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Inveraray Jail – built to last

2016 is the Visit Scotland Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design, celebrating the nation’s buildings.

Inveraray Jail frontInveraray Jail has endured harsh west coast weather and seen hundreds of thousands of people pass through its doors since it was built almost 200 years ago, yet it still stands strong. This historic building also tells the story of prison reform that swept through Scotland during the Victorian era.

The original plans for the Old Prison and Courthouse were drawn up by well-known Edinburgh architect Robert Reid in 1807. They included separate prison blocks for men, women and debtors. This initial design, however, had to be shelved due to lack of funds. Reid’s proposals were, nevertheless, later adapted by the architect James Gillespie Graham. He simplified the design of the Courthouse and reduced the prison accommodation to one eight-cell block.

Work started on the new buildings in 1816 and was completed in 1820. The two-storied prison has three-foot-thick walls of massive rough hewn red stone and originally contained cells on both floors, eight in total. A third of the ground floor was occupied by a day-room which was lit, like the cells, by narrow, unglazed windows.

The cells were cold, damp and dark, but they were definitely an improvement on the previous county prison in the Town House on Front Street. Here, according to a contemporary account, prisoners ‘walked in a grated piazza in front of their Cells, just in line of the principal street, and exposing the miserable appearance of their apartments and furniture to shock the feelings of every passer bye’. There were so many escapes from this building that at times the townspeople had to take turns in guarding it!

Inveraray CourthouseThe Courthouse was used by the Circuit Court, Sheriff Court and Burgh Courts and is a magnificent building. On the ground floor beneath the courtroom there was accommodation for the Governor of the prison as well as a kitchen. The Courtroom, on the first floor, has a semicircle of large windows giving an amazing view overlooking the prison yard and out across Loch Fyne.

The biggest change came in 1848, when the New Prison was completed. New buildings and facilities had to be provided after the Prison Reform Act of 1839, which ruled that prisoners’ cells should meet certain conditions. The New Prison was a model establishment for its day with 12 individual cells, a water closet on every floor, accommodation for warders, a store room and indoor exercise gallery. It was also well heated and lit by gas, a far cry from the dark and damp original prison building!

The Jail finally closed on the 30th August 1889. The Scottish Office undertook an extensive renovation and in May 1989, after which, just over a hundred years after the last prisoners departed, Inveraray Jail opened to the public. We continue to repair and renovate this historic building in line with Historic Scotland’s regulations. Historic structures need an extra bit of care and attention, and that’s why we have our very own in-house restoration man Graeme Wilkins.

Why not come and see Inveraray Jail and Courthouse for yourself? It’s not only their contents, but the very fabric of these old buildings that have such an amazing story story to tell. Buy your tickets online and save money.


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX