Before arriving at Inveraray Jail, visitors can hardly fail to notice how well laid out and uniform much of the town appears to be.
This is no accident, or perhaps it is; a historical one. For had it not been for the vision, some might say vanity, of one man, Inveraray would most likely still be a located on its original site half a mile away from the present one, following its original medieval town plan and with just a crumbled ruin instead of a castle.
You’ll find that a walk around modern Inveraray is something of a walk through history – but less than 300 years of it. That’s because before 1753 the site of the present town was what we would call a greenfield site. The town’s previous location was further up the loch, at the water’s edge in front of the original Inveraray Castle, home of the Earls and Dukes of Argyll, Chiefs of the powerful Clan Campbell.
Thanks to their decision to make it their powerbase, Inveraray had already been a town of some importance in the west Highlands for many centuries before its transformation. It was created a Burgh of Barony in 1472 and a Royal Burgh in 1648. By the 18th century the town was firmly established, but it was the fate of its castle that was to determine Inveraray’s future. Built in the 15th century, by the 1700s the castle was crumbling and the main building was barely fit for habitation – only a few servants lived there. The Duke lived in a smaller dwelling built as a wing on the side of the main structure.
With massive cracks running from top to bottom, the main castle was in serious danger of collapse and when the third Duke of Argyll inherited his title and all its trappings in 1743, he came up from his home in England to survey his inheritance. On doing so he was appalled at what he found. He deemed the castle to be unfit for purpose and decreed that it should be demolished and rebuilt. He also decided that rather than have the town ruin the castle’s view of the loch, it too should be rebuilt… further down the loch.
But who could command such power that an entire town be razed to the ground and moved half a mile so as not to obscure the view from his new family seat?
Archibald Campbell, Earl of Ilay and 3rd Duke of Argyll, was no ordinary noble. He was by all accounts the most powerful political figure in Scotland during the mid-eighteenth century and some say the de facto “ruler” of Scotland. A close ally of Prime Minister Robert Walpole and a lawyer by training, from 1710 until his death he held the post of Lord Justice-General, the head of Scotland”s highest criminal court. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Royal Bank of Scotland and you may even have a picture of him in your pocket right now – his portrait appears on the bank’s current-issue £5 note. His power and wealth was such that he was able to spend massive amounts of government cash and his own personal fortune on this grand project, which included creating a proper fishing harbour for the new town.
But despite his grand plans for Inveraray – both town and castle – he never lived there. The castle was not completed until some thirty years after his death. As the new Inveraray took shape, so too did a new courthouse and prison. They were housed in the Town House on Front Street, with the prison part at street level and the courtroom above it. But it seems that no sooner had they been completed than complaints about their inadequacy began to surface. The prisoners and their cells were exposed to the gaze of the passing public and escape was commonplace. Meanwhile visiting judges threatened to move the Circuit Court to Oban “unless the poky, insecure, smelly, old prison” was abandoned.
In the end the judges had their way and after much deliberation, delay and procrastination, a new courthouse and prison were built on their present site. As for the original new town prison, that building now houses Inveraray’s Tourist Information Office. However, traces of its former function still remain in the form of damaged sockets in its stone door and window frames. In Inveraray history is all around you – you just need to know where to look!
Photo Gary Caldwell licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.