Inveraray Jail is one of the best visitor attractions in Scotland. It is a beautifully preserved nineteenth century prison, brought to life with costumed characters. You can sit in the court room and listen to a trial. You can learn the stories of real prisoners, including children as young as 7.
Consider the changes to crime and punishment that have happened in the last 200 years. It's remarkable that a prison dating from 1820 has survived in near original condition. This is why it feels like you have stepped into a different era at Inveraray Jail. You are immersed in a historical experience that feels so real and raw, particularly the shocking practices that prisoners endured.
Journey into the past
Walk up Church Square toward the jail and it looks like it is still guarded by men wearing nineteenth century red tunics. They look correct for the era of the building, but out of place next to the lines of parked cars. Once you are close enough you soon realise they are mannequins.
Mannequins are use to great effect throughout the jail, most noticeably in the court room. The figures are so realistic that on first entering this room I got a bit of a fright. It felt like I was walking in on a meeting with dozens of real people.
You can take a seat alongside these nineteenth century people and listen to a real trial. It feels eerily realistic.
This court room is magnificent. The windows are huge, like something you would find in a palace. They flood the room with natural light and give a perfect view over Loch Fyne. Perhaps a deliberate design to make sentenced criminals reflect on their loss of freedom?
6 weeks in jail for stealing apples
What shocked me is the trivial offences that children could end up in the jail for. In 1859 14 year-old Duncan Livingston was imprisoned for 6 weeks for stealing apples from a garden. James McLachlan spent 13 months at the jail in 1850. He was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia for stealing a silver watch, gold chain and gold seal.
Whipping was an alternative punishment to putting boys in prison. There was a whipping table in the jail. Boys 14 or over could be whipped up to 36 times.
Useless manual labour was another form of punishment used in the jail. A crank machine had to be turned 14,400 times each day by the prisoner. I gave it a go- it is hard work! The prison warder could make it harder to turn by tightening the screw and that's where the slang word for a prison officer came from- 'screw'.
A prison warder was not a well-paid job. They received less than a labourer cutting wood.
The 'airing yards' were an 1843 addition to the prison. Prisoners would be brought here, one at a time, to get one hour of exercise each day.
There was a 'prisoner' in one of these caged enclosures during my visit. Real people, dressed in authentic clothing, can be found throughout Inveraray Jail. I thought about saying 'hello', but I felt weird making small talk with someone behind bars! I read that when prisoners were locked in the yards they were not allowed to communicate with each other.
A part of Inveraray Jail had been a model prison where conditions were a huge improvement on the older part of the jail. There was no overcrowding, a strict hygiene regime, proper food and books to read. Standing in one of these 'new' cells it doesn't feel like a great place to spend time. Still preferable to what came before- no heating, no toilet or washing facilities and hammocks to sleep on.
Inveraray Jail is one of the most authentic attractions I have visited. It's special to see and experience a nineteenth century prison in such an immersive way. It makes you reflect on crime and punishment and how much things have changed.
How to get here
You can get to Inveraray by taking a train to Dalmally and then cycling 15 miles on a low-traffic route. My post about this route has all the details.