Ever wondered why there is a mosaic heart on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and why it is traditional to spit on the heart as you walk past?
This is the Heart of Midlothian.
Situated next to St Giles Cathedral, this was the site for over 400 years until its demolition in 1817 of Edinburgh‘s infamous, hated and much feared Tollbooth Jail. As well as being imprisoned in appalling conditions often falsely accused, criminals were brutally tortured and executed here. The balcony of the prison served as a means to carry out punishments and executions publicly. Criminals body parts would then be displayed on spikes protruding from the jail as a warning and deterrent, also on public display were offenders chained up in iron collars attached to the outer walls. Many notable figures of Edinburgh’s past were incarcerated here, such as Deacon Brodie, Major Thomas Weir, Sawney Bean, James Douglas 4th Earl of Morton and John Porteous of the Porteous riots along with witches… lots of witches.
This building wasn’t just a jail, it was also a booth for collecting tolls hence the name, a court house, council chamber and meeting place for Parliament. It’s a wonder these latter mentioned institutions could concentrate for the the shrill of anguished screams!
So why spit on the heart? The criminals used to spit on it to show their contempt for the atrocities that went on here for centuries… But nowadays, people spit on it purely for good luck! It’s not the most hygienic way to get good luck, but this is the only place in Britain where it’s legal to spit in public. So if you want to, please feel free to spit away!
In our Hidden Secrets of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile Tour, as well as our Sinister Old Town Tour, our professional costumed tour guide will tell you more gory stories about the infamous Old Tollbooth Jail and those “legendary” prisoners…