As you pass St Giles Cathedral, you may notice an unassuming brick mosaic of in the shape of a heart on the pavement. This is the Heart of Midlothian, and is easily missed if you aren’t looking for it. However, it’s rarely missed by the locals, who normally feel compelled to spit a huge gob of phlegm in it every time they pass. Why do they do this? Where does this icky tradition come from? And should you do it too?
To be honest, the reason I started spitting in the Heart of Midlothian (yes I do it too – sorry) was when I was about 16 or so, and I was walking along the Royal Mile with a friend. She made us stop to do it, and even though I’d never heard of it before, I joined in because I was 16 and spitting in public is seen as disgusting and was therefore cool to a rebellious teenager(!) like myself.
I was told that it was for good luck, so every time I have passed it since, I’ve aimed a massive gob right square in the middle – often to the horror of passing tourists (again – sorry).
But as is often the case in this amazing city, all is not what it seems – turns out that this tradition goes way beyond vague hopes of “good luck”, and actually has roots that go back hundreds of years! So how did this tradition start out in the first place?
The history of the Heart of Midlothian
The Heart is at the spot of the old tolbooth, which was built around the 14th century. Initially it was a place where the people of Edinburgh would pay their taxes, however later on it turned into a prison, and held many inmates who were condemned to the gallows.
The old tolbooth had a reputation for being one of the worst prisons in the country – a rare feat, especially in those days! Convicts were held in horrible, dingy and dark conditions before either being released or executed publicly in front of crowds of people.
The tolbooth has since been demolished, and the only evidence of it ever existing is the small, unassuming brick heart that lies on the pavement of the High Street.
So where does the spitting come into it?
Turns out that the Heart is right at the spot of the entrance to the old tolbooth – which is right where public executions took place. It’s said that people would spit on the spot to show their contempt for the practice, and to show solidarity for the executed.
Another theory is that prisoners who were recently released would take out their anger at the entrance, by spitting on the spot right as they left. This sign of defiance was apparently picked up by other residents of Edinburgh, and soon became widespread.
So – should you spit in the Heart of Midlothian? Well, turns out, not really: unless you have recently been released from prison or narrowly escaped execution – there isn’t much point. Having said that, there’s a little guilty pleasure to be had in watching the shocked faces of onlookers as you do it – so I suppose everyone should do it at least once!
You can find the Heart of Midlothian beside St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile. Just remember to bring semi-protective footwear, and I would avoid wearing sandals…