Inveraray Jail has certainly aged gracefully. This historic building, which has faced west coast weather and seen hundreds of thousands of people pass through its doors since it was built almost 200 years ago, still stands strong. But, if old buildings like the jail aren’t properly looked after, they can quickly get into a state that makes them beyond economic repair. Historic structures need an extra bit of care and attention, and that’s why the jail has taken on its newest recruit Graeme Wilkins – the restoration man.
Graeme has quite a task ahead of him. Although standards have been maintained, the jail hasn’t seen any major renovation work for over 20 years. Thankfully he isn’t daunted. Old buildings are his passion. He’s a monumental mason by trade and has worked on a number of heritage buildings, including the restoration of York Minster when it was damaged by fire in 1984.
Because it’s an historic building, all work has to be done in line with Historic Scotland’s regulations. To complicate things further, pretty much everything has to be made on a bespoke basis. There are no regulation-size windows at Inveraray Jail! This makes any work time-consuming and expensive, but Graeme thinks it’s well worth it. ‘There’s something very satisfying about bringing old buildings back to life using traditional methods,’ he says. ‘It keeps them authentic.’ The arched window at the front entrance, for example, was completely restored and the panels were replaced with old pressed glass just like the originals.
Quite a bit of research is needed to get the restoration work right, and Graeme has uncovered some fascinating new information. He discovered, for example, that all the railings would have been painted black and is working on returning them to their original colour. He also found out that red granite chips from Furnace quarry would have covered the pathways and he’s therefore used them to replace the less-authentic pebbles.
One traditional method that Graeme’s been putting to good use is lime plastering. Damp has been a major problem in both the old and new prison and has caused a lot of the original plaster to fall off. Graeme’s been working his way around the jail taking the worst walls back to the stone, picking and repointing, treating the stonework and adding a layer of browning and then lime plaster. ‘A new coat of paint just masks the problem,’ he says. ‘At some point you have to strip it all back and start from scratch.’
Rotten wood is another damp-related issue. Graeme has spent a lot of time repairing and restoring window sills, sash boxes and doors. Repairing the panelled door to the old prison is high on his agenda, but it needs to be carefully done. This is the original door from 1820 and Graeme would hate to damage it in any way. He’s very aware that working on historic buildings such as the jail is a huge privilege, but it’s also a great responsibility. For example, he has to be meticulous when he removes plaster from the walls in case there’s any writing left by prisoners underneath. In the ceiling of the old prison you can see a message from Hugh Currie, a debtor, in 1820. Who knows what other communications might be waiting to be uncovered?
One of Graeme’s first jobs was to renovate the washroom in the new prison. The damp had brought the ceiling down and the room had been closed to visitors for a while. As well as restoring the original lead-lined bath and the mangle, Graeme replaced the ceiling and plastered the walls. It looks fantastic and is now open to the public again. It’s just missing one thing – sinks. When he gets the time, Graeme plans to make a replica of the original sinks in the old prison to finish off the room. Another project he’s particularly proud of is the doctor’s room, which he completely renovated and returned to its original use as the warder’s room.
As you might have guessed, no two days are ever the same for Graeme. His next project is repairing the crack in the new prison’s corridor. He’s also looking forward to reconditioning the crank machine and turning the storeroom into a new feature. He’s not going to overdo the decorating though. Graeme’s all about authenticity and these cells, after all, were never exactly pristine…
Why not book your visit to Inveraray Jail, one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions, today and see Graeme’s work for yourself?