Scottish Prisons 18th and 19th Century

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Scottish Prisons 18th and 19th Century

Contributed by Lilian McDonald


In compiling this record of Scottish prisons in this period, I have concentrated on the main centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth and Aberdeen.  I have included a description of the prison in Dundee because many of the women sentenced at Perth came from this neighbouring city and I am uncertain as to whether convicts waiting transportation would be held there as it was a seaport from which women might have been shipped south.

I have based this paper on two main sources.  The first is a report by John Joseph Gurney on a journey he made with his sister, Elizabeth Fry, round prisons in the north of England and Scotland in 1819.  This gives an early picture of prison settings in the early days of transportation.  (‘Notes On A Visit Made To Some Prisons in Northern England And Scotland' Conditions reported then were probably little changed until prison reform was attempted in 1839.  The ‘Scotland’s Prisons:  Research Report 2015’,  published in 2017 by Historic Environment Scotland, looks at prison conditions in the period following prison reform to the end of transportation. (


The Scottish prison system: Differences between Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland

The Scottish legal system and the Scottish prison system differ from other systems within the British Isles.  There is nothing in Scotland similar to the Grangegorman Female Convict Depot in IrelandConvict women in Scotland, who had been sentenced to transportation were held in prisons near to their place of sentence or offending.  The main High Court venues in Scotland where the women were sentenced were Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Aberdeen, Ayr, Stirling, Inverness, Dumfries and Jedburgh.  One or two came from Courts held at Inveraray and the Isle of Lewis. 

No prison ships departed from Scotland for Van Diemen’s Land.  The women were held in the local prisons until word came from England that places had been found for them aboard ships leaving from the south of England.

By 1839 the first Scottish Prison Board was established and records were made of 178 prisons—70 lock-up houses, 80 small burgh gaols, and 20 burgh prisons, and county gaols.


Conditions in Scottish prisons

Scotland did not have purpose-built prisons until the late 18th century.  Before this, the concept of imprisonment as a form of punishment was virtually unknown.  Small local prisons existed in tolbooths (a council meeting room, court house and gaol) or correctional institutions such as the bridewells.  These housed debtors, prisoners awaiting execution, vagrants and disorderly members of society for short periods of time.  (‘Scotland’s Prisons’ 2017, p.3)

From the period between 1839 and 1877 government took over the management of prisons from burghs.  The records of burgh tollbooths and jails were mostly concerned with the holding and release of prisoners and accounts for the prison.  When the government took over prison management the records became more extensive.

The registers of prisoners are held in the National Archives of Scotland (Home and Health Department records), but there are some others among Sheriff Court records. ( Prison Registers (HH21) cover the period from the early 1800s onwards and consist of registers from at least 49 prisons.  John Howard (1777), a notable prison reformer, visited Scotland in the late 18th century.  Howard found that conditions in Scottish prisons were often worse than, those in any other parts of the British Isles.  He reported that prisoners were kept unsegregated by day and night leading to potential ‘moral contamination’.  Recommendations included the segregation of prisoners into different classes and their housing in separate yards. An Act to give rise to this was passed in Scotland in 1839. 


Numbers of convict women from Scotland

The numbers of convict women transported to Van Diemen’s Land from Scotland were small compared to those from England and Ireland.  The Female Convicts Research Centre database records 688 women tried in Glasgow, 640 in Edinburgh, 291 in Perth, 137 in Aberdeen and smaller numbers from Ayr, Stirling, Inverness, Dumfries, Jedburgh and Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.  Seven women were sentenced at Inveraray.  A rough total suggests that around 1,731 women made the journey from Scotland. About 1,677 of them were born in Scotland.


System for transferring convict women to south of England.

Because there was no central depot at which the Scottish women could be assembled before transportation, there was no matron to supervise them.  Thus, there would be little or no opportunity for them to be provided with any small amount of goods to take with them on the journey.  The women whose cases I have examined represent some of the poorest and most destitute within Scottish society.  They would have little or nothing by way of possessions to their name.  So, they would set out on this epic journey with only what the ship’s surgeon could provide—prison clothes and work tools to keep them occupied, perhaps sewing, unless they were fortunate enough to have Lady Visitors coming to the ship in the south of England (inspired by Elizabeth Fry) to offer small comforts for the voyage.  If these packages reached them, the contents perhaps represented more in the way of worldly goods than they had ever owned.  Certainly, it is unlikely that their prisons in Scotland sent them out with any personal possessions.

The bureaucracy that was a fundamental part of the British Empire’s organisation was at the centre of making arrangements for the women to be sent from their prisons to coastal shipping which would carry them to the south. 

[See also A Perilous Journey by D Hoole and C McAlpine]


Prisons attached to High Court venues.


Originally Glasgow had eight prisons including the bridewell at Duke Street.  These were mostly closed by 1840 except for the bridewell and the Glasgow Green Prison.  Duke Street became the women’s prison in the late 19th century but before that, like so many Scottish prisons, it would have held felons of both sexes.

Gurney (1819):  Glasgow Jail:  Only one flat is allocated to female criminals of every description.  Sixteen women were crowded into this space when we visited.  We were told that sometimes thirty women are crammed in there.  Then they must sleep four in a bed and must be near suffocation because of a lack of ventilation.  Jailers reckon that, such is the idleness and lack of religious teachings that most who enter here leave in a worse case than when they arrived and that two-thirds re-offend.


Plan of Duke Street Prison:


Gurney (1819):  The Glasgow Bridewell has an infirmary and a chapel and there are some thread mills attached to the prison.  The women prepare thread for the mill and fabrics such as ornamental muslins.  The prisoners are well-fed and well clothed.  They have good bedding.  They have visits from a medical man, a school-master and a clergyman.  The place is clean and neat and prisoners bathe frequently.   A Bible is placed in every sleeping cell.  It is to be regretted that the prisoners are free to communicate with one another.  They can see out to a public road which distracts them.  There were one hundred and sixty women in the Bridewell.

By 1826, Glasgow had a system for keeping prisoners separately in cells, where they worked from 6am till 8pm.  In 1841 a report on Prisons in Scotland found that the Glasgow was the only ‘well-managed’ prison in the country.



The Old Tolbooth was demolished in 1817.


Gurney (1819):  The new jail.  The plan of this new prison has the ground floor divided into seven rooms with a day room and courtyard. One room is attached to the infirmary, one is for debtors, one for women criminals, three for male convicts and one for untried men.  The night cells are above.  Prisoners under sentence of death are held in chains but others move freely.  There is sufficient bedding and the food is satisfactory.  Each cell has a Bible.  There are no work rooms, so days are passed in idleness. 

The Bridewell: This building is near to the jail.  This has working space for the prisoners.  It is planned as a semi-circle and there is a pulpit in the middle so that the preacher may be seen and heard by all prisoners in their cells.  The sleeping cells are airy and fit for one person.  Some of the more trusted females are employed in cooking and washing.  The prisoners are well-clothed and bathe once a week.  Their bedding is excellent. The deficiency in the circular arrangement is that prisoners are able to see each other and, despite the efforts of the warders, to converse.  Similar deficiencies exist in the night cells. 


Gurney (1819):  The Perth County Jail in 1819 was a new stone built building.  There are separate buildings for male and female prisoners.  The buildings are lamentably inadequate.  On the women’s side, there are four small rooms with a fire place and a good bed for two persons in each of them.  There is no classification of prisoners and several children are with their mothers.  One child has small-pox.  There is an infirmary but the children are not placed there.  The prisoners are allowed a little clothing occasionally and are obliged to wash themselves every morning.  There is no place of worship which seems strange in a religious society such as Scotland.     

A prison was constructed at the rear of the County Buildings in Perth (the venue of High Court Trials) by 1823.  A passage was created from the prison cells to the witness stand and dock.  This prison had two separate blocks for male and female prisoners.

A general prison was built at Perth in the 1840s, with warders trained at the bridewell in Glasgow.  In 1839 an Act to Improve Prisons and Prison Discipline contained a proposal for a General Prison for Scotland to accommodate, among others, those sentenced to penal servitude.  The Act created a national prison system run by a centralised prison board based at the General Prison at Perth.  This was built on the site of a former military camp on the banks of the River Tay.  It was built in two phases between 1842 and 1857.

A new disciplinary system was put in place with prisoners confined to their cells apart from an hour of exercise a day (during which they wore masks to prevent recognition).  Their only communication was limited to brief speech with the warden and visits from the chaplain.  They worked in their cells at tasks such as weaving.  This was meant to encourage reflection and self-help.  

High windows prevented a view of the outside world. Warders wore soft shoes so that they moved silently.  The reports on this system were not encouraging.  The prisons became overcrowded.  By 1851 harsher tasks were devised to try to deter repeat offending.  

In 2014 two wings of this prison were still in use.  The High Court judge, Lord Cockburn, voiced his reservations on the reforms to the Scottish prison system at an early date, citing the frequency of reoffending and his view that transportation was the only answer for repeat offenders.  (Cockburn, 1889)


The gaol at Dundee was situated in the Town House before funds were raised from 1833 to construct a new prison within ten years. The Town House gaol was above administrative offices and had four rooms on the upper floor, an attic and a make-shift lock-up on the ground floor.  It held 61 male prisoners and 18 female prisoners.  The health dangers and lack of security, which led to a number of escapes, were cited as reasons for requiring a new prison.  The new jail in Bell Street was not constructed till 1837.

Aberdeen:  Gurney (1819):   A new building is soon to be commenced.  The present prison is a very ancient square tower with thick walls and ‘so contrived as to exclude all convenience and comfort from its inmates’.  The cells, in which the prisoners are confined at all times, are reached by a narrow winding stair.  One room, 15 foot long by 8 foot wide was set aside for female criminals.  There were four women in it, the husband of one of the women and a child. It was filthy and contained two beds. The man lay on one and an elderly woman on the other.  The child looked very sickly.  These people would be confined in this space by day and night. Another cell held two men who had been sentenced to transportation.  Food appeared to be very insufficient. Mattresses are straw with two blankets to each bed.  The text suggests that those awaiting transportation are held in this place.

The Aberdeen Bridewell:  Built for sixty prisoners. This is quite new and on the outskirts of the city.  Each of the several storeys has a long gallery with small ‘but airy and commodious’ cells on either side.  Every gallery is divided by a stone staircase.  Men are confined at one side and women at the other.  Every prisoner has a working cell and a sleeping cell and all are in solitary confinement.  There is a chapel and an infirmary on the highest floor used mostly as a nursery for the children of female prisoners.  The prisoners are properly clothed and well-fed. They are allowed to take exercise in a walled garden at certain times of the day.

Ayr: I can find no records for Ayr prison, but a photograph in ‘Scotland’s prisons’ (2017) shows a grim building with its high walls pierced by dozens of barred windows.

Stirling: One of the Circuit judges in 1844 commented ‘ … there has been no jail, to my knowledge, in which such a fearful state of things has existed as has been the case in the prison of Stirling.’ 

Inverness:  The Court and prison complex was designed by William Burn in 1833.  The building remains in use by the Scottish Court Service.

Dumfries:  I can find no historical descriptions of Dumfries prison.  The present, large prison serves the Border area of Scotland.

Jedburgh: A new jail was built on the site of the demolished castle in 1823, designed in response to John Howard’s recommendations.  The building had three rectangular blocks for male and for female criminals.  The third block housed debtors and young prisoners.

I have not included detailed reports on the smaller prisons, though the Inveraray courthouse and prison is well preserved and can be visited.  While I have no definite information, it seems to me likely that the women sentenced in smaller centres would be moved to a larger facility so that they could be included in arrangements for transportation.


Lilian McDonald


References :

Cockburn H. ‘Circuit journeys’ 1889

Howard, John; 1777; ‘The State of the Prisons in England and Wales’ 

Gurney J.J. ‘Notes on a visit made to some of the prisons in Scotland and The North of England in company with Elizabeth Fry’  1819   (Found in request for information on the Dundee  Prison on Google.  Gurney was Elizabeth Fry’s brother).

Scotland’s Prisons:  Research Report 2015:  Historic Environment Scotland. Published 2017.




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