of the Royal Mile nowdays, the castle would be on your back, while St Giles’ is just behind the Tolbooth. Lithograph by W and A K Johnston, 1852. Source

#3 The Tolbooth. Edinburgh’s first tax office

The origins of the Tolbooth are 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. As the tiwn grew in importance, it’d also host parliament, law and justice courts, and a tax collecting office.

Drawing of the Tolbooth
Old Tolbooth seen from the south-west. St Giles’ at the right hand side. Author unknown. Based on an eighteenth century painting by Alexander Naysmith (9 September 1758–10 April 1840). Source

By 1560, Edinburgh had grown so much, that the Tolbooth was deemed too small to meet the public necessities. Since changing the curtains wouldn’t do, Queen Mary of Scots commanded that the town council to demolish and rebuild and improved Tolbooth. Either the council didn’t understand royal slang or they were fond of the old building, because instead of demolishing it, they only dismantled it partially, attaching a new south-west wing on to the original building. By 1639, the Scottish Parliament moved to Parliament House, a new building south of St Giles’, a relocation that marked the beginning of the darkest period of the Tolbooth.

“The Dark Side, strong in this place is”

Yoda, 1639
Yoda getting money from tourists next to St Giles
That’s right you can often find Yoda by St Giles’ Picture taken by the author of this article and blog

#4 A hotel for bad guys

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

In 1784 the Grassmarket held its last public execution, and the Tolbooth replaced it as the spot for locals to enjoy the all-populr pastime of the time: watching convicted people dangling at the end of the noose. The Tolbooth had a projecting balcony, where the scaffold gloomily loomed over the spectators, and which was used until 1817. luckily for the bored people, Edinburgh would still held its share of public executions until 1864, when a man called George Bryce was hanged at the junction of George IV Bridge with High Street. The last of its kind.

Drawing depicting the execution of William Burke, but not in the Tolbooth
The serial killer William Burke was one of the most famous people executed in Edinburgh. 1829. Unknown author. Source

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 deliveries. But if the Tolbooth was apparently infamous for something, that was the fact that it was a tax office. A king could safely cut heads but if he dared touching his subjects’ pockets he risked loosing his. Fortunately for the squalid savings of the people, the Tolbooth was demolished in 1817, leaving a nicer, tourist-friendly street to roam.

#5 From prison to tourist attraction

But why a heart, why calling it the Heart of Midlothian? Midlothian was the name of the old county, and the city of Edinburgh was its chief town. But in reality the name comes from a novel, The Heart of Midlothian, by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1818. And why do modern Edinburghers spit on it? Well, it’s obvious that the nature of the building must haven’t sat well with prisoners and tax payers, who hating the Tolbooth customer service, spat on the doors a sign of contempt. As for the 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.

If you decide on following the example of the locals and spit on the heart, you’ll be reassured by the tour guides that this will secure you find love, or visit Edinburgh again. But don’t forget the truth, we spit on the heart because we hate to pay taxes. What a noble reason to use our saliva, indeed.

If your adventures bring you anywhere close to Edinburgh, you might consider taking a free walking tour of the town, which will allow you to hear all the curious and funny stories, the Heart of Midlothian amongst them. Although now you know it already. Click here to book your spots.
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