On Edinburgh’s bustling High Street, also called the Royal Mile, is ‘the Heart of Midlothian’. It is a heart-shaped mosaic made of coloured granite setts built into the pavement near the West Door of St Giles High Kirk. It marks the position of the 15th-century Old Tolbooth, which was the administrative centre of the town, prison and one of several sites of public execution.
The Old Tolbooth was demolished in 1817, but in 1818 it was resurrected by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Heart of Midlothian. The story of a young girl seeking a Royal pardon for her sister who is accused of killing her child is set against the real-life Porteous Riots which took place in the city in 1736. At the execution of two smugglers the Captain of the City Guards, Captain John Porteous, ordered the soldiers to fire into the crowd, killing several people. A lynch mob stormed the Old Tolbooth, dragged Porteous out and hanged him from a dyer’s pole. He was taken down twice to be beaten and humiliated before finally dying.
You might notice people spitting on the Heart as they pass. Some people say it’s for luck, some as an insult to the prison by debtors when they were released. We say don’t, thanks.