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The jail’s lunatics

Life in the Old Prison wasn’t easy and the poor souls who ended up here faced many hardships. The cells were cold, damp and dark. There was no attempt to separate men, women and children. They were all crowded into the cells together: murderers alongside drunken brawlers, hardened criminals alongside first offenders, and, perhaps most unfortunately, the sane alongside the insane.  Criminal lunatics – those who had been declared insane at the time of committing an offence – were locked up in the Old Prison for years on end. There was nowhere to send them until 1846 when a Lunatic Wing was opened in the new Perth General Prison.

Take for example the case of Archibald MacLellan, a fisherman and father of ten children, who was tried for murder in 1826. In June of that year he completely lost his senses and for no apparent reason attacked his ten-year-old daughter Christian. During the trial, his wife Jeannie told the court: ‘About eight days before Archie attacked my poor wee Christian he appeared to be much deranged. And then, that night, he was in a terrible state, shouting and raving. I couldnae do anything with him.’ She took the children to her sister-in-law’s house for safe-keeping but unfortunately Christian got left behind. Jeannie rushed back to get her, but it was too late. ‘Archie was beating her to death with a stool,’ she told the hushed court. ‘Through the window I saw the child repeatedly hit with a stool. He just kept hitting her. There was no struggle when we went in. He gave up his stool without a murmur.’

A model of Archie McLellan in Cell 7 of the Old Prison.

A model of Archie MacLellan in Cell 7 of the Old Prison.

MacLellan was found guilty, but at the time of his crime was considered to be ‘insane and deprived of reason’. He was sentenced to spend ‘all the days of his life in Inveraray Jail, or until sufficient Caution and Surety be found’. No surety – a person who would take legal responsibility for MacLellan – was found and he spent the next 13 years in the Old Jail. It must have been a miserable existence, and there was certainly no special psychiatric treatment of the kind you would find today. He died on June 27th 1839 in his cell. Prior to his death a note in the Prison Records stated: ‘Prisoner now quite sound [of mind] but has not been able to find caution.’

Another murderer, Peter Campbell, a schoolmaster from Craignish, was also found to be insane. The Glasgow Herald reported that on 11th January 1844 he: ‘assaulted his relatives…and with a razor almost severed the head of his aunt from her body. The infuriated man was on the point of murdering his mother when her screams attracted the notice of Mr McMillan of the Stag Inn. The man, regarding whose sanity there can be little doubt, was taken to Inveraray Jail.’ At his trial the Advocate Depute asked Campbell if he knew why he was there. ‘They say I murdered my aunt and almost killed my mother,’ he replied. ‘But I hope no such awful deed has been done.’ ‘Did you hear voices?’ he was asked. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Voices in my head. My mother and aunt were witches they said. Witches who would chase me from place to place. They had to be stopped. There was only one way – cut their throats.’ He was judged to be insane at the time of the crime and sentenced ‘to be confined as a prisoner during all the days of his life.’

Campbell, however, only spent three years in Inveraray’s Old Jail before being transferred to Perth’s Lunatic Wing. Conditions here were marginally better, but security was still more important than any kind of treatment and patients were frequently to be found in chains and irons. Things improved over the years and by the turn of the century the Lunacy Commission was able to report that Perth provided suitable treatment for its inmates. In 1904 an absence of mechanical restraint was noted and references made to dances and concerts being given. By this time, of course, Inveraray Jail had been closed for 15 years.

You can experience the sensational trials of MacLellan and Campbell in the Courtroom. Step back in time and feel the tension as the sentences are passed. You’ll hear a long silence while everyone in court sadly contemplates the obvious insanity of the two men. You can also visit MacLellan in Cell 7 of the Old Prison.


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX