The many local and family history enquiries which we receive are a never-ending source of blog topics. A recent one concerned the ‘gibbet stones’ in the wall of the former Gartferry Hotel in Ayr’s Racecourse Road. These are said to have come from the town’s High Tolbooth – the combined council house, court house and prison which stood in the middle of the Sandgate at its junction with New Bridge Street. From 1809 until 1820 public executions were carried out on the landing at the top of the tolbooth stairs, a total of thirteen men and one woman being hung there.
‘An Historical Account of the Town of Ayr’ by James Howie, 1861, refers to the demolition in 1825 of the Sandgate tolbooth and concludes: ‘The materials of the old jail and steeple were purchased by Dr. Robb, Blackburn, who used them to build a wall around his grounds. The stone on which the gallows were erected may still be seen in the wall, on the west side of Racecourse Road.’
‘Reminiscences of Auld Ayr’ by James Paterson, 1864, gives a description of the tolbooth, with its nineteen steps leading up to the landing onto which the prison door opened. ‘Two square holes, on the east and west sides of the landing, showed where the posts of Bailie Brodie’s machine were placed when the law had to be satisfied. Many a poor fellow there suffered death for crimes which are now only punished by penal servitude.’ (‘Bailie Brodie’ must refer to the notorious Deacon William Brodie, deacon of the trades guilds of Edinburgh, who led a secret life as a burglar, and was executed in 1788 on a scaffold which he was said to have helped design. His name seems to have become associated with scaffolds with a drop platform.)
A late nineteenth-century account speaks of ‘a large stone’ in the wall skirting Racecourse Road ‘containing two square cut holes, in which it was said the posts of the gibbet used to be fixed when executions took place at the Old Jail.’
In 1930, Gartferry House, 44 Racecourse Road (built in 1867 on part of the former Blackburn Estate) was purchased by Fairbairns of Glasgow and converted to a hotel. The minutes of the meeting of the Works Committee of Ayr Town Council on 9 September 1931 included the following: ‘Stones from Old Gallows – A letter was read from Mr J. Harling Turner conveying information which he had received as to the two stones which supported the gallows at public executions, being built into the wall at Gartferry, and suggesting that the Town Council might like to have them removed.’ This was debated, and it was agreed that if the proprietors of the hotel agreed, the stones would be marked. Some correspondence took place with Fairbairns, but nothing seems to have been done.
In 2006 the former Gartferry Hotel was converted to private apartments and, along with new-build development in the grounds, became part of Gartferry Court. There are two stones side-by-side at the base of the wall immediately to the right of the entrance. The larger measures a little over two feet square, and the smaller has probably been trimmed down from this. They each have a horizontal groove and a central hole about six inches square, now filled with cement. The former hotel is a listed building, and this includes the wall around it.
Press descriptions of executions make it clear that a low platform with a hinged drop was put in place on the tolbooth landing. The caption to an old illustration of the tolbooth states ‘Over the doorway shot out the gibbet’. This indicates that a beam stored within the tolbooth steeple was run out horizontally through an aperture in the wall, and from this the condemned were hanged – this is what is depicted in a print of the execution of Deacon Brodie and his accomplice in Edinburgh. If the stones in the Gartferry wall are indeed those which Paterson says were set into the landing on either side of the tolbooth door, they may have been part an alternative arrangement, may have held vertical bracing for the horizontal beam, or may have been securing points for the scaffold platform.