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Food, glorious food!

Scotland is famous for its fabulous food and drink. People from all over the world come here to sample the freshest seafood, enjoy the tastiest lamb, beef and game and sip the finest whisky. In fact, 2015 is the ‘Scottish Year of Food and Drink’, when people around the country are celebrating all that’s great about the nation’s cuisine.

Tell that to Inveraray Jail’s prisoners, though, and they’d think you were having a laugh. They were fed on a diet of porridge, potatoes, broth and more porridge. There was no Scottish smoked salmon for them. Not even the odd bowl of mince and tatties. And they were the lucky ones.

The food at Inveraray Jail was plain and unappetizing.

The food at Inveraray Jail was plain and unappetizing.

The inmates of the Old Prison weren’t guaranteed anything to eat, and often went hungry. Before the Prison Reform Act of 1839, there was no regulation of prison food. Prison Governors would be given a sum of money to feed their prisoners, but the unscrupulous ones would often pocket a good percentage of it. Thankfully Duncan Campbell, Inveraray Jail’s Governor from 1820 to 1841, was a decent man. Unlike those rogue jailors he did his humble best to feed his prisoners. But it was a tough job. According to records he was given ‘six pounds, four shillings and eight pence from the first day of February to the thirty first day of March’ (1837) for food, Even in those days that wouldn’t buy very much. The inmates of the Old Prison could, however, get hold of alcohol. In 1835 Frederic Hill, the newly appointed Inspector of Scottish Prisons, found the prisoners at Inveraray to be passing their time ‘in idleness, drunkenness and gambling’.

But times were about to change. The Prison Reform Act brought in sweeping changes to improve prison life. Everything was regulated, from the clothes that prisoners had to wear to the amount of exercise they had to do every day. It stipulated that a cheap, wholesome and sufficient diet had to be provided without charge to prisoners. And alcohol was completely banned.

For the prisoners of Inveraray Jail the new diet may have been sufficient, but it certainly wasn’t varied. It consisted of porridge for breakfast; broth-and-bread or potatoes-with-milk-and-bread for dinner; and porridge or potatoes-and-milk for supper. Potatoes were allowed for either dinner or supper, but not both. Quantities depended upon the prisoner’s age, sex, weight and length of service. Reduction of diet was a frequent punishment. The exact quantities were laid out in the Prison Rules. For example, a female prisoner who was unfit for work would get 1½ pints of soup plus 12 ounces of bread for dinner. Male prisoners weighing more than 12 stone (without boots) and female prisoners weighing more than 11 stone (without shoes) were entitled to one extra ounce of cheese and four additional ounces of bread daily.

Porridge oats

Porridge for breakfast, porridge for dinner…

Matron was in charge of prison food. She, with help from a female prisoner, would cook in the courthouse kitchen and the meals would be served to the prisoners in their cells. Breakfast was at 7.30am, dinner at 1pm and supper at 6pm. It all sounds very plain and unappetizing, but for prisoners of the time it was probably quite a feast. Most of them came from very poor backgrounds. You just have to look at some of the crimes they committed – stealing a turnip or a loaf of bread – to get a sense of the hardship they faced on the outside. At least they got three square meals a day while they were behind bars. It seems hard to believe, but the prison records show that many prisoners put on weight during their time in Inveraray Jail.

Interestingly, around this time there was an attempt to determine whether the prison food regime could be standardised throughout Britain by introducing the English prison diet into Scottish prisons or vice versa. The experiment was recorded in the minutes of a House of Lords Select Committee Report on Prison Discipline in 1863, in which the Earl of Malmesbury describes the consequences. ‘The Scotch prisoners who had been accustomed to a greater bulk of food and not to animal food [meat] could not be satisfied with the small bulk in animal food which they got in the English diet.’

He continues: ‘The introduction of the Scotch diet into England was afterwards tried and there the very reverse took place. They had been accustomed to a smaller bulk and more nourishing food and they became very ill. Some of them I remember were attacked with erysipelas [a skin complaint] and low fever from the low diet that they had been put upon in prison.’

The Chairman asks: ‘Had they been put upon oatmeal?’ Lord Malmesbury replies:Yes upon oatmeal principally.’

So perhaps the prisoners at Inveraray Jail were happy with their diet of porridge – at least it filled them up!


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX