Things Ain't What They Used To Be: Dark Pasts of Places (Part II)

SUP's Frances Mann takes us through Part II of her series on the dark underbelly of classic urban locations

Submitted by SarahManavis on 12-10-2017 11:46:54

Crime and punishment was once a spectator sport in Scotland. It was not unusual for families to take picnics along to watch the latest famous felon have his neck stretched on the gallows. There are sites all around Scotland whose names reflect this grisly past – Gallowgate in Glasgow, Hangman’s Brae in Aberdeen are just 2 examples. However, from the mid-19th century, the taste for public capital punishment was dwindling, with authorities finding the whole business of building gibbets and crowd control very expensive. New prisons were needed to house the felons and, when required, provide a private place for hangings. All around the country, imposing and gloomy Victorian prisons appeared, replacing their tiny and inadequate medieval counterparts. Now, in the 21st century, long after they have ceased to be used as prisons, some have taken on a new mantle and hide their criminal past under some very curious, and sometimes apt, disguises:

The Thieves Pot

When you pop into WH Smith’s in Stirling’s Thistles Shopping Centre to buy a packet of Minstrels, pause and think for a minute, ‘what lies beneath my feet?’ I can bet the last thing you would imagine is a medieval jail, or bottle dungeon, dating back to the 16th century. Long before the advent of cut price stationery and books about weight loss, on this site stood part of Stirling’s defences, the Burgh Wall. This section was a bastion, a heavily fortified tower within the wall, and the dungeon it housed was very small indeed. It would have been accessed by a hatch, down a narrow vertical shaft to a small hollow beneath ground level, sometimes with barely enough room for the prisoner to lie down. There would be no natural light; the only time the prisoners saw light was when the hatch was opened. Sometimes, these dungeons were called “Oubliettes”, which derives from the French, “to forget”, as once a prisoner was entombed, it was very easy to forget they were there. Out of sight, out of mind! The Thieves Pot is rumoured to be haunted today and neighbouring shops have reported strange goings on, sensations and noises coming from the site. Maybe the ghosts of the former inhabitants would prefer a spirit merchant as a neighbour...

Thistle's Shopping Centre, Stirling

Calton Hill

Calton Hill, circa 1892

You’d think Edinburgh Castle was a fairly obvious landmark that no one could miss on arrival into Edinburgh. Well you’d be wrong as there is another building perched on a volcanic plug in the city centre, which many have mistaken for the castle and, frankly, then wonder what all the fuss was about! On the lower slopes of Calton Hill stands the castellated and turreted Governors House for the Old Calton Jail. The Calton Jail adjoining the Governors House, was completed in 1817, replacing the medieval Tolbooth Jail which stood, literally, in the middle of the High Street. The new Jail was then the largest in Scotland, and later provided new indoors facilities for the dispatch of condemned criminals. Even though they could not longer witness the hangings, huge crowds still gathered outside the jail to watch the black flag rising from the top of the Governors House, signifying the death of the condemned.

The jail was demolished in 1935 to make way for St Andrew’s House, one of the main offices of the Scottish Govenment and workplace for around 1400 civil servants. All that remains are a few patches of the old walls, the Governors House and the 10 corpses of hanged men who were buried under what is now the car park. However, take a trip to the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket, itself a notorious place of punishment, and there you will find the door to the condemned cell from the jail, from which some of Scotland’s most notorious murderers emerged to keep their date with the hangman.

A few other prisons...

There are lots of really good examples of old prisons around the country, which have now been turned into visitor attractions. The Tolbooth Museum in Aberdeen is one of the best preserved 17th century jails in Scotland. The Canongate Tolbooth is now a pub and museum, The People’s Story. Jedburgh Castle Jail and Stirling Old Town Jail both date from the 19th century jail and are now museums. And then there’s my favourite, Stumpy Tower in Girvan, opened in 1827 after the original tower proved just too easy to escape from. That’s what happens when you put a thatched roof on a jail! 


Stay tuned for Part III, coming soon...

Girvan Steeple, 19th century


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