From the outside, No.167 Canongate looks impressive. A huge clock overhangs the archway over Tolbooth Wynd and it is obvious that the five-storey high building is one of the Canongate’s oldest remaining constructions.
The Tolbooth Tavern was built in 1591 and should not be confused with the Tolbooth Prison, a building which was once located near the top of the Royal Mile and served the Royal Burgh of Edinburgh. The Canongate was separate burgh established by King David I in 1143.
The Canongate Tolbooth was the administrative centre for the Burgh, serving as a tollhouse, courthouse, and meeting place of the burgh council. A prison was located on the ground floor and was used to hold Covenanters during the 1600s. The building was commissioned by Sir Lewis Bellenden of Auchintoul who also served as the Justice-Clerk for the Burgh of the Canongate and whose initials can still be seen engraved over the archway today. Indeed, the same Lewis Bellenden was said to have exercised a suspected warlock. The accused was so frightened by this experience that he died soon afterwards.
In time the Canongate was engulfed by the City of Edinburgh and the importance of the Tolbooth slowly faded. In 1820 the front rooms of the Tolbooth became a Tavern and later the upper rooms became the People’s Story Museum, telling the history of the ordinary folk of Edinburgh.
However, as impressive as the building’s exterior seems, this does not compare with the eerie atmosphere within, for not all the spirits found in the tavern are of the alcoholic variety. An entity allegedly concentrates its activities at the back of the pub and specialises in knocking over glasses and bottles. However, occasionally staff have reported seeing an apparition out of their peripheral vision, with activity centred on one particular upstairs door when it is left open. A customer reported seeing two gentlemen in ‘old-fashioned military costume.’ Who are these gentlemen? We may never know but could they possibly be the jailer James Park and his assistant who found themselves incarcerated for allowing their prisoners to escape?