Edinburgh crime and punishment: 5 dark and disturbing torture techniques used to punish people in the past

Edinburgh has a dark and horrific history when it comes to how it has treated its citizens.

Edinburgh has a dark and difficult history when it comes to crime and punishment. Rooted in fear, superstition, and brutality, authorities in the Capital came up with a multitude of different torture techniques to inflict on the poor and the innocent to help them “confess.”

Here are some of the methods that were used way back when and why. Warning, these are quite graphic.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Boot

Edinburgh crime and punishment: Here is a look at Scotland's dark history when it came to punishment and torture

Different versions of this device can be found throughout European history and are particularly painful. It's similar to the mechanism of the thumbscrew, but on the lower leg. The victim’s leg would be placed in a sheath, usually made of metal, and then wedges of wood were hammered down the inside, eventually breaking or crushing the leg very slowly and painfully.

Scold's bridle

Also called the “Witches Bridle” this contraption works rather like a muzzle. An iron cage was placed over the victim’s head and secured in place with a padlock. The cage included a piece that went into the mouth, clamping down the tongue to prevent the wearer from speaking.

It is thought to have first been used in Scotland in 1567 and was overwhelmingly used on women to stop them from using their voice, and tormenting them into submission. The wearer would be led around the city by a leash to humiliate them.


Another torture technique used specifically for those accused of witchcraft. “Professional” witch prickers would use needles and pins to pierce the skin of the victim. People believed that witches would have the Devils Mark, a point on their body that would not feel pain.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The aim of the witch pricker was to find this point in order to “prove” the victim was a witch. Prickers were usually men with a religious background, and many of them would use their position to inflict more pain and torture of their victims.


Pillywinks is another name for thumbscrews, a torture technique that was very commonly used on prisoners in the Old Tolbooth in Edinburgh. The device was able to accommodate not just the thumbs, but all the fingers too, before slowly crushing and breaking them.

The rack

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A flat board with a series of pulleys and levers at each end. The hands and feet would be tied, and over time, the lever pulled and the body stretched, dislocating joints and tearing muscle.