Places to Visit in Scotland
- Stirling Old Town Jail
Welcome to Stirling Old Town Jail
If you think that Stirling Old Town Jail (seen in the picture above) looks dark and forbidding, you should have seen its predecessors. The function of prisons used to be purely custodial for those whose crimes did not warrant transportation. The watchwords were "deterrence" and "retribution" - and conditions were appalling. When a judge visited the predecessor of Stirling's Old Town Jail early in the reign of Queen Victoria, he condemned the "wretched" and "fearful" conditions he found there. 24 prisoners were held in each small cell, with no sanitary facilities. His words must have had some effect because a few years later, in 1847, the "modern" building seen above was opened.
Whether the convicts regarded the new conditions as an improvement is debatable. True, they were now in a single cell for each prisoner, but the design ensured that they were under constant surveillance and they were kept hard at work.
The big surprise today is that this grim building is now a popular visitor centre which is full of fun and laughter. Of course, there is an educational aspect as well, but those who tour the building will find it an enjoyable and amusing experience.
On the guided tour you are met by the inspector of prisons, the jailers, the hangman - and a desperate escaped convict - all of whom enter into the spirit of the presentation with creaking hinges, shuffling feet and vivid descriptions. This is no "animatronic" Disney presentation but "living history" by talented actors. And the tourists get sucked into the action too!
The inspector of prisons provides a background to the "new thinking" behind Victorian prisons. With transportation no longer an option, prisons were there to encourage criminals not to offend again and as a punishment. While the new prisons no longer had the cramped, unsanitary conditions of the 18th century, prisoners were subjected to endless hours of treadmills and pointlessly turning a crank-handle as the moralistic Victorians believed that any kind of work was good for the inmates. Life was hard for prisoners - though one of the older jailers describes the new conditions as "a hotel for criminals." The jailers could, of course, make turning the crank handle harder by tightening a screw - the phrase "turning the screw" originates from this, as does the UK slang term of "screw" for a prison warder.
Suddenly alarm bells ring - a prisoner has escaped! As he runs past the visitors, he takes time to stop and give them his views on being locked up alone in a cell for all but 30 minutes a day and made to carry out hard, physical work. The treadmill was introduced in 1817 by Sir William Cubit who thought it would "reform offenders by teaching them habits of industry." It was still in use by the end of the 19th century, either just as a pointless punishment or to grind corn.
Since capital punishment was still very much a part of the justice system (it was not abolished until the 1960s), the local hangman also appears to tell visitors the finer points of his trade! The last fully public hanging in Scotland (that of Joseph Bell at Perth) took place in 22nd March 1868.
Perhaps the most atmospheric part of the tour is when visitors are allowed to wander round the cells on their own and see for themselves the Spartan conditions and then wander up to the small area at the top of the building where prisoners were allowed to breath fresh air - for 30 minutes a day, if they were lucky!
There is a small museum of items connected with the prison and finally there is a gift shop to choose a unique souvenir of your trip behind bars....
Where to Find Stirling Old Town Jail
Stirling Old Town Jail is located at the top of St. John Street, one of the roads which leads from the centre of the modern town to Stirling Castle. If you are going to the castle, don't forget to call in at Argyll's Lodging on the way up the hill. See also the Location Map (you can enlarge the scale of this map, if required).
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