AT THE moment, I’m having to do a lot of bus journeys because my new job requires me to travel to and around Midlothian.

While I was rushing for my bus connection in Musselburgh last week, I was stopped in my tracks by the beauty of the Tolbooth’s tower set in a blue sky. I’ve walked past this old building many times, of course, but sometimes the weather, and the light it casts, presents the tower at its best, as it did on this day.

So, I decided to quickly take a photo. I mean, look at the image: if I was to tell you this was a tower from a medieval town in Italy, you might believe me – if you didn’t already know Musselburgh, that is!

The tower is the oldest part of the Tolbooth, although the slated octagonal spire on top is a later construction. The tower itself seems to have been a survivor of the devastation wreaked on the town during the ‘Rough Wooing’ in 1544. It’s unassuming and simple in its beauty, and gives us a glimpse of Musselburgh’s late medieval past. Imagine the tales it could tell, of all the people and events it has seen, in the 600 years or so it’s looked down on the High Street.

The rest of the building looks a bit austere in comparison to its bonny tower. Much of it was built in the late 16th century and the parapet walk makes it look a bit like fortress. I suppose that was deliberate, for a burgh’s tolbooth was a symbol of civic power and authority. It was also a functional place for the council and local officials to meet, a place where taxes would be collected, and it also contain the burgh’s courtroom and prison.

Musselburgh’s Tolbooth was no exception to this, and so it inevitably also has grim tales to tell, not least the stories of women tried and imprisoned, and executed, on trumped-up charges of witchcraft. The injustice and horror of that time never leaves my senses when I admire a historic building which was a witness of those times. The Tolbooth served as a debtor’s prison as well. How many poor debtors lingered within its walls in despair I cannot say.

Some have suggested the parapet walk along the top of the walls was used to give prisoners a brief walk for exercise in the open air. If this really was the case, I think the temptation to jump to freedom must have been great. I suspect the prisoners would have been chained or secured in some way before their exercise. But however it happened, it does conjure up a strange image.

As I was reflecting on all this history, my bus appeared. My mind had been distracted and taken me to the wrong century. It was too late now, for the bus pulled away and sailed past me. Where are the traffic jams when you need them?

I was so annoyed with myself. I knew I’d be late for my appointment now. I was heading for Dalkeith and the next bus wasn’t due for 30 minutes.

How should I explain my lateness? Should I tell the truth, that I was admiring a medieval tower in Musselburgh and wasn’t paying attention? Naw, that would make matters worse, no need to over-explain, I’ll just say I missed the bus.

Then salvation arrived, a different bus, but it was going to Dalkeith! I’d never travelled on a number 48 before and it seemed to be heading in a different direction from the 141, but hey, it was going where I needed to go. Perhaps after all I would be on time!

It did go to Dalkeith, eventually. It’s great there are buses that service communities which are not on the main routes, I’m all for that. But I wished I’d done my research better.

I did arrive late as a consequence, of course, but with a tale to tell and new knowledge of parts of Edinburgh I didn’t know so well.

When I returned to Musselburgh later that day, on my way home, the tower was still standing there, of course, but this time a grey sky with drizzle gave it a different aspect. I gave it a glance but kept my attention firmly in the present and on the arrival of the 26.

When I got home, my wife Kate asked me how my day was. I told her about the tower incident.

“Och well,” she said, “that must’ve been annoying, but typical you. I suppose you could turn it into a positive and write about it for your column.”

And that’s what I’ve just done.