Law and Order

In the past, the punishments that people received for crimes were very different from the sentences given to criminals today. Some of the "crimes" that people were punished for also seem very strange to us today. For example, a woman found guilty of spreading gossip would be chained up outside, with a metal bridle locked onto her head. The bridle prevented her from talking.

The Tolbooth was one of the most important buildings in Aberdeen. It was the place where tolls and customs were collected and where the burgh council held its meetings. In 1616 the magistrates of Aberdeen commissioned the building of a prison within the walls of the existing Tolbooth. The prison was completed in 1629 and was in use for the next 200 years.

The cells are small with stone floors and narrow windows. In medieval Aberdeen punishment for criminal offences was usually physical and quickly carried out. Banishment from the Aberdeen area (which means people had to leave the area and were never allowed to come back) was common and imprisonment as a punishment was virtually unknown. It was thought of as expensive and people were usually only kept in prison until they were sentenced.

Aberdeen had a guillotine for carrying out executions. It was called The Maiden. Typically, male murderers were executed by the guillotine. The guillotine was used to chop off their heads, but executions were rare. Aberdeen's executioner would have spent most of his time overseeing physical punishments such as whipping of criminals.

Today there is no death sentence nor physical punishment for crimes in this country. Imprisonment is much more common than in medieval times. Other punishments include fines and community service.

Maiden Scold's Bridle
  1. Find the Jacobite cell in .The Tollbooth What do you think it would have been like to have been chained up there?
  2. There were many attempted and successful escapes from the Tolbooth. Some were opportunistic, taking advantage of poor security and slack discipline. Others were planned with considerable foresight and extraordinary attention to detail. One noteworthy break-out was that of Alexander Keith of Balmuir, imprisoned in 1638 for accumulating debts amounting to 18,000 Scots merks who was smuggled out of the wardhouse hidden in a chest. Write a story about an escape from the Tolbooth.