Standing on the shore of Loch Fyne in the very heart of the town of Inveraray is Inveraray Jail. It has probably survived in its original form largely because Inveraray itself has changed so little over the years. Much of the town would be recognisable to those who lived here a century a go, and probably a century before that: and the jail would certainly be familiar to those incarcerated here between 1820 and 1889.
While the story of Inveraray Jail is fascinating in its own right, its real importance lies in what it tells us about the judicial system across Scotland in the 1800s. The survival here of the different elements of the Courthouse, the Old Prison and the New Prison mean that the changes in the way prisoners were treated over the 69 years the jail operated can be illustrated extremely well.
On the other hand, as a visitor attraction, Inveraray Jail is an equally fascinating experience for those with little interest in the wider history. The way the different parts of the jail are brought to life with a mix of exhibits, life size models and real people playing out the roles of warders and prisoners is extremely impressive, and will engage even the most casual of visitors.
The story of Inveraray Jail begins with the building of Inveraray as a new town in the 1740s and the following decades by the 3rd Duke of Argyll, so he could demolish the old village to create parkland around the new Inveraray Castle he was building. One of the many fine buildings dating back to this time was the Town House, on Inveraray's Front Street. Today it is home to the Tourist Information Centre. From the mid 1700s it fulfilled a number of functions, including that of county courthouse for Argyll.
Over time it became clear that the first floor room in the Town House used as a courthouse was too small: and the makeshift prison that had been created on the ground floor of the building was often overcrowded and proved very insecure. Escapes became so common that townspeople agreed to take turns guarding it.
In the end the judiciary threatened to move the court away from Inveraray unless a solution could be found. The response was the construction, between 1816 and 1820, of two of the buildings you see today at Inveraray Jail. The first, which faces out towards Main Street, was a fine stone building specifically intended to serve as a County Courthouse. At its heart was a spacious courtroom which was used by the Circuit Court, the Sheriffs Court and the Burgh Courts, as well as for council meetings. The courthouse also served as offices and accommodation for the warder, while the upper floor originally served as a debtor's prison.
Today's visitors to Inveraray Jail begin their tour in the courthouse where a series of exhibitions set the scene and tell the story of crime and punishment in Scotland. It is quite a surprise when you them emerge in the courtroom itself, a magnificent space in which a trial is in full flow, playing through an audio system with all the participants represented by life size dummies in period costume. An especially nice touch is the way that seating for today's visitors is interspersed with that in use by the dummies, so it actually becomes difficult to tell who is real and who is not: until what you took to be part of the exhibition spookily moves.
From the courthouse you make your way out into the yard to the Old Prison. This was also build in 1820 and served as the main jail for the county of Argyll. Its eight cold, damp and ill-lit cells over two floors were used to hold men, women and children; convicted and unconvicted; and sane and insane. Overcrowding was common and when originally built the prison had no heating and no toilet facilities. Today you can wander the corridors and peer into the miserable lives of some of those depicted, by a mix of life size dummies and re-enactors, eking out an existence here under the ever watchful eyes of the warder.
The squalid conditions of Britain's prisons were addressed by the Prisons Act of 1835. This set out new and improved standards for prisons, and led to the appointment of a number of Inspectors of Prisons, including one whose area covered Scotland, Northumberland and Durham. The Prisons Act (Scotland) 1839 provided for the construction of new and improved prisons and established Prisons Boards to take over the running of those which already existed. Inveraray Jail, until then run by the Town Council, was taken over by the Argyll Prisons Board, who also looked after prisons in Campbeltown, Tobermory and Lochgilphead.
In December 1840, Frederic Hill, the Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, made an inspection of Inveraray Jail and produced a wide ranging set of recommendations for change. Most were implemented. Hill's recommendations led to the construction in 1843 of "airing yards", outdoor cells in the courtyard to allow prisoners to exercise. These were demolished in 1882, but rebuilt in 1991 to the original plans to return Inveraray Jail to its original condition.
Inveraray Jail was unable to fully meet the improved standards required by the legislation until the New Prison was built in 1848. This resulted in 12 additional cells on three floors, giving the jail a total of 20 cells and allowing full segregation between male and female prisoners. To the modern visitor the New Prison appears only marginally less uninviting than the Old Prison and it takes a little time to get used to the idea that when it was built it was seen as a model prison. Prisoners were kept in individual cells rather than grouped together, and issues of heating, ventilation, cleanliness and toilet facilities were properly addressed.
Touring the New Prison is a fascinating experience. Some cells contain information displays, while others have life size models of prisoners sewing fishing nets or unpicking rope into hemp. There is even one taking a bath. Meanwhile re-enactors will explain to you the niceties of the crank machine, a machine devised to engage the prisoners in totally unproductive labour. Elsewhere you can see the restraint jacket used on violent prisoners, or a whipping table designed to be used to deter juvenile offenders.
Throughout your tour you are invited to engage with the real stories of some of the real men, women and children who were actually incarcerated here: whether for short or long periods, en route to other prisons or to transportation to the colonies, or while awaiting execution for capital crimes. The middle 1800s may have been enlightened times by the standards of the 1820s, but they still seem pretty alien to modern eyes.