The Tolbooth is currently undergoing restoration, and volunteers are always welcome.
Forres Tolbooth, like its ancestors, has been right at the centre of this ancient Royal Burgh. There is evidence that the building has evolved through many variations, dilapidations, reconstructions and expansions over the best part of 800 years.
The foundation stone for the new Court House and Public Offices was laid in 1838 to establish the building in its present form. The main feature of the Tolbooth is its impressive Court Room where once the town provosts made proclamations and magistrates made orders that unworthy citizens be detained in the adjacent prison building.
This Jail House has six cells and an exercise yard or “airing ground”. The Court House contains a number of historical paintings. For example, Major James Fraser of Castle Leathers and Sir Alexander Grant, citizen and great benefactor of Forres.
The Tolbooth was in the care of Moray Council until 2014 when ownership was transferred to Forres Heritage Trust.
Early history of Forres Tolbooth
The 12th century King David I of Scotland had first hand experience of the great success of the Norman feudal system in England, whereby King William placed his (mostly Norman) men in the principal population centres and gave them charge of the local communities and the surrounding lands to “manage” on his behalf.
These “barons” charged feus (taxes) on the lands and delivered a proportion to the king, retaining the rest for the development of the region and, of course, their own development.
King David, returning from exile in England in 1124 and seeking to strengthen his own position in Scotland, invited some Normans to come up north and benefit from collecting feus on his behalf.
Hence we see a good number of Norman names today in Scotland, for instance, Cumming (Comyn), Graham (William de Graham), Fraser (de Frizell), Bruce ( Robert de Bruce), Sinclair, Stewart, Maitland and many others.
This key strategy was amplified by the establishment of Royal Burghs with special trading rights. As David I had experienced a bit of trouble bringing Óengus, Mormaer of Moray, into line but defeated him in 1130, it is quite likely that Forres became a Royal burgh about that time.
These burghs were also a convenient place for the paying of feu and market duties and collection offices were set up near the town marketplace to collect the dues. These would have been simple buildings, perhaps “toll bothies” becoming “tolbooths” in due course.
The loss of the original Royal charter and ancient records during the sacking and burning of the town by Alexander Stewart “The Wolf of Badenoch” in 1390 means that the early history of Forres and the Tolbooth is lost.
The first archival record referring to the Tolbooth is a proclamation made 1586 and then in 1588 a reference is made to repairs to the building. The records show that in 1619 it was being used “for sure keiping and deteining” evil-doers and prisoners.
In 1655 the Tolbooth is a “thackit” ruinous building that cannot carry the roof until the walls are repaired. Between 1671 and 1677 much masonry has been repaired and new structures added to form a three storey building. By 1698 an agreement for major rebuilding work had been drawn up and “£333 1s 8p” had been provided by the merchants and burgesses for the project.
In 1708 a bell “not to be under 3 cwts.” is installed and in 1710 James Anderson receives 600 merks “for building the piramede of the Tolbiuth”.
Then, in 1711, James Broun is employed “for making a clock for the Tolbuith”. By 1734, after some further work,Forres has a recognisably very impressive public building, which served the town well for the next century.
NB Much of the above history is extracted from “The Annals of Forres” by Robert Douglas, 1934. If you would like to dig further, and can get hold of a copy, this book is essential reading (and it is only 600 pages long).
As the Tolbooth is undergoing restoration work at present, it is not open for public tours.