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The Guv”nors

When we think of a prison today we think of a large institution operating as part of a national prison service, funded by central Government and staffed by a range of well-trained professionals. Things were very different in the 19th century. Can you imagine that for much of its existence Inveraray Jail would have been run by just three or four people?

Back then the day-to-day operation of a prison like Inveraray Jail revolved around just one man – and it was always a man – the Governor. If you think that sounds like a job in which a well-paid, bespectacled older gentleman sat behind a desk from nine to five, maintaining records and delegating tasks to his minions, you would be very much mistaken.

Being Governor of Inveraray Jail was a hands-on position. The Governor had to be physically strong and fit, capable of restraining a violent prisoner and placing him in handcuffs, sometimes alone, sometimes with the help a Warder, or perhaps the local sheriff’s officer if things turned particularly nasty. He literally lived the job, 24 hours a day, seven days a week as his home formed part of the prison. And at a time when holidays were a rarity, he was basically on duty for the duration of his tenure as Governor, which in some cases was decades.

Inveraray Jail

Nor was his job particularly secure. He could be sacked or demoted if one his prisoners escaped, and demotion could mean being transferred to a smaller prison on less pay. He could even find himself liable for the debt of a debtor if he refused or was unable to accommodate such an individual through lack of space.

We know quite a lot about the Governors of Inveraray Jail. Perhaps surprisingly, the first two men to occupy that position were in charge for a total of 53 years, from 1820 to 1873.

Prior to the appointment of the first Governor, in what may seem a bizarre system to us, it was the duty of the townspeople to ensure that Inveraray Jail’s prisoners stayed behind bars. This was known as the watch-and-ward system and dated back to mediaeval times. But it was a system that was often resented by the townsfolk and at Inveraray it was found wanting just a few months after the new prison’s opening when, in November 1820, three prisoners escaped. It then temporarily fell to the Argyll Militia, called up from Campbelltown, to guarantee the security of the facility and it was from within their ranks that the first Governor was drawn.

Inveraray Jail sign

Duncan Campbell was in charge from 1820 to 1841 and had been a Sergeant in the Militia. It seems that Campbell was an easy-going type, who was perhaps not best suited to his role and had little authority over his prisoners, although this apparently did not hamper his career!  He started off on an annual salary of £8 and this had risen to £25 by the time he retired. Campbell would be given additional cash to buy coal for the prison stoves ‘in a moderate manner not exceeding one bucket per day’. He also had to ‘keep the coals under lock and key to prevent any waste or abuse’. On retiring Campbell received a pension of £20 a year, paid in quarterly instalments until his name disappears from the records, presumably upon his death, in 1861.

Campbell was followed in the role of Governor by Malcolm Thomson, who it seems had some professional training for his role under the Governor of Glasgow’s Bridewell Prison, William Brebner, a noted pioneer of prison reform.  It may be that some of Brebner’s dedication and compassion rubbed off on Thomson who fulfilled his role as Governor for over 32 years… but only some. Thomson came in for some withering personal criticism when Inveraray Jail was inspected by the newly appointed Inspector of Scottish Prisons, Captain J.F. Powell, in 1871.

Perhaps Powell was trying to establish a reputation as a stickler for high standards, perhaps Thomson had become complacent or had lost the necessary energy to fulfil his duties – he was by now in his late sixties – but either way his prison and his reputation took a battering.

‘Every part of the prison apportioned to females I found extremely dirty and untidy, several of the cell windows were broken, and I observed cobwebs even sticking to several of the door posts. The store cells were not merely untidy, but dirty and full of what appeared to be absolute rubbish,’ wrote Powell.

‘That part of the prison apportioned to male prisoners was in a less dirty state, but very far from being in the order in which a prison should be kept.

‘The yard of the prison I also found kept in a disgraceful state, rubbish of various kinds littered about in almost every part of it and also various items laying about that would enable a prisoner to get over a higher and more secure wall than that which partially surrounds the prison.’

So much for the prison infrastructure but what about Thomson himself?

‘The keeper does not appear to have the slightest idea of the state in which a prison and the prisoners in it ought to be kept, and I would strongly recommend that he should be sent to the prison at Kilmarnock in order to learn this.’

Ouch! This must have been particularly stinging criticism for Thomson who at this point had been doing his job for 30 years and was only two years away from retirement. Indeed it may have been this disheartening report that helped precipitate his resignation in 1873. By the time he retired, Thomson was earning £75 per annum and went on to receive an annual pension of £32, which no doubt helped him buy the Temperance Hotel at Arkland, Inveraray.

Duncan Campbell and Malcolm Thomson were just the first two in a long line of Governors who, with varying degrees of success, took charge of Inveraray Jail. Some, including Thomson, may have been judged harshly by their contemporaries, but few could argue that theirs was a difficult, demanding and potentially dangerous vocation that few of us today would be prepared to entertain.


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX