Prison life in nineteenth century Scotland was very different from today, and spending a day in Inveraray Jail recreates the experience in an almost too realistic way.
Comprising the Courtroom, Old Prison, New Prison and Airing Yards, the old Inveraray Jail was completely restored and reopened to the public in May 1989; almost 100 years after the last prisoner left its confines. A visit ‘inside’ gives a real sense of the conditions experienced by those nineteenth century men, women and children unlucky enough to have been detained within its cells.
Entrance to the Jail is through the imposing and spacious Courthouse built between 1816 and 1820. This was used for three different types of sittings: the Circuit Court, Sheriff Court and Burgh Court, as well as for meetings. It is a disquieting experience today, walking into what appears to be the middle of a trial. The Courtroom is set out for a Circuit Court Session of around 1850. A fifteen-man jury sits to one side, witnesses on the other, while the lawyers sit below the judge. The accused sit in the dock facing the lawyers and judge.
At the beginning of the trial, the members of the jury were called one by one by the Clerk of the Court to stand in the jury box while the following oath was administered: “You fifteen swear by Almighty God and as you will answer to God on the Great Day of Judgement, that you will truth say and no truth conceal, so far as you are to pass at this assize.”
The exit from the courtroom leads to the restored Old Prison, completed in 1820. This was the main county jail for the whole of Argyll. Comprising eight small cells, this prison held men, women, children, sane and insane often crowded together. In the earliest years, there was little ventilation or heating, no hope of exercise or occupation, and no washroom or water closet. Petty criminals might share space with murderers, the convicted with the yet to be convicted.
Although these conditions lasted for over ten years in Inveraray and elsewhere in Scotland, prison reformers finally made a difference. The Prisons Act of 1835 and the Prisons Scotland Act of 1839 led to the more humane care of prisoners and proper training for prison staff. Cells had to be bigger, with daylight, ventilation and heat, while prisoners were to be clothed, fed and exercised.
The New Prison, finally completed in 1848, was a model prison of its time. As opposed to the eight cells in the overcrowded Old Prison, the new one had twelve individual cells, a water closet on each floor, washroom, accommodation for warders and an exercise gallery. Lit by gas, it also had adequate heating and ventilation
It’s a slightly creepy experience visiting the old jail today, but it provides a wonderful record of the conditions, the work prisoners eventually did to occupy their time, the life of a Prison Governor and his wife, and the role of the residential Warder. But I did breathe a sigh of relief to escape back to the 21st century!