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The Heart of Midlothian

The Heart of Midlothian is a large heart shape picked out in the stones of Edinburgh's Royal Mile on the High Street section outside of Saint Giles Cathedral, near the Duke of Buccleuch statue. It's one of the most well known features of the Mile, although visitors might be surprised by the apparent lack of respect shown by passing locals. If you stand near the heart for just a few minutes you'll probably see someone spit on it as they pass by. So what's that all about then? Why do tourists and locals alike spit on such an attractive pavement feature?

History

The Heart represents the location of the old Tolbooth building and metal markers in the ground nearby show the extent of the original walls. The Tollbooth was probably built during the 14th century and the building stood there in some form until the early 19th century.

The Tolbooth was used for a number of purposes down the years. As well as a tollbooth it was used as a tax office, with people from the city having to visit the Tollbooth to pay their taxes (one early meaning of the word "toll" was "tax").

Later on the building was used as a prison - it held the condemned cells for those sentenced to hang. The cells of the Tollbooth were said to be even damper, darker and miserable than most other prisons of the time and were often the last place a convict would see before the gallows.

The Heart of Midlothian was also the title of one of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels.

Spitting on the Heart

The Heart is sometimes referred to as the 'spitting stone'. Why this strange name?

Because of the building's unpleasant associations it naturally became a very unpopular place. To show their contempt for authority, taxes, prisons and the gallows the people of Edinburgh started to spit on the ground outside the Tollbooth whenever they passed.

This tradition continues to this day with many people every hour spitting on the heart itself. Most of those who do so probably have no idea of the place's history; it's said by many that spitting on the heart is lucky, however this is a relatively modern interpretation.

Given the unsanitary way in which it's treated, I certainly think it would be unlucky to stand in the heart - you'll often see locals veer around it to avoid doing so.

There are various stories about people misunderstanding the significance of the heart. One of the best known is of the young man who saw the heart and thought it would be romantic to kneel down in it to propose to his girlfriend... yeuch, what a way to start a marriage! That story might be apocryphal, however I have myself seen parents telling little children to go and sit in the heart for a photo.

The Heart is also the symbol for one of the city's football teams, Hearts. So perhaps some of those spitting on it aren't following tradition but are simply supporters of the rival team, Hibs...


This page last updated: 12-09-2016