Traditions of the Old Tolbooth of Edinburgh, Saturday, September 21, 1833, pp.267-268.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]


[From Reekiana, by R. Chambers.] 

   CRIMINALS, notwithstanding every consideration of the meanness which characterises some crimes, and the wickedness and cruelty of others, are an interesting portion of mankind. The interest respecting them is not confined to the young ladies, who conceive that “the youth in his cart has the air of a lord,” and 

– “cry, there dies an Adonis.” 

It is felt by all mankind. The reasons are, that criminals become distinguished and notable above their fellow-creatures – singled out, as it were, and placed in a conspicuous flock, with a pale around them, which the ordinary people of the world will not, dare not overleap. They are interesting, often, on account of their courage – on account of their having dared something which we timorously and anxiously avoid. A murderer or a robber is quite as remarkable a person, for this reason, as a soldier who has braved some flesh-shaking danger. He must have given way to some excessive passion; and all who have ever been transported beyond the bounds of reason by the violence of any passion whatever, generally gain the wonder, if not the admiration, of the rest of the species. Among the inmates of the Old Tolbooth, some of whom had inhabited it for many years, there were preserved a few legendary particulars respecting criminals of distinction, who had formerly been within its walls. 

   One of the most distinguished traits in the character of the Old Tollbooth was, that it had no power of retention over people of quality. It had something like that faculty which Falstaff attributes to the lion and himself – of knowing men who ought to be respected on account of their rank. Almost every criminal of more than the ordinary rank ever yet confined in it, somehow or other contrived to get free. An insane peer, who, about the time of the Union, assassinated a schoolmaster that had married a girl to whom he had paid improper addresses, escaped while under sentence of death. I am uncertain whether the following curious fact, related to me some years ago by Sir Walter Scott, refers to that nobleman, or to some other titled offender. It was contrived that the prisoner should be conveyed out of the Tolbooth in a trunk, and carried by a porter to Leith, where some sailors were to be ready with a boat to take him aboard a vessel about to leave Scotland. The plot succeeded so far as the escape from jail was concerned, but was knocked on the head by an unlucky and most ridiculous accident. It so happened that the porter, in arranging the trunk upon his back, placed the end which corresponded with the feet of the prisoner uppermost. The head of the unfortunate nobleman was therefore pressed against the lower end of the box, and had to sustain the weight of the whole body. The posture was the most uneasy imaginable. Yet life was preferable to ease. He permitted himself to be taken away. The porter trudged along the Krames with the trunk, quite unconscious of its contents, and soon reached the High Street, which he also traversed. On gaining the Netherbow, he met an acquaintance, who asked him where he was going with that large burden. To Leith, was the answer. The other inquired if the job was good enough to afford a potation before proceeding farther upon so long a journey. This being replied to in the affirmative, and the carrier of the4 box feeling in his throat the philosophy of his friend’s inquiry, it was agreed that they should adjourn to a neighbouring tavern. Meanwhile, the third party, whose inclinations had not been consulted in this arrangement, felt in his neck the agony of ten thousand decapitations, and almost wished that it were at once well over with him in the Grassmarket. But his agonies were not destined to be of long duration. The porter, in depositing him upon the causeway, happened to make the end of the trunk come down with such precipitation, that, unable to bear it any longer, the prisoner fairly roared out, and immediately after fainted. The consternation of the porter, on hearing a noise from his burden, was of course excessive; but he soon acquired presence of mind enough to conceive the occasion. He proceeded to unloose and to burst open the trunk, when the hapless nobleman was discovered in a state of insensibility; as a crowd collected immediately, and the city-guard were not long in coming forward, there was of course no further chance of escape. The prisoner did not eventually recover from his swoon till he had been safely deposited in his old quarters; but, if I recollect rightly, he eventually escaped in another way. 

   In two very extraordinary instances, an escape from justice has, strange as it may appear, been effected by means of the Old Tolbooth. At the discovery of the Rye-house Plot, in the reign of Charles the Second, the notorious Robert Fergusson, usually styled “the Plotter,” was searched for in Edinburgh, with a view to his being subjected, if possible, to the extreme vengeance of the law. It being known almost certainly that he was in town, the authorities shut the gates, and calculated securely upon having him safe within their toils. The Plotter, however, by an expedient worthy of his ingenious character, escaped by taking refuge in the Old Tolbooth. A friend of his happened to be confined there at the time, and was able to afford protection and concealment to Fergusson, who, at his leisure, came abroad, and betook himself to a still safer shelter on the Continent. The same device was practised in 1746, by a gentleman who had been concerned in the rebellion, and for whom a hot search had been carried on in the Highlands. 

   The case of Katherine Nairne, in 1766, excited, in no small degree, the attention of the Scottish public. This lady was allied, both by blood and marriage, to some highly respectable families. Her crime was the double one of poisoning her husband, and having an intrigue with his brother, who was her associate in the murder. On her arrival at Leith in an open boat, her whole bearing betrayed so much levity, or was so different from what had been expected, that the mob raised a general cry of indignation, and were on the point of stoning her, when she was with some difficulty rescued from their hands by the public authorities. In this case the Old Tolbooth found itself, as usual, incapable of retaining a culprit of condition. Sentence had been delayed by the judges on account of her pregnancy. The midwife employed at her accouchement (who continued to practise in Edinburgh so lately as the year 1805) had the address to achieve a jail-delivery also. For three or four days previous to that concerted for the escape, she pretended to be afflicted with a prodigious toothach; went out and in with her head enveloped in shawls and flannels; and groaned as if she had been about to give up the ghost. At length, when all the janitory officials were become so habituated to her appearance, as not very much to heed her exits and her entrances, Katherine Nairne one evening came down in her stead, with her head wrapped all round with the shawls, uttering the usual groans, and holding down her face upon her hands, as with agony, in the precise way customary with the midwife. The inner doorkeeper, not quite unconscious, it is supposed, of the trick, gave her a hearty thump on the back as she passed out, calling her at the same time a howling old Jezebel, and wishing she would never come back to annoy his ears, and those of the other inmates, in such an intolerable way. There are two reports of the proceedings of Katherine Nairne after leaving the prison. One bears that she immediately left the town in a coach, to which she was handed by a friend stationed on purpose. The coachman, it is said, had orders from her relations, in the event of pursuit, to drive into the sea, that she might drown herself – a fate which, however dreadful, was considered preferable to the ignominy of a public execution. The other story runs, that she went up the Lawnmarket to the Castlehill, where lived Mr —, a respectable advocate, from whom, as he was her cousin, she expected to receive protection. Being ignorant of the town, she mistook the proper house, and, what was certainly remarkable, applied at that of the crown agent, who was assuredly the last man in the world that could have done her any service. As good luck would have it, she was not recognised by the servant, who civilly directed her to her cousin’s house, where it is said she remained concealed many weeks. Her future life, it has been reported, was virtuous and fortunate. She was married to a French gentleman, was the mother of a large and respectable family, and died at a good old age. Meanwhile, Patrick Ogilvie, her associate in the dark crime which threw a shade over her younger years, suffered in the Grassmarket. This gentleman, who had been a lieutenant in the — regiment, was so much beloved by his fellow-soldiers, who happened to be stationed at that time in Edinburgh Castle, that the public authorities judged it necessary to shut them up in that fortress till the execution was over, lest they might have attempted a rescue. 

   The Old Tolbooth was the scene of the suicide of Mungo Campbell, while under sentence of death (1770) for shooting the Earl of Eglintoune. In the district where this memorable event took place, it is somewhat remarkable that the fate of the murderer was more generally lamented than that of the murdered person. Campbell, though what was called “a graceless man,” and therefore not much esteemed, was rather popular in his profession of exciseman, on account of his rough, honourable spirit, and his lenity in the matter of smuggling. Lord Eglintoune, on the contrary, was not liked, on account of the inconvenience which he occasioned to many of his tenants by newfangled improvements, and his introduction into the country of a generally abhorred article, denominated rye-grass, which was fully as unpopular a measure as the bringing in of Prelacy had been a century before. Lord Eglintoune was in the habit of taking strange crotchets about his farms – crotchets quite at variance with the old-established prejudices of his tenantry. He sometimes tried to rouse the old-fashioned farmers of Kyle from their negligence and supineness, by removing them to other farms, or causing two to exchange their possessions, in order, as he jocularly alleged, to prevent their furniture from getting mouldy, by long standing in particular damp corners. Though his lordship’s projects were all undertaken in the spirit of improvement, and though these migrations were doubtless salutary in a place where the people were then involved in much sloth and nastiness, still they were premature, and carried on with rather a harsh spirit. They therefore excited feelings in the country people not at all favourable to his character. These, joined to the natural eagerness of the common people to exult over the fall of tyranny, and the puritanical spirit of the district, which disposed them to regard his lordship’s peccadilloes as downright libertanism, altogether conspired against him, and tended to throw the glory and the pity of the occasion upon his lordship’s slayer. Even Mungo’s poaching was excused, as a more amiable failing than the excessive solicitude about the preservation of game, which had always been the unpopular mania of the Eglintoune family. Mungo Campbell was a man respectably connected, the son of a provost of Ayr, had been a dragoon in his youth, was eccentric in his manners, a bachelor, and was considered at Newmills, where he resided, as an austere and unsocial, but honourable and correct man. There can be no doubt that he rose on his elbows and fired at his lordship, who had additionally provoked him by bursting into a laugh at his awkward fall. The Old Tolbooth was supposed by many, at the time, to have had her usual failing in Mungo’s case. The interest of the Argyle family was said to have been employed in his favour; and the body, which was found suspended over the door, instead of being his, was thought to be that of a dead soldier from the castle substituted in his place. His relations, however, who were very respectable people in Ayrshire, all acknowledged that he died by his own hand; and this was the general idea of the mob of Edinburgh, who, getting the body into their hands, trailed it down the street to the King’s Park, and, inspired by different sentiments from those of the Ayrshire people, were not satisfied till they got it up to the top of Salisbury Crags, from which they precipitated it down the Cat Nick

   So ends our gossip respecting a building which has witnessed and contained the meetings of the Scottish Parliament in the romantic days of the Jameses – which held the first fixed court of law established in the country – which was looked to by the citizens in a rude age as a fortified place for defence against external danger to their lives and goods – which has immured in its gloomy walls persons of all kinds liable to law, from the gallant Montrose, and the faithful Guthrie and Argyle, down to the humblest malefactor in the modern style of crime – and which, finally, under the name of the Heart of Mid-Lothian, has been embalmed in the imperishable pages of the greatest fictitious writer our country has ever produced. 

2 thoughts on “Traditions of the Old Tolbooth of Edinburgh, Saturday, September 21, 1833, pp.267-268.

  1. Of course Mark Twain saw the Heart of Mid-Lothian author as a malefactor himself:

    Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it– would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

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