If you see Malcolm Fife's name on the cover of a book you can be confident that what lies within will be superbly researched, well written and engaging. He also tends to produce books that have a real feeling of being "definitive": books that tell the stories of their subjects so well that no-one will ever again be able to tackle those subjects without reference to his account of them. "The Story of Calton Jail, Edinburgh's Victorian Prison" is no exception.
Mourned by many as one of the great lost buildings of Edinburgh, Calton Jail stood on the flank of Calton Hill, towering over the north side of the railway lines near Waverley Station on the site since occupied by the seriously unlovely St Andrew's House. Such was its design that many visitors arriving in the city mistook the jail for Edinburgh Castle. Today all that remains of the jail is the old Governor's House, which gives a sense of the character of what was lost, though certainly not its scale.
Malcolm Fife leads his readers through the reasons why a new jail was necessary in Edinburgh and gives a brief history of previous institutions used to incarcerate those who, for one reason or another, were deemed in need of locking-up. The construction of the jail is covered, followed by chapters looking at different aspects of life (and death) in the prison. Day to day prison life is discussed, as is the role of the governors and warders. Public executions are covered, as are the later executions within the prison itself. We then move on to a series of chapters examining different groups who might have found themselves imprisoned, including sailors, foreign prisoners, young offenders, the criminally insane, dissenting crofters, Irish terrorists, suffragettes and more. The book then offers chapters looking at deaths, suicides and escapes before concluding with a chapter on the replacement and eventual demolition of the prison.
If the text were not enough, the book also offers 14 appendices whose contents add another dimension to the story of the jail. It's not possible to see how many boys and girls aged under 14 were locked up in 1838/9 without a real sense of shock, for example. Meanwhile, the collection of illustrations brought together in the centre of the book is simply outstanding. This includes maps, plans, drawings and, of course, given the age in which the jail operated, photographs, which make very clear why newcomers to Edinburgh sometimes thought the jail was the most castle-like object on the city's skyline.