Death Cell Door of Calton Jail - Atlas Obscura

Death Cell Door of Calton Jail

Many of Edinburgh's more unsavory characters spent their final days behind this door while awaiting their executions. 


A city as ancient as Edinburgh, fraught with historical battles, is bound to have its fair share of dark secrets. One such secret is openly on display, but only if you know exactly where to look. Just below Edinburgh Castle’s Esplanade is an area known as the Grassmarket, named for the grain and feed storehouses that once lined the cobblestone streets. It’s also home to a piece of Edinburgh’s hidden history. 

Here, curious travelers will find a former 16th century coaching house, turned contemporary drinking and eating establishment known as The Beehive Inn. On the second floor is a curious object that screams mid-19th century capital punishment and criminal reform. Inside this local watering-hole is the original door from the “Death Cell” of the infamous Calton Jail.

The Calton Jail was so menacing that visitors to the city would often mistake it for a medieval castle. During the prison’s heyday, a large portion of the people incarcerated within its population were women. Those charged with a crime could choose to pay a bond to avoid being held in the jail that eventually became Scotland’s main prison. But most women were unable to earn wages, let alone bond out of the prison. Escapes was common, including one mass attempt in 1835.

The prison was eventually demolished in the 1930s. A few remaining sections of the original structure can still be seen from the Old Calton Burial Ground. Somehow, this door was salvaged and now resides upstairs at the Beehive Inn.

A few of Scotland’s most notorious criminals such as William Burke and Eugene Chantrelle, also known as the George Street poisoner, awaited their executions while locked behind this door. Burke was one half of an infamous 19th century serial killing/body-snatching duo. He and his partner William Hare murdered at least 16 people, then sold their corpses to the city’s burgeoning medical schools. Chantrelle was found guilty of gas poisoning his wife, was sent to the gallows, and buried in what is now the west parking lot of St. Andrew’s House.

Know Before You Go

The door is located on the second landing and is only accessible by a flight of stairs. The staircase is located directly across from the main entrance. It might be advisable to check in with the bar staff that you want to have a look at the door, as there are sometimes events in the adjacent dining room. The pub opens at 11 a.m. daily, closing hours vary, so check the website to avoid disappointment.

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February 19, 2020

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