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Wheels of justice: the Black Maria

One of the most popular artefacts on display at Inveraray Jail is the two-wheeled horse-drawn Black Maria carriage built in 1891. Probably the last of its kind in the UK, it’s been beautifully restored and takes pride of place in the courtyard next to the old jail. Our Black Maria has a fascinating – and somewhat turbulent – history. In fact we’re very lucky that it’s still with us today.

The Black Maria – a type of horse-drawn carriage specifically made for carrying prisoners – was introduced to Britain in the 1820s. Made of wood, it was equipped to carry six prisoners housed in narrow individual cells without windows and with only a small roof ventilator for air. They were painted jet black with the royal arms and monogram on the side panels. A narrow passage from front to rear allowed access to the cells.

The Black Maria. On the box seat is Inveraray Jail's Warder Rob Irons.

Our Black Maria was originally bought for Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen. This newly built jail was located out of town, so staff needed a carriage to safely convey prisoners from the city courthouse to jail. Eventually, after years of service, the Black Maria was replaced by a motorised vehicle and discarded. It was used as a garden shed (complete with a fitted sink!) before being moved to a farm in Peterculter during the Second World War and becoming a farmyard store and chicken coup.

Thankfully some 50 years later it was discovered by a local historian. Craiginches staff bought the Black Maria for just £10 and restored it to its former glory. The bodywork was in good condition, but the wheels and the undercarriage were missing. Replacement wheels, axle, springs and shafts were all sourced locally. Repainted and embossed with a royal coat of arms, the renovation was complete and the Black Maria went on show at Craiginches. It became quite famous, taking a central role in the prison’s centenary celebrations attended by the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, and featuring in the BBC drama ”Micawber” filmed in Edinburgh and starring David Jason.

Black Maria getting lifted in to Inveraray Jail

The Black Maria gets hoisted into place.

Then in 2004 the governor of Craiginches offered the Black Maria to Inveraray Jail on a permanent loan. As you can imagine, we were delighted. But the old Black Maria”s final resting place wasn’t without obstacle. There are no double doors at Inveraray Jail so we had to hire a crane and hoist the Black Maria into place. And that’s where she sits to this day – preserved for future generations to enjoy.

So next time you visit Inveraray Jail, don’t forget to take a look at our Black Maria – it’s a unique opportunity to see a rare piece of history.


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Inveraray Jail, Argyll, Scotland, PA32 8TX