Life in Inveraray Jail was pretty unpleasant for the prisoners but it was nothing compared to the punishment meted out to villains before the Victorians.
Three hundred years ago, in the days before county courts and prisons, very few people went to prison. Those convicted of murder or serious theft were hanged. For other crimes, such as adultery, fornication and slander – people were fined, whipped, branded and worse!
The shocking story of summary justice in Inveraray is told in the Torture, Death and Damnation exhibition at Inveraray Jail.
People were hanged for crimes that today wouldn’t be considered so serious. In 1664 Duncan ban M’llbreid was taken to the gallows for stealing two horses and some cheese. It was even worse for Dugald McDugald in 1718, who stole ‘ane chappine bottle full of aquaevita with a drinking horn…and wooden bicker…the key to Baillie Brown’s shop’. So he was hanged for stealing bottle of whisky and something to drink it from, but to add to his misery he was first whipped with 39 stripes and his right eared was nailed to the gallows. And it wasn’t just men who found themselves swinging from the gibbet. In 1720, Christian McMarcus was ‘hanged upone one gibbet until she was dead’ for adultery, poisoning and murder. To make things extra gruesome, her right hand was cut off first.
Some strange crimes were rather severely punished. In 1673, Donald M’Cranken was ‘scourged through the town by the hangman’ and had his ‘tongue bored by a hot iron’ for impersonating another man. Duncan M’Kawis was executed for ‘the vyle and abominable crime of bestialitie with ane white mare’. The poor horse was ordered to be killed and burnt too.
The exhibition also shows the effect of the Reformation and the increased involvement of the church in people’s day-to-day lives in Scotland. The Kirk Sessions made sure that drunkenness, the use of foul language, fornication and adultery and working on a Sunday were all punishable offences. Sinners were humiliated in the stocks or made to wear a sackcloth and sit on the stool of penitence. In 1591, Agnes Hucheon and Margaret Clark were convicted of ‘singing of bawdy songs, play at durris, dancing and running through the town after supper on the Sabbath day’. They were ordered to sit on the penitence stool and ask God and the congregation for forgiveness.
You can also find out about some grisly forms of torture, which back then were seen as acceptable forms of punishment. The most commonly used methods in Scotland were the thumb screws and the boots. The boots sound particularly nasty; planks of wood were placed around the prisoner’s leg, laced together with a rope. A wedge was then drive down between the planks, dislocating the ankles and crushing the legs. Ouch! You can even try out the actual thumbscrews used to inflict pain – if you dare!
Most witches’ confessions were obtained by torture. Once convicted, there was more suffering to come. They were usually strangled at a stake and burned to ashes. Some 1,500 witches were executed in Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries. One Jannet McNicoll of Rothesay on Bute was ‘accused of the abominable crime of witchcraft …she did halloday 1661 meitt with the devil’. She was strangled to death and burnt at the Rothesay gallows.
When you’ve finished the viewing exhibition, it’s time to move on and explore the rest of Inveraray Jail. It all seems rather pleasant after these ghastly tales of torture, death and damnation!