Ads Top

Why do People Spit on The Heart of Midlothian?

Spitting on the streets is not quite gentlemanly behavior, but on the Royal Mile in Edinburg, it is almost a ritual.

The object of contempt is an innocuous heart-shaped mosaic set in the cobble stones of the street, just to the west of St. Giles Kirk. Known as the Heart of Midlothian, the sign marks the spot where the infamous Old Tolbooth prison once stood. It was the place where the people of Edinburgh gathered for public hangings and spit at the door in disdain for those imprisoned inside.

The Heart of Midlothian

Image credit: Mike McBey/Flickr

The Old Tolbooth was built sometime in the 14th century for housing the Burgh Council, the court house and a jail. It was also the place where Edinburgh residents paid their taxes, from whence came its name. The Old Tolbooth prison was primarily used to hold death row convicts who were due to be hanged shortly. The prison was notorious for the deplorable living conditions of its cells, and the judicial torture that was carried out there. Aside from the usual medieval torture routine, body parts of executed prisoners, often their heads, were exhibited on spikes. In 1581, after the Earl of Morton, James Douglas, was executed for the murder of Lord Darnley, the king consort of Scotland, his head was placed on “the prick on the highest stone,” and it remained there for 18 months. The decapitated head of James Graham, the 1st Marquess of Montrose, who fought in the Scottish civil war was on view for five years.

The most detailed description of the shocking conditions of the Old Tolbooth prison comes from the 18th century historian, Hugo Arnot. The prison, Hugo Arnot wrote, has no ventilators, or water-pipe, or a privy. “The filth collected in the jail is thrown into a hole within the house at the foot of a stair, which, it is pretended, communicates with a drain; but, if so, it is so completely chocked, as to serve no other purpose but that filling the jail with disagreeable stench.”

Old Tolbooth

His account continues:

When we visited the jail there were confined in it about twenty-nine prisoners, partly debtors, partly delinquents; four or five were women, and there were five boys. Some of these had what is called the freedom of the prison, that is, not being confined to a single apartment. As these people had the liberty of going up and down stairs, they kept their rooms tolerably clean swept. They had beds belonging to themselves; and in one room, we observed a pot on the fire. But, wherever we found the prisoners confined to one apartment, whether on account of their delinquencies, or that they were unable to pay for a little freedom, the rooms were destitute of all accommodation, and very nasty.

The prison was in such sorry state that when Mary, Queen of Scots, visited the prison in 1561, she ordered that the building should be demolished. In response, the town council built a new building where members of the Burgh Council could meet. They also partitioned off the west end of St Giles' which was then used for meetings of Parliament and the Court of Session. The Old Tolbooth survived for another 250 years until it was demolished in 1817.

But Edinburgh’s residents were not ready to let go of its legacy. Only a year later, the famous Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott, penned The Heart of Midlothian, a tale about the Old Tolbooth prison. The title of the book was a direct reference to the Old Tolbooth, which had become known to all as the Heart of Midlothian since the 18th century. The book is regarded to be Scott’s finest work.

Shortly after, the cobble stone heart was installed at the spot where the prison entrance once was and brass markers signify the overall positioning of the building. Since then it has become a local custom to spit on the heart for good luck.

spitting on The Heart of Midlothian

People spitting on The Heart of Midlothian. Image credit: Lee Carson/Flickr

The Heart of Midlothian

Image credit: Nick Callaghan/Flickr

Ads bottom

Powered by Blogger.