Heritage consultant David Hicks brings us the stories behind some of East Lothian’s historic properties.

Even today the tolbooth is a prominent feature on the main street in Musselburgh, a large landmark building with a rather elaborate steeple. But this symbol of civic pride has a sinister past, as it played a key role in the witch trials of the 1600s, one of the darkest periods in Scottish history. 

At one time every Scottish town would have had a tolbooth. It was the council house, a place to pay taxes and for officials to meet, a courthouse and a prison. When it was built it would have been seen as a great honour for the town, even if it was also a huge drain on its resources. 

The oldest part of the building is the tower, which could well date back to medieval times. This used to house a clock given to the town by Dutch merchants in 1496, which can still be seen in the first floor entrance hall. The long narrow block running along the street dates to around 1590. An interesting feature is the parapet walk along the front of the main block, perhaps intended for the exercise of prisoners.

In the Georgian period a new wing was constructed next to the tolbooth, and it has a distinctly different character with elegant classical columns. In the 1800s cells were constructed on the first and second floors, with rooms for the jailer and to serve as a debtors prison. But earlier in its past, this building held a very different kind of prisoner. 

In November 1628 Margaret Jo was imprisoned in the tolbooth, accused of witchcraft. The officials in Musselburgh had a particular reputation for brutality and cruelty, and they had tortured and shackled her. Undaunted, Margaret somehow managed to write a letter of complaint to the Privy Council, who ordered that she be released from her irons.

In July 1661 the tolbooth was used again, during a period of large scale witch hunts across East Lothian. Records show that Janet Lyle was held and tried in the building, then sentenced to be strangled then burned at the stake.

Today there are several plaques on the building, commemorating different aspects of its history. But Margaret Jo and Janet Lyle are not remembered in any official way. Perhaps it is time to mark their part in the tolbooth’s history.

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