Tourists mill to and fro down the Royal Mile passing St Mary’s Kirk may miss an unusual heart shaped mosaic made of stones set into the pavement below them. That is until someone passes raises back their head and lands a big glob of spit upon it and walks off! But why?
The heart together with the brass markers set into the pavement mark the location of the 15th century Tolbooth of Edinburgh, the once administrative centre of the town and also its prison and site of execution.
Spit it out
One possible origin is that it is associated with the Porteous riots of 1736 when Andrew Wilson, a convicted smuggler was publicly hanged and that when his body was cut down against the wishes of the mob a riot ensued. The Lord Provost Captain Porteous called out the guards to deal with them as the mob became violent and began stoning the guards. This then lead to a precipitation of violence which resulted in six people being shot and Porteous being arrested and charged with murder. Testimony differed on whether he was responsible and the people feeling a plot was organised to make him innocent, dragged him from the prison and after some horrendous acts was finally beaten to death. It is said that the stone represented the people’s views on murder of the six people. The tolbooth was immortalised in Water Scott’s 1818 novel ‘Heart of Midlothian’, the year after it was demolished.
I could just spit
The Heart of Midlothian is a heart-shaped mosaic on the pavement of the Royal Mile, which many people spit on in passing, supposedly to bring them good luck.
At first it would appear that understandably those who were or associated with criminals as a form of disdain to show their disgust or ward off evil associated with it. It is said to mark where the death cell was and so looking back as an accused man you would spit although others state it is where the entrance was. By the 20th century it had become associated with good luck as recorded by Florence Marian MacNeil’s 1977 Silver Bough: Scottish folk-lore and folk-belief who recorded that ‘an occasional boy’ would be seen spitting on it.
Even more recently it would appear that Hibernian F.C football team would spit on the stones thinking it was there to demonstrate their hatred of rival team Heart of Midlothian F.C! Indeed a commenter on a Hibernian FC forum suggested they spit for luck for the 1998 Cup final.
However even more recently it has been gum and copper coins deposited there, the later certainly more sanitary. Indeed, a mini documentary does show both confusion of over why it was done and what it represents.
However, the custom continues, as I stood one wet and rainy day on the Royal Mile, a tile red-headed man appeared and drew up some spittle and thrust it down on the heart in front of me…perhaps realising I was a tourist! Interesting, spitting is banned in the city but the heart remains a final sanctuary for the unpleasant act which back in 1967 there was an attempt to ban this ‘filthy act’…however with a tourist conscious city of Edinburgh, even this antisocial custom is worth preserving.