We’re not long back from a road trip around south-west Scotland to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. One of several stop-overs was in the small town of Inveraray, which boasts a harbour, a huge castle, some stunning scenery – and a museum set in, and dedicated to the history of, its historical jail.
We’d passed through the town several times in the past but never had time to visit the museum. I was also a bit dubious because of the emphasis on ‘grisly displays’ in some of the publicity material. But on a pouring wet, freezing cold October day, it seemed to be the perfect place to shelter from the elements without having to drive out of town for miles.
In the end the grisly stuff wasn’t too bad, since it was limited to one section on the ground floor which dealt with the earliest times at the jail, when people were routinely tortured or put to death in agonisingly brutal ways. I looked at one or two of the information signs, wished I hadn’t, and got through the rest of the section without looking too closely at anything.
After that it was better, though, as various new laws and reforms of the prison system were brought in. Conditions were still far from ideal, with overcrowding rife and punishments that far outweighed the seriousness of their crimes. But at least the sheer sadism seemed to have been watered down, and in some cases peoples’ lives were so terrible that the prison was better than life on the outside.
It was fascinating to look round the various floors, cells, washrooms, and tiny exercise areas, but I also found it a sobering experience. So many wasted lives; so much suffering. So little understanding, or even interest in, the reasons why people were committing crimes. There were tales galore of children whose parents had died or abandoned them, stealing a few paltry items to help feed their younger siblings, and being imprisoned for years or even transported to Australia as a result. No word on what happened to the younger siblings, who probably ether took to stealing themselves or quietly starved to death.
It made me grateful that the penal system in the UK, although not perfect, has at least moved on hugely from this. Although one startling display towards the end showed a typical cell from modern-day Barlinnie jail, also in Scotland, and showed that apart from a TV, some better bedding and an in-cell toilet, almost nothing had changed…