The Canongate Tolbooth is one of the most distinctive stone buildings in the whole of the city of Edinburgh. One of the favourite tourist stops (its clock is a favourite for tourists photographs) the building serves a a reminder that Canongate was once upon a time separate from the city of Edinburgh.
The history of Canongate Tolbooth
The Canongate Tolbooth was built in 1591 and was at the very centre of Canongate life along with the Mercat Cross where business merchants met to trade and do business. The building was built on the instruction of Sir Lewis Bellenden who was the leader of the Canongate area and who ensured that it was built by the finest stonemasons in the Edinburgh area.
The Design of this stone building is stunning and is made up of a central tower and an eastern block where the Council chamber was. The tower is particularly spectacular and has two bartizans and a fantastic conical spire. The functions of the Canongate Tolbooth were many.
These included being the local courthouse, jail and the town council’s meeting place.
The Canongate Tolbooth as prison
It was the first floor of the building that was mainly used as the prison. Although it was used for some serious crimes, its main use was to jail those who had been unable to pay debts or fines or had committed minor misdemeanours.
In the 1600s, it was used to jail many Covenanters who had been accused of treason. There were a number of escapes from the Canongate Tolbooth prison which actually led to James Park who was in charge of the jail being sent to prison himself in 1681.
Further escapes occurred over the next few years leading to another jailer, Walter Young being imprisoned too in 1684! Over time, the use of the Canongate Tolbooth as a jail for more serious crimes and it essentially became a debtors prison by the 1700s.
The decline of the Canongate Tolbooth
Canongate importance as a separate burgh became less and less important as the city of Edinburgh grew in the 1800s. This meant that the Tolbooth became less and less important too and in 1856 Canongate was incorporated officially into the city of Edinburgh.
For much of the 1800s, the building of the Canongate Tolbooth began to decline and fall into disrepair. Thankfully however by 1875, the renowned architect Robert Morham began renovations on the building most noticeably adding the now famous clock as well as repairing the stonework of the building.
The Canongate Tolbooth today
Today the Canongate Tolbooth is a museum known as the The People’s Story which explores the lives of the ordinary people of Edinburgh from the 1700s to today. Here you can see a reconstructed jail cell and live life for yourself just like it was for those people in Edinburgh back in the 1700s and 1800s.
Thanks to its fantastic stone architectural design, the Canongate Tolbooth is a protected category A listed building.