Last Limb O’ The Law
Stirling’s Mercat Cross provides a pretty centrepiece to the historic Old Town. From the birth of the Royal Burgh in 1130, when the merchants of the town were first granted the right to hold a weekly market here, it was the centre of trade – and of public punishment. The more public the better, in fact: whippings, brandings and ‘luggings’ – where villains would be nailed through the ear to the public scales – were performed each Market Day until the 19th-century, warning the townsfolk of the harsh consequence of crimes against their neighbours.
Offenders might be placed in the Jougs: a tight iron collar with two arms, three feet long, within which their wrists would be tightly cuffed. Fixed to the Cross, a notice pinned to their shirts would invite the market-goers to pelt these villains with all the muck and misery the gutters might provide. Ladies of ‘low character’ might find their legs trapped in the stocks, or Cuck-Stool, ‘paynted rede upon the Provost’s order’ that they might be known as scarlet women! Both these delightful devices are currently on display within the Smith Art Gallery and Museum.
Hangings – like witch-burnings, performed in what is now the Valley Cemetery in earlier days – were rare: not because our magistrates were merciful, but because they resented the expense of execution. Until 1820, when the Radical Weavers Baird and Hardie were hanged and beheaded in Broad Street, executions were performed outside the Burgh Wall at the ‘Gallows Mailing’ (currently home to the Victorian Black Boy Fountain): a warning to visitors to the Burgh to be on their best behaviour.
The tiny cells beneath the Tolbooth – today ‘Stirling’s Venue For Music And The Arts’ – were packed with those awaiting execution, public punishment, fines, banishment or Transportation to the colonies. Desperate prisoners were left to beg for food through the bars. Conditions were harsh, but an improvement on the lot of those locked away within the medieval Bottle Dungeon beneath the Burgh Wall – still accessible in The Bastion, beneath Thistles Shopping Centre, and still in use until the early 1700s.
Old Town Jail
Overcrowded and unsanitary, the Tolbooth was condemned by Inspector of Prisons Frederick Hill as ‘the worst prison in Britain’, in 1841. Shamed, Stirling’s Council was forced to build a new County Jail, known in recent years as the Old Town Jail, which operated on the Separate System, with each convict allocated their own cell, and sought to reform offenders. This ‘Radical frippery’ did not please the local populace, who balked at the cost of feeding the rascals, let alone rehabilitating them. Opening in 1847, it was commandeered by the army in 1888, and served at Scotland’s Detention Barracks until 1936.
Renovated in the 1990s, it now serves as a visitor attraction, introducing audiences to the dubious delights of Victorian crime and punishment with live daily performance tours each summer.