School’s out and kids across the country are enjoying their freedom. Loads of them are heading to Inveraray Jail to experience what life was like behind bars. Of course, these children are always free to leave, not like the ones who were locked up in Inveraray Jail for real …
Back in the 1800s, children were sent here for very minor offences. One schoolboy, Hector MacNeil from Lochgilphead, aged 13, spent 30 days in Inveraray Jail for stealing a turnip. And James Muckle, aged 11, got eight days for stealing apples from a garden in Dunoon. Meanwhile, Donald McDonald, aged ten, was given 20 days for stealing 12Ibs of cheese. And it wasn’t just the boys. Margaret MacLarty, aged 14, was sentenced to 30 days for stealing a hen and a white cotton shirt.
What was life inside like for these young people? They were treated exactly the same as adult prisoners and given the same punishments. For some, however, especially those who were homeless, it wasn’t so bad. As Prison Governor Gavin Dick explains: ‘The conditions in the old prison were pretty damp and cramped, but the new prison was a model of its time. The children would get a bed, they were warm and they were fed. In a way, a spell inside wasn’t really a deterrent – in fact quite the opposite.’
That’s why, in 1852, whipping was introduced as an alternative to sending boys to prison. This punishment was meant to be ‘sufficiently severe to cause repetition of it to be dreaded’. Now that sounds like more of a deterrent! The whippings took place in the prison (you can try out the whipping table today – if you dare) under the watchful eye of the Governor and Surgeon. Whippers had to be approved by the Sheriff. They applied stripes, no more that 12 for under 14s, to the boys’ backsides. Girls were never whipped.
In 1854 reformatory schools were introduced followed by industrial schools in 1866. Children who had committed petty crimes would spend a short time in prison and a few years in these institutions. There were none in Argyll, however, so places were found in schools in Penicuik, Edinburgh and Inverness. ‘The children would be taken away on the boat and that would be that,’ explains Gavin. ‘They wouldn’t see their family until they were released.’
This was the fate of one James McLean of Ormaig on Loch Craignish, who, aged just 11, was sentenced to 14 days in Inveraray Jail and five years in reformatory school in Inverness. His crime? Stealing three ducks. And then there’s Margaret Cowan who lived in Bowmore, Islay, with her mother, a pauper. She stole a pair of shoes and an old pair of trousers, which she exchanged for a little bit of cash, a meal and a biscuit. Aged 11, she was sentenced to 40 days in Inveraray Jail and three years in a reformatory school in Glasgow. ‘They were harsh places,’ says Gavin. ‘But they did offer poor children an education and a chance in life.’
If you want to experience life in prison, then come along to Inveraray Jail this summer holiday. As you witness sentencing, get locked up and sample the punishments, spare a thought for the children who were here all those years ago.