1591. Renovated by R H Morham, 1879 and 1884 (see Notes). Irregularly arranged, 16th century tolbooth in Franco-Scottish style comprising advanced, 5-storey belfry-tower and 2-storey and attic, 4-bay former council chambers to right. Predominantly squared, coursed rubble with some snecking to earlier fabric.
FURTHER DESCRIPTION: PRINCIPAL (S) ELEVATION: tollbooth comprises full-height square-plan projection with window at each level and round-arched pend running beneath; conical-capped bartizans at 5th floor with quatrefoil gunloops; conical spire to tower with flattened broaches, louvred openings and weathervane finial. Timber clock with leaded ogee-roof projects from 5th floor, supported by double-curved cast-iron brackets. Cast-iron railed forestair to council chambers abuts tower at E angle; corbelled and finialled oriel window to 1st floor right; deeply moulded dentiled attic cill course above, shouldered pedimented dormers with star and thistle finials. Metal rememberance plaque to centre with moulded and pedimented crest panel above.
INTERIOR: Ground floor modernised except for vaulted cell to S of tollbooth tower. Cellar beneath W end of main block with small windows to street level. 1st floor lobby with nail-studded stair-doorway. Main hall: pine panelling salvaged, 1954, from demolished houses in surrounding area; 18th century fireplace with plaster overmantle in E wall. Upper rooms contain 17th century ceilig with painted beams. Spire and bell-chamber retain early timbers within roof-structure and bell frames.
Predonminantly 12 and 15-pane timber sash and case windows with horns to council chambers. 9-pane fixed glazing with lugged upper panes to dormer windows. Broad ridge stack to rear of tower and end stack to E. Clay cans. Cast-iron rain water goods.
Statement of Special Interest
Part of an 'A Group' comprising Canongate Parish Church; Canongate Tolbooth; 167-169 Canongate; 142-146 Canongate, Huntly House; 140 Canongate, Acheson House and the Canongate Burgh Cross which together form the historic core of the former Canongate Burgh (see separate listings).
The Canongate Tolbooth is among the oldest extant structures on the Canongate and is an outstanding and rare survival of 16th century burgh architecture. Its turreted tower with conical-roofed bartizans and principal 'court-house' elevation brimming with architectural detail sets it apart as an archetypal example of its type. Tolbooths were the centre of local administration and justice in Scottish burghs from the medieval period until the 19th century and as such, represent a particularly significant aspect of Scotland's social history. Occupying a central position on the Canongate, opposite the 17th century Huntly House (see separate listing), the tolbooth adds significantly to the character of the streetscape.
Constructed in 1591 by justice-clerk and feudal superior of the Burgh, Sir Lewis Bellenden (initials carved above the Tolbooth Wynd pend), the building was the administrative centre of the Canongate, serving as courthouse, burgh jail and meeting place of the town council. The Latin inscription on the front of the building reads: 'The Place of the Seal of the Burgh. For Native Land and Posterity. 1591'. The tolbooth underwent numerous alterations during the 17th and 18th centuries, culminating in a late 19th century reworking of the exterior by Robert Morham, including the projecting clock, dormered windows and dentilled cill course. It is currently (2007) used as one of the city's museums.
The historic and architectural value of Edinburgh's Canongate area as a whole cannot be overstated. Embodying a spirit of permanence while constantly evolving, its buildings reflect nearly 1000 years of political, religious and civic development in Scotland. The Canons of Holyrood Abbey were given leave by King David I to found the burgh of Canongate in 1140. Either side of the street (a volcanic ridge) was divided into long, narrow strips of land or 'tofts'. By the end of the 15th century all the tofts were occupied, some subdivided into 'forelands' and 'backlands' under different ownership. Fuedal superiority over Canongate ceased after 1560. The following century was a period of wide-scale rebuilding and it was during this time that most of the areas' mansions and fine townhouses were constructed, usually towards the back of the tofts, away from the squalor of the main street. The 17th century also saw the amalgamation of the narrow plots and their redevelopment as courtyards surrounded by tenements. The burgh was formally incorporated into the City in 1856. Throughout the 19th Century the Canongate's prosperity declined as large sections of the nobility and middle classes moved out of the area in favour of the grandeur and improved facilities of Edinburgh's New Town, a short distance to the North. The Improvement Act of 1867 made efforts to address this, responding early on with large-scale slum clearance and redevelopment of entire street frontages. A further Improvement Act (1893) was in part a reaction to this 'maximum intervention', responding with a programme of relatively small-scale changes within the existing street pattern. This latter approach was more consistent with Patrick Geddes' concept of 'conservative surgery'. Geddes was a renowned intellectual who lived in the Old Town and was a pioneer of the modern conservation movement in Scotland which gathered momentum throughout the 20th century. Extensive rebuilding and infilling of sections of the Canongate's many tenements took place, most notably by city architects, E J McRae and Robert Hurd (mid 20th century) with some early frontages retained and others rebuilt in replica.
The tolbooth was de-scheduled in 2003. List description revised as part of Edinburgh Holyrood Ward resurvey (2007/08).