Kirkcudbright Prison Records Revealed

The former Sheriff Courthouse in Kirkcudbright
The former Sheriff Courthouse in Kirkcudbright

Donald Cowell

Over 70 members and guests attended the first Kirkcudbright History Society meeting of 2013 on January 9th.

Donald Cowell, who is a volunteer working in the Stewartry Museum a few hours a week, has been recording the contents of three boxes of prison records and talked about his work.

What the records reveal is a fascinating story of Kirkcudbright prison and prison life between 1791 and 1857.

Originally all Scottish burghs like Kirkcudbright kept prisoners in Tollbooth gaols. The two most famous prisoners held in Kirkcudbright Tolbooth were Elspeth McKewan, the last Witch to be burned in Galloway in 1698 and John Paul Jones, the American Naval hero, who was held there on a murder charge in 1770.

As imprisonment became a more common method of dealing with criminals from the early 19th century a new prison was needed and opened in 1816. It operated until 1885 when a new prison opened in Dumfries.

The Kirkcudbright prison building, a castellated tower 75 feet high, adjacent to the Court, is still an important feature of the town skyline.

Major changes were made to the Scottish prison system, punishment methods and prison regime during the early 19th century. In 1839 a more centralised system was introduced in Scotland.

The audience was reminded that Banishment, as a punishment was only abolished in 1830; Transportation to Australia was in operation until 1867; Whipping was abolished for females in 1820 but continued for men over 16 until 1862; and the use of Public Humiliation like being put in the pillory was only abolished in 1836.

The prison building was altered in 1842/43 to provide more individual cells and a new Keepers house was built behind the prison.

Records of prisoners, their offences, the time they spent in prison and their behaviour have survived. At that time people could be imprisoned for being in debt; there was no separate provision for lunatics until a special wing was opened at Perth prison; and children over 12 could be imprisoned.

The names and some details of their gaolers have also survived. For a few months in the 1830’s Kirkcudbright had a female gaoler, Margaret Miller, the widow of Robert Miller who died in service. Also for a time after 1840 the Kirkcudbright gaoler had over sight of other gaols and lock ups in the Stewartry including Maxwellton, Castle Douglas, New Galloway, Gatehouse of Fleet and Creetown.

The more formal prison regime introduced in prisons included the wearing of a uniform, opportunity for exercise, regular visits from a doctor and from the local minister of religion. Prisoners serving three months or more could be taught to read and write if unable to do so. The diet was considered to be “cheap but wholesome” and largely consisted of oatmeal made into a porridge, and barley made into a broth with vegetables, marrow bones and seasoning with bread and buttermilk.

Prisoners were required to wash once a day, wash their feet once a week and have a bath once a month. Male prisoners were shaved once a week.

Prison reports became a routine part of prison management and those surviving in the records reveal much about prison conditions and how prisoners were looked after.

The prison was important to the local economy. Gaolers had to be paid. Prisoners had to be fed and clothed. Local shops and traders supplied many of the goods and services needed. Bread, milk, meat, vegetables, oatmeal and barley were provided by local business.

Coal for heating the prison was shipped in from Whitehaven. Specialist stationery for prison journals and records came from Edinburgh. Cloth and blankets came from Glasgow and Dumfries. Old rope unravelled to produce oakum for caulking ships was sent on the “Countess of Galloway” from Liverpool.

Donald Cowell concluded that the surviving prison records provide a unique and rich record of the operation of the prison system in the town of Kirkcudbright.