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The fall and rise of Inveraray Jail

Inveraray Jail opened to the public exactly 25 years ago this month. And in that quarter century it has become one of Scotland’s leading tourist attractions, offering a unique insight into crime and punishment in 19th-century Scotland.

But how did the prison, which ceased to operate in 1889, survive intact for so long until its rebirth 100 years later in 1989? To understand this extraordinary piece of good luck we need to look at how the jail and later the courthouse were closed and fell into disuse.

When it was built back in 1820, Inveraray Jail was typical of the small, local prisons found throughout Scotland. There were 178 of them in all and they were run by local town councils. Back then, Inveraray was the administrative centre of Argyll, with a bustling port and a fishing fleet that thrived on the abundant herring to be found in Loch Fyne. The presence of a jail and a County Court reflected its importance.

Inveraray Jail

But gradually as infrastructure and communications improved throughout Scotland, a move towards fewer, larger, more centrally administered prisons gathered momentum. Eventually in 1877 the Home Office took over the administration of Scotland’s prisons, which by this time numbered just 56. Only 11 years later, in 1888, that number had been reduced to 15 and it was about to fall further with the closure of Inveraray Jail – the last of its type.

When the final prisoner departed, the local police took over the prison building and had the right to detain criminals and suspects there for up to 14 days. This period also saw the decline of Inveraray as a prominent provincial town. The herring fisheries suffered a dip around this time and Inveraray’s fishing fleet diminished, while the town’s inaccessibility meant that it was increasingly seen as a backwater.

Changes to the structure and administration of Scotland’s legal system also affected Inveraray’s courthouse. In its early years Inveraray would regularly host the visiting Circuit Court, Scotland’s High Court. But after 1900 the Circuit Court only came to Inveraray three times.  In 1953 the prestige associated with being a venue for the Circuit Court was removed from Inveraray and given to Oban. However, Inveraray still derived some status from its Sheriff Court. Not for long! In 1954, despite protests from the townspeople, the Sheriff Court too was taken away from Inveraray, this time in favour of Dunoon. This was not only a blow to the standing of the town, but it would have hurt the local economy.  The presence of a Sheriff Court meant well-paid solicitors and their clerks, a Procurator Fiscal and Sheriff Officer.

Other uses were found for the building over the years. The Post Office had moved there back in 1920, Town Council meetings were convened there, rooms in the upper floor became a Masonic Hall and a variety of activities including public meetings, lectures and concerts also took place. Then in 1962 the Post Office decided that insufficient business was transacted in Inveraray to merit maintaining an office and the Town Council decided to sell the building. A craft shop owner acquired it but his plans never came to fruition. The Council found itself in possession of what it appears to have viewed as a white elephant.

But it seems that someone eventually saw the potential of the Courthouse and proposals were made to create a museum. In the early 1980s the Scottish Office undertook extensive restoration of the Courthouse and prison but the museum plans fell through.

Inveraray Jail sign

Finally it was the present owners who took on the buildings and returned them as closely as possible to their 19th-century to create the living museum seen today.  But what really transports visitors back in time is the skill of the actors who work here. In the jail, the thick walls echo to the sound of the Warder patrolling the grim corridors while prisoners gaze wistfully through their cell windows or bemoan their fate to anyone who happens to pass by. If that passer-by is you, then you will hear accounts of life in 19th-century Scotland that sound as if they are coming from the mouths of the actual prisoners, locked up at least 125 years ago. And in some ways, they are.


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX