The Hanged Man of Stirling Tolbooth

If horror’s what you want, my friends, then you need look no further than the grim grey tower of the Stirling Tolbooth - a place of true terror for those unfortunates once bound within its walls. These days it’s the Tolbooth Theatre, ‘Stirling’s venue for music and the arts’, but once upon a time, not so long ago it was feared as the ‘worst prison in all of Britain’.

The Hanged Man of Stirling TolboothMen, women, children as young as six summers old – all could be bundled togetherin it’s dismal dungeons... twenty to a cell, unfed, unwashed, untended by their Jailors – left to wallow in their own muck and misery through each dismal dusk and dawn.

Look up towards the highest window of the Prison Block and you will see...nothing remarkable. These days it's a stationary cupboard. Once upon a time, though, the room beyond this narrow bole served a very dark purpose. It was the Condemned Cell, where those sentenced to hang by the Burgh Baillies would spend their last seven days and nights on God’s green earth before being taken to meet their Maker - courtesy of the public gallows, by the Mercat Cross.

The last man to enjoy the questionable comforts of that chamber was a farmer by trade - an old rogue named Allan Mair. Eighty-six years of age when he was sentenced, he was cast into that wretched place in 1842 - the same year the Tolbooth was damned as the worst Jail in the land. But, before you hink to ‘Oooh!’ and ‘Aaaah!’ at the thought of some poor old soul suffering’ such a terrible fate, think again. Mair was as black-hearted a rogue as you might ever fear to meet. He’d beaten and bullied his old wife, Mary, every day and night of the four decades that they were wed. He starved her, too. He locked her in a trunk and left her there for days on end. And, if any thought to aid her in her misery, he’d snarl and sneer...and bid them mind their business and leave him in peace to attend to his.

Then, one bright Spring night in 1842, he returned home to find old Mary freed from her trunk. Oh, it wasn’t her fault, she said…she swore a neighbour had heard her weeping and ended her captivity. She swore she hadn’t meant to defy her husband’s will…but Alan knew bette. He felt that his wife should be made to learn a lasting lesson as to the error of her wilful ways. Grasping his walking stick in his wrinkled hand, he dashed his bride's brains out on the floor.

Now, there hadn’t been a hanging in Stirling for many years, and the Bailies - ever eager to save themselves a penny or two - hoped that prison would prove too much for the old soul, and that he would have the good manners not to outlive his welcome.

But, no…he clung to life, like a miser to his last penny.

Months passed. Embarrassed by the long delay, the Baillies of the Burgh grudgingly set a date for the old man's end. On the dull, dreich morn of October 4th 1843 - some eighteen months after he had been thrown into the Tolbooth cells - Mair was taken to meet his maker. Too weak to walk after his long confinement, the wrinkled villain was strapped to the chair on which he had sat to enjoy his final breakfast, and carried over the jeering, smiling faces of the mob – country bumphins come to the Market to see the fine entertainment of an old man’s life crushed from his withered body. Still strapped to that stool he railed and ranted as the rope was looped about his neck.

The crowd cheered as he dropped.

They did not laugh for long.

His tongue swelled. His eyes bulged as though they were like to burst from their sockets. His flesh took on a most peculiar purple hue. A pretty sight, indeed. But, sad to tell, he did not die.

All the while a guttural, gasping frowl seemed to rise within him as he turned and twisted at the rope's end.

After all that time locked away, half starved, in the worst jail in the land, it seems - even with the chair still strapped to his limbs - Master Mair's frail form lacked the weight for the gallows-drop to snap his sinful neck.

He was left to dangle, slowly strangling as the noose slowly tightened about his gullet. He twitched. He twisted. Somehow one skinny wrist slipped from it's binding, and his arm flailed wildly in the chill air...as though he sought to loose the knot about his neck.

At this the crowd quaked, thinking him possessed - fearing that Auld Hornie himself might free his servant and let him wreak revenge on those that scorned him in his final hour. How else, after all, could one so old and frail survive such an ordeal?

The hopeless hangman, seeing panic sweeping through the crowd, elected to end matters on his own terms. He leaped from the gib, grasped the murderer’s ankles…and swung upon them until Mair’s neck was heard to snap.

There you might expect Auld Alan's tale to end...but no.

Mair’s kin polaced no claim upon the corpse, and no Godless villain was welcome in the kirkyard…so it was decided that his bones should be buried beneath the new step then being laid by the Tollbooth door.

And then…it started: doors locked tight in dead of night, were found, wide-open, by the dawn’s first light; lanterns, dimmed, found blazing bright…and a dread chill was often noted by those that ventured to the upper chambers…where Mair lived out his last malicious months upon this Earth.

Then, as sudden as death itself - as the old Jail’s conversion to an Arts’ Centre - required the murderer’s bones be moved, and the Kirk, mellowed by the passing of the years, allowed his burial, at last, within consecrated grounds – these odd occurrences ceased.

Coincidence? Perhaps

His bones lie, now – unmarked, untended – in a secluded spot within the old kirk-yard, forgotten by all save the unquiet dead!

Does his evil endure, I wonder? Does he mind our passing? Does his vengeful wraith seek to ensnare unsuspecting travellers upon our dark path…to snatch from them the precious breath of life they hold most dear…?

Probably not…but I’d tread softly as you go by…just in case!

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The Tolbooth Theatre, Stirling’s venue for music and the arts is open to the public most days.

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