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Dark History at the Tolbooth Tavern in Edinburgh

The entrance of the Tolbooth Tavern in Edinburgh. Old Tolbooth Wynd is next to the front door and window of the pub.

If you want to embrace dark history and immerse yourself in a spooky atmosphere, the Tolbooth Tavern in Edinburgh is a must-visit. Here you can grab some unique Scottish pub grub like a Warlock Pie or a Tolbooth Haggis Tower and wash it all down with your favourite pint.

Built in 1591, the Tolbooth Tavern in Edinburgh was formerly part of the original Canongate Tolbooth. This medieval building was used to divide the Royal Burgh of Edinburgh and Canongate.

Over the years, the structure has had many different uses. It once acted as the main public entrance to the burgh, where tolls were collected from travellers entering the burgh. It was also used as a council chamber, police court and prison.

Just as Canongate Tolbooth’s purpose has changed throughout history, so has its architecture. To help provide the city support in Scotland’s battles, gun loops and turrets were constructed. In 1884, the Tolbooth clock was the latest addition.

As you follow the stairs up to the entrance of Canongate Tolbooth, you get a fantastic view of the historic plaque dedicated to King James. The plaque is completed with a thistle, the national flower of Scotland, and an inscription in Latin. In 1856, Canongate was fully incorporated into the city of Edinburgh, removing the need for toll collection and leaving the tolbooth redundant.

Having been around for so many years, it’s not surprising that Canongate Tolbooth has plenty of grim stories to tell from its past.

Witchcraft at the Canongate Tolbooth?

Plaques dedicated to King James V and King James VII line the walls of Canongate Tolbooth. When I saw them, I was a little disappointed as I was hoping to see more ties to King James VI since he was responsible for starting the Great Scottish Witch Hunt.

However, the information doesn’t mention King James VI or if he had any influence on the building. I thought details about his life would be a lot more dominant since there are tales of a suspected warlock being exorcised on the premises by Sir Lewis Bellenden, justice clerk for the burgh. The supposed warlock was said to be so scared he died of fright shortly after the exorcism.

It’s terrifying to think about how spine-chilling the exorcism was if the man who was suspected of being in cahoots with the devil died after the frightening event!

If you enjoy spotting little tidbits from history that most people never notice, look out for Sir Lewis Bellenden’s initials engraved above the archway of the Tolbooth Wynd. They’re right next to the entrance to the Tolbooth Tavern.

View of the old Canongate Tolbooth Building, stairs leading up on the left with two benches up against the building featuring a deer plaque and the entrance to The People's Story Museum on the right

Canongate Tolbooth was used as a prison

The historical Canongate Tolbooth was briefly used as a prison. If you’re familiar with Scottish history, you may be thinking of the Old Tolbooth Prison, located just outside St. Giles Cathedral. But no — it was never the brutal prison with the original location of the gallows marked by the heart of Midlothian. The prison at Canongate Tolbooth was on the ground floor and mostly used for those who weren’t able to pay fines or were guilty of minor offences.

In 1654, Oliver Cromwell’s guards captured enemies of Scotland and held them at the prison inside the Tolbooth. The prisoners managed to escape using a blanket to lower themselves out of the prison, while others after them fled by breaking into the lofts in the neighbouring building.

Between 1661 and 1688, the Scottish Presbyterian movement known as the Covenanters were imprisoned for treason. If you want to visit more sites related to the Scottish Covenanters, stop by the Greyfriars Kirkyard to see the Covenanters’ prison just steps away from the terrifying Black Mausoleum. This was the final resting place of George Mackenzie, a brutal lawyer whose mission in life was to catch and punish the Covenanters.

Tolbooth Tavern’s Haunted History

An evening spent at the second oldest pub in Edinburgh could also be filled with ghostly adventures. Rumours abound speculating that Tolbooth Tavern in Edinburgh is haunted. Many tales have been told about an unnamed spirit, often seen as a shadowy figure, who makes his way around the pub, pushing glasses and bottles off tables and knocking pictures off walls.

The back of the Royal Mile tavern was originally used as housing and is where most of the eerie atmosphere lingers today. As well as the ghost who enjoys causing a racket, there is also said to be the spirits of children who play throughout the pub. Their voices and footsteps are often heard echoing through the air. Some people have also claimed to have heard a ghostly spectre climbing the stairs up to the clock tower. Could this presence be one of the many prisoners held within the Tolbooth’s walls?

The People’s Story Museum

The People's Story Museum Sign outside of the museum in Canongate

Today, the upper level of the historic Canongate Tolbooth is home to The People’s Story Museum. This collection of displays offers visitors a glimpse into the lives of those who lived and worked in Edinburgh between the 18th and 20th centuries. There’s even a reconstructed jail inside, where you can imagine what life was like for the prisoners kept there.

Visit the Tolbooth Tavern & The People’s Story Museum at 167 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8BN, United Kingdom

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Comments 6

  1. It’s strange to think that Canongate and Edinburgh were two separate places in the past. I heard that people from Edinburgh thought it was basically bandit country so would never go there. There’s that other pub nearby called the worlds end because that was as far as many people ever went.

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      Author

      Yes! Anytime I walked by the World’s End I thought “this is it? this is as far as they would go?” It seems so small! You would think life would get boring staying in such small quarters. I kind of love that Canongate was considered bandit country, though!

  2. It’s hard to believe how old these buildings are, and they are still standing, and still being used today. Amazing!

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      Author

      I know! Quality buildings! They have gone through a lot of renovations to become more modern though – but isn’t it cool that you could be living in (or drinking in, if it’s a tavern) a building that was around in the 16th century?

  3. I have to say, Tolbooth Haggis Tower sounds like my worst nightmare.

    Literally my main takeaway is that it wasn’t a very good prison. How many people managed to escape using sheets? Cause that’s just embarrassing for the warden/guards.

    Oh, and I love that you can see Lewis Bellenden’s initials. In my mind he carved them himself in his free time and was super proud of himself Yup, that’s definitely what happened.

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      Author

      Do you think you would eat a vegetarian version of the Haggis Tower? I think quite a few people escaped! It wasn’t the worse prison by far, but bad enough that people wanted to get out. I mean I guess that’s pretty common with prison though. I hope Lewis Bellenden was super proud of his initials being carved into the wall. I am picturing it now.

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