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The great escapes

Rob Irons playing Andrew Boyd

Actor Rob Irons playing the Warder, Andrew Boyd.

Meet Andrew Boyd, one of the prison’s longest serving warders. You’ll know he’s coming by the jangle of his keys and the sound of his heavy boots ringing in the corridor. His job is to make sure that prisoners get fed, exercised, washed, educated and punished, but most of all he’s here to make sure they don’t escape. Securing the prison is his top priority. Rob Irons, a ‘real life’ ex-prison officer and the actor who plays Boyd, says there’s no way out. ‘The prison’s built on rock, with high, thick walls. Each cell door is locked, as are the inner and outer doors. It’s completely secure.’

But a few prisoners did escape. Of the several thousand people locked up during the jail’s 69 years as an official prison, twelve managed to make the break. How did they do it? ‘It was always down to neglect or complacency on the part of the warder,’ says Rob. ‘A door was left unlocked for a few minutes or a cell wasn’t checked properly. The prisoners would watch the warder’s daily movements – they’d nothing else to do – and be ready to take advantage of any opportunity.’

One such case took place in 1841, when two prisoners walked away in the middle of the night. The lock on their door was faulty (or had it been left unlocked?). While the warder was asleep they escaped through a hole in the boundary wall that was guarded by a bulldog – also apparently having a snooze. James McLachlan is another example. In 1857, aged 15, he managed to fool the warder into thinking he was in his cell when he was actually in the WC – which wasn’t bolted from the outside. As soon as the warder left, James went up to the store on the third floor, found a rope and went out through a skylight. He was, however, recaptured the next day.

Like James, very few of the prisoners who escaped remained at liberty for long. Rob explains: ‘The alarm would soon be raised and the community would be on the lookout. The jail’s surrounded by open countryside and strangers would soon be spotted. It’s also a harsh landscape to travel through – you would have needed a boat to get out.’

Prisoners behind bars.

There's no escape...

A prisoner who did stay free was John Campbell, one of the infamous three Dunoon housebreakers. This was one of the most meticulously planned – and, it must be said, impressive – escapes from Inveraray Jail. Campbell, William Dickson and John Duncan made their escape during the night of August 12 1874 leaving their cell doors locked. How did they do it? It remained a mystery until John Duncan was recaptured in Arrochar two days later and revealed that they had made replica keys from little bits of lead they had collected during their three months in prison. They melted the lead in a crucible formed out of a tin cup held over a gas light. Escaping from their cells they made their way upstairs, found their old clothes and a rope, opened a skylight and went over the boundary wall. Dickson was caught too, but nothing more was heard of Campbell.

Prison security was a 24-7 concern. The warder was rarely off duty, as Rob explains. ‘At night he would lock himself in his room, but he still had to be alert. He had a listening port built into the wall that worked a bit like a trumpet so he could hear any night-time goings on.’

When you visit Inveraray Jail you’ll soon appreciate just how hard it was to escape. You can even experience first hand what it was like to be locked up under the watchful eyes of Andrew Boyd. He’ll put you behind bars, lock the door and walk away. The difference is, you can make your prison escape any time you want.


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX