The Jails Story | Inveraray Jail

The Jail's Story

For many centuries, Inveraray, the seat of the Duke of Argyll, was the principal county town of Argyll. From the mid-18th century the courts met in the Town House on Front Street, and the ground floor below the courtroom served as the county prison. Conditions were terrible for the prisoners, who ‘walked in a grated piazza in front of their Cells, just in line of the principal street, and exposing the miserable appearance of their apartments and furniture to shock the feelings of every passer bye’. There were so many escapes from this building that at times the townspeople had to take turns in guarding it! Judges threatened to move the courts from Inveraray unless new premises were found.

New Courthouse and Prison
Well-known Edinburgh architect Robert Reid drew up plans for a new Courthouse and Prison in 1807, which included separate prison blocks for men, women and debtors. But this has to be shelved due to lack of funds.

Reid’s proposals were, however, later adapted by the architect James Gillespie Graham. He simplified the design of the Courthouse and reduced the prison accommodation to one eight cell block. Work started on the new buildings in 1816 and was completed in 1820.

The Jail and Courthouse opened in 1820 and remained unchanged until 1843 when the Airing Yards were built. These provided a secure place where prisoners could be exercised in the open air.

In 1848 the New Prison was completed. This was a model prison for its day with 12 individual cells, a water closet on every floor, accommodation for warders, a store room and indoor exercise gallery. It was also well heated and lit by gas, a far cry from the dark and damp original prison building.

Closure and Decline
The Jail finally closed on the 30th of August 1889. By this time, in comparison to the larger city prisons, the smaller county jails were expensive and inefficient to run.

As a town Inveraray gradually declined in importance. It was difficult to reach and with the disappearance of the herring, it was no longer a significant fishing port. The Circuit Court met only twice in Inveraray after 1900, and moved to Oban in 1953. The Sheriff Court was removed to Dunoon in 1954. The rarely used courthouse and empty prisons gradually fell into disrepair. Fortunately, their significance as the finest 19th-century County Courthouse and Prison in Scotland was recognised.

Reopening to the Public
The Scottish Office undertook an extensive renovation and in May 1989, almost a hundred years after the last prisoners departed, Inveraray Jail opened to the public. It now attracts visitors from all over the world and continues to be one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions.
The Courthouse was completed in 1820, and was used by the Circuit Court, Sheriff Court and Burgh Courts. The upper floor of the Courthouse was at one time a debtors’ prison. On the ground floor beneath the courtroom there was accommodation for the keeper or governor of the prison, and a kitchen where food for the prisoners was cooked.

The meetings of the Circuit Court in Inveraray were an occasion of pomp and ceremony. On the first day of proceedings there was a formal procession from the Great Inn to the Courthouse. The procession was led by two halberdiers. They were followed by the Town Council, lawyers, the Sheriff, the Lord Lieutenant, trumpeters, Mace Bearer and Judge.

The Circuit Court visited Inveraray once in the spring and once in the autumn each year. The courtroom was mainly used for the more frequent sessions of the Sheriff Court. They were usually held twice a week and were presided over by a trained lawyer known as a Sheriff Substitute.

Visitors to the courtroom today see it set out as if the Circuit Court was in session. Directly below the Judge sit the Advocate Depute or prosecuting counsel, the Defence Counsel, their respective solicitors and the Clerk of the Court. To the right of the Judge is a 15-man jury. A witness stands to give evidence. The pannel, or accused, guarded on either side by a policeman, sits in the dock facing the Judge. Below and to the left of the Judge stands the Mace Bearer.

To see and hear the court in action drawing on historical records of actual cases, book your ticket to Inveraray Jail, one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions.
The Old Prison was completed in 1820 at the same time as the Courthouse. It was the principal jail of the county of Argyll and housed men, women and children, convicted and unconvicted prisoners, the sane and the insane in eight cold, damp cells.

Conditions gradually improved after the Penal Reform Bill of 1838. The prison was inspected in 1840 by the new Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Frederic Hill. He drew up a long list of improvements. Shortly after his visit, one of the cells was converted into a washroom. In 1841, a new coal fired heating system and gas fittings for light were installed. In 1849, all male prisoners were moved to the recently completed New Prison.

Compare the conditions of the Old Prison to the New Prison when you visit Inveraray Jail, and experience prison life for yourself when you are locked in your cell by the Warder or escorted out to the Airing Yards for your daily exercise.
These yards were built in 1843 to provide a secure place where prisoners could be exercised individually in the open air. Men and women were escorted from their cells by a warder and locked up in a yard for an hour each day.

A bell, to be rung to alert the prison staff in case of escapes, is hung on the wall of the airing yards. In wet weather prisoners were provided with capes.

Exercising prisoners individually took up so much of the Governor’s and Warder’s time that it was eventually decided to demolish the airing yards. They were taken down in May 1882 and from then until the prison closed in 1889 prisoners were exercised together in the prison yard.

The airing yards were rebuilt in 1991 on their original foundations using the 1843 drawings of Thomas Brown, architect to the General Board of Directors of Prisons in Scotland.
The New Prison, completed in 1848, was a model prison of its day. It had twelve individual cells on three floors, a water closet on each floor, a washroom, accommodation for warders, storerooms and an exercise gallery. The building was well ventilated and heated, and lit by gas.

The prison was designed to improve the character and maintain the health of its inmates, although the prisoners were kept in separate confinement, working, eating and sleeping in their individual cells. The completion of the New Prison meant that the ‘separate system’ of prison discipline could be introduced under which prisoners were not supposed to see or speak to each other at any time.

See for yourself when you visit Inveraray Jail what it’s like to be locked up in a cell by the Warder and try out your wooden bed or hammock.
From 1839 onwards, all physically fit criminal prisoners had to work in their cells for up to ten hours a day.

Prison Work
In Inveraray most male prisoners made herring nets or picked oakum. Some with special skills were employed at shoemaking, tailoring or joinery work. Female prisoners picked oakum, knitted stockings or sewed.

Making herring nets and picking oakum were the main prison occupations. Inveraray was a busy herring port until the late 19th century and the nets were readily sold to local fishermen.

Oakum was the fibre from short lengths of old rope that had been picked or teased apart. It was mostly sold in Greenock and was used for caulking or sealing the seams of wooden ships and for stuffing mattresses.

Records were kept and prisoners could be punished if they did not achieve what was expected of them. If they did more work than was required, they were paid for this “overwork” and received the money on the day they left prison.

Cell Life
Prisoners slept, ate and worked in their cells and were only allowed out for exercise once a day or to go to the washroom or WC.

On arrival in Inveraray Jail, all prisoners had to go through the same procedure. Their particulars were recorded, they were weighed and measured by the Prison Surgeon and were tested as to their proficiency in reading and writing. They were then given a bath before being issued with a set of prison clothing.

In their cell, they were provided with a hammock, mattress, blankets, sheets, a pillow, towel, comb, spoon and salt cup. Each cell had a stool, box and chamber pot with lid. On the wall hung a copy of the prison rules.

Protestant prisoners were given a Bible, Prayer Book and Hymn Book, Catholic prisoners were given the Douai Bible, Garden of the Soul and Crown Hymn Book.

In the middle of last century, it was felt that prison life had become too easy. To make life less comfortable, wooden “guard beds” with wooden pillows were introduced. Prisoners had to sleep on them for the first thirty days of their sentence. Inveraray Jail had four of these beds.

In the early days of the Old Prison prisoners wore their own clothes. New regulations brought in during the 1840s stated that, on arrival, all convicted prisoners should be issued with a set of prison clothing.

Hard Labour
Life in prison was made more unpleasant by such hard labour tasks as turning the crank machine, shot drill or climbing the treadwheel. It was thought that these useless and often exhausting activities would act as a deterrent and discourage prisoners from committing further crimes on their release.

The crank machine, a form of useless labour, was introduced in the middle of the last century to make prison life tougher for those prisoners sentenced to hard labour. Male prisoners had to turn the handle 14,400 times a day forcing four large cups or ladles through sand inside a drum.

The number of revolutions was registered on the dial. The Warder could make the task harder by tightening a screw, hence the slang word for prison warder – “screw”. In Inveraray Jail, there was only one crank machine and little evidence that it was used.

The Treadmill
The treadmill or treadwheel was like the elongated wheel of a paddle steamer with 24 steps instead of paddles. Prisoners stood, hanging onto a bar or strap, in individual compartments over these steps. The wheel turned under their weight. Prisoners had to keep climbing or fall off. It was exhausting and utterly unproductive work. Though they were widely used in English jails, few treadwheels were built in Scotland and all were removed by the 1840s. Shot drill, another form of hard labour, was practiced in certain English prisons. The drill consisted of stooping down without bending the knees, picking up heavy cannon-ball, bringing it up slowly until it was on a level with the chest, taking three steps to the right, replacing it on the ground and then stepping back three paces to start the procedure all over again. Warders shouted orders while prisoners, sweating profusely, moved cannon-balls with precision from one pile to another.

Food in Jail
The food was cooked in the courthouse kitchen by the matron, and served to the prisoners in their cells. Prisoners were provided with a spoon, a 2 pint zinc dish for their broth or soup and a 3 gill zinc bowl for their milk.

Milk for the prison was bought ‘from a passing milk cart’. In winter when supplies were short, prisoners had sometimes to make do with treacle water as a substitute.

The quantities of food provided for the different classes of prisoner were strictly laid down in the prison rules.

For dinner a female prisoner who was unfit for work would receive 1 1/2 pints of soup and 6 ounces of bread; while a male prisoner who was fit for work would receive 2 pints of soup and 12 ounces of bread. Male prisoners weighing more than 12 stones (without boots) and female prisoners weighing more than 11 stones (without shoes) were entitled to receive an extra 1 ounce of cheese and 4 ounces of bread daily.

Breakfast was served at 7.30am. A prisoner would receive 5 ounces of oatmeal made into porridge with 3/4 pint of milk. Dinner at 1.00pm consisted of soup and bread. Each pint of soup had to contain an ounce of marrow bones or ox head, 1 1/2 ounces of barley, 1/2 ounce of green peas, 1 1/2 ounces of leeks, carrots, turnips and other similar vegetables and 1/4 ounce of onion.

Supper, served at 6.00pm, was 5 ounces of oatmeal made into porridge and 1/2 pint of milk.
From the thousands of prisoners who were locked up in Inveraray Jail during the 69 years it was a prison, only twelve ever managed to escape and few of these stayed at liberty for long. Sited on a promontory jutting out into Loch Fyne and surrounded by open countryside, the Jail was not the easiest of places to escape from.

Three men broke out in 1820, just after the Old Prison had been completed and while it was still very insecure.

Twenty years later two prisoners walked away in the middle of the night. The lock on their door was faulty and failed to shut. While the warder in the adjoining cell was asleep, they left the prison and escaped through an opening in the boundary wall. This was guarded by a bulldog, also apparently asleep.

In 1857 James McLachlan, aged 15, escaped from the New Prison in the middle of the afternoon. He managed to fool the warder into thinking he was in his cell when he was actually in the WC. As soon as the warder left, James went out through a skylight on the third floor.

The warder realised something was wrong when he saw a rope hanging down outside his window, James was recaptured the next day.

The most meticulously planned escape was that of three housebreakers from Dunoon, William Dickson, John Campbell and John Duncan, They escaped during the night of August 12th 1874 leaving their cell doors locked.

Their escape remained a mystery until John Duncan was recaptured, when it emerged that they had made replica keys from lead they had collected.

Escaping from their cells they found their own clothes in an upper floor cell, as well as a rope! They opened a skylight, went down the rope and were soon out over the boundary wall.

During your visit to Inveraray Jail you will soon appreciate how hard it was to escape, and given its remote location, how futile escape attempts actually were.