The Tolbooth Museum Aberdeen is one of Scotlands best-preserved 17th-century gaols (jails) and one of the cities oldest buildings. It’s filled with artefacts and stories of the local history, its prisoners and the crimes of times gone by.
It’s a fantastic place to visit with kids and somewhere that I know primary schools in the city used to visit as part of a school trip, at least when I was that age. And it’s for this reason that it has stuck out in my mind as such a fond memory, which is why I want to share it with you.
It’s not a place that I revisit often now as an adult but when I was writing my guide of things to do in Aberdeen, I decided to take a trip down memory lane. For old times sake. And mainly to see if they still had those creepy prisoner dolls hidden in one of the cells but I also wanted to make sure that my opinion had not changed and that I thought it was worth visiting before recommending it to others.
You can find the Tolbooth Museum on Castle Street in Aberdeens city centre. Castle Street is on the East end of the cities main thoroughfare, Union Street so you couldn’t ask for a more central location which will be of convenience to so many visiting. It doesn’t have a big eye-catching sign outside but you won’t miss it.
There is no fee for your entry into the Tolbooth Museum and I consider us to be very lucky to have so many free to visit museums in the city, so whether or not this is your type of activity or museum, there is no loss in visiting and gaining a bit of an insight into the history of Aberdeen for yourself.
As I said earlier, the Tolbooth Museum is a preserved 17th-century jail where you can expect to see 17th and 18th-century cells with their original doors, the barred windows, some old handcuffs and chains, steep spiral staircases and even ‘The Maiden’ which is a 17th-century guillotine.
The Tolbooth was built between 1616 and 1629 as a prison for the Royal Burgh of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire and was used until the 19th century when a ‘modern’ prison was built, so you can only imagine the amount of heritage to discover within these walls.
Upon entry, you will notice the original shaft and unicorn from the Mercat Cross which is in the large square diagonally across the road from the Tolbooth. The shaft is really detailed and it’s interesting to see it up close but it could be easily missed so keep an eye out for it, just next to the reception desk.
Bearing in mind that this is a very old and historic building, it does involve very steep and tight stone spiral staircases with rope handles and I understand that this means aiding and creating access for those with mobility problems is more challenging. I’m aware that there is a short film placed in the entrance hall to the museum which provides a tour of the museum but again, I understand that this isn’t really the same experience so I would advise getting in contact with the Tolbooth before visiting to discuss the options.
I struggle with these stairs due to how tight they can be in places so I am glad that the museum is split over several floors to allow you a break but there is only one staircase so make sure to advise the museum staff on your floor that you intend to go up or down, to ensure that the path is clear for you.
I’m not aware of the museum offering any official tours although maybe this can be requested if you are visiting as part of a larger group. I will say that the staff on each floor are very knowledgeable and always willing to talk or tell you more if you would be interested. At the same time, they are not hovering around you and trying to spark up a conversation, so if you want to visit in peace and look at the items, walkabout and read the information alone, you will not be disturbed when doing this.
The information written by all of the exhibit pieces are easy to understand and written in a manner that is engaging to different ages and this is somewhat unusual for Aberdeen museums, they usually tend to be quite formal and informative but I think as the only crime museum Aberdeen that has to offer, it can get away with being informative and a little more fun with its storytelling.
Some of the great things shown are the original cell doors, the telling of the escape of Alexander Keith, reading about the Jacobite prisoners, the witches and the debtors, the wealthy who were given their own key to the prison with a curfew to return, seeing an 18th-century town drum with beautifully painted details, the chains, the handcuffs and seeing some of the awful torture devices that were used such as the Scold’s Bridle.
And no historical old prison tour would be complete without a rumour of some Tolbooth Aberdeen ghosts! There are reports that the Tolbooth is haunted although sadly I have not experienced anything myself. But there were executions, murders and deaths in this 17th-century gaol, so it’s no surprise to hear that there would be hauntings. People have reported of hearing sounds, from people singing, footsteps and from keys. There have been sightings of lights and mists and much more. In fact, the TV programme Ghost Hunters actually did a whole programme about a visit to the Aberdeen Tolbooth Museum because it is supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Aberdeen and maybe even Scotland.
If you liked this post and are looking to experience more of Aberdeens museums, take a look at our posts on the nearby Aberdeen Maritime Museum, Aberdeen Art Gallery and The Gordon Highlanders Museum.