Oot & Aboot to Visit the Tolbooth Museum

Stephen F. Dennstedt

So we decided to go oot & aboot to visit the Tolbooth Museum this morning. But it’s cold again with temperatures hovering at 2°C/35°F with winds of 11 mph (Windchill -3°C/26°F). Did I mention the rain, sleet and snow flurries?

The Tolbooth Museum was formerly a jail or prison in 17th-Century Aberdeen, Scotland and it sits just a few blocks away from our hotel. Like the Aberdeen Maritime Museum it is absolutely free of charge to locals and tourists alike.

It’s a huge building and occupies one or two blocks on Union Street. We thought we were in for a real treat—after all the Maritime Museum looked puny by comparison, even though it covered four levels, and it proved to be a terrific museum. It was starting to rain when we finally ducked into the entryway and received our map from the docent. He directed us around the corner and up the winding circular stairs to the old cells. The stairs are treacherous for old guys like us—narrow, steep, small for American big feet and completely lacking in handrails except for some ropes added in recent years.

The Tolbooth (Former Prison) – Aberdeen, Scotland

It was the same experience we had at Blarney Castle in Ireland while climbing the stairs to the upper floors and turrets. The steps are not necessarily uniform in size and can really trip you up if you’re not paying attention. Also, I am very conscious of my big DSLR camera potentially slamming up against the stone walls and getting broken. Finally, since my cerebral event in Guatemala four years ago I tend to suffer from some vertigo further complicating matters. Heights don’t scare me (at least not too much) but I find myself wanting to topple over. Not good.

Stairway in The Tolbooth Museum

It’s like an inner ear infection that makes you dizzy—if I look up at a tall tree or building I tend to fall over backwards. Embarrassing to say the least. These days I’m mindful of holding something (anything) before looking sharply up or down so I don’t lose my balance. As Dirty Harry is fond of saying: A man has to know his limitations. So long-story-short I’m careful when we’re prowling around these old buildings and ruins. And if the steep and narrow steps aren’t enough just one moments inattention and you will bash your head on a low ceiling (and that hurts like the very devil).

Original Cell in The Tolbooth Museum

The museum was a bit of a disappointment overall but shouldn’t have been since it was free. What’s the old maxim: Never look a gift horse in the mouth. It’s just that there wasn’t much to see—about three different cells was the extent of the displays. Evidently the rest of building which is very large, as you can see in the photo, is used for government purposes and houses a lot of administrative offices and such. The original cells would have been very dark and dank and I suspect very cold too. No windows to the outside were visible in any of the rooms.

Display in a Former Cell

There were placards in the various rooms describing the types of crimes that could get you sentenced to this prison (witchcraft, debtors and theft) and what the punishments might have been. I’m sure the living conditions were deplorable like other 17th-Century jails and prisons: full of vermin of every type and description and of course disease. I can’t imagine the food was very good or plentiful either—probably mostly gruel, bread and water. Many of the walls still sported rings for shackles so I suspect the inmates who were insane and violent were chained up.

Heavy Wood & Iron Doors


2 responses to “Oot & Aboot to Visit the Tolbooth Museum

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