A tale of crime and punishment – Jedburgh Castle Jail

Blue metal prison door

A few weeks ago we took a trip to Jedburgh for the day. Though I often go to visit The Lovatt Gallery, The Jedburgh Chocolate House or stop for a meringue at the fabulous Border Meringues, I had never visited Jedburgh Castle Jail. It looks like a grand castle, but inside it’s most definitely a jail.  The Jailer’s House explores the history of the Royal Burgh of Jedburgh.  While a visit to the cellblocks gives a taste of the life for wardens and prisoners in a 19th century  Howard Reform  prison.   Outside there are fine views across Jedburgh and the surrounding countryside.

Crime and Punishment

The idea of prison as a punishment for crime is a relatively new idea. Before 1820 felons were usually executed and petty criminals banished or transported to the colonies. Prisons collected people awaiting trial, to prevent them from escaping justice.  The courts took little interest in the actual conditions in prisons. Prisons were filthy, overcrowded and disease-ridden, with debtors, criminals, children and the unconvicted all crushed together.

The Great Prison Reformer John Howard

Jedburgh Castle Jail is the only remaining example in Scotland of a prison designed in line with the ideas of the great prison reformer John Howard. Opened in 1823, the jail  was considered to be one of the most modern in its time.

There is indeed not a more comfortable place of confident in Scotland

Rev John Purves, 1834

Howard’s 500 page expose on “The State of Prisons” (1777) is a shocking account of the appalling conditions in British jails. His reforms began a new era in prisons, based on more human conditions and the idea that jails should be places of improvement as well as punishment. His proposals included a better diet, fresh air, exercise and religious education. But after 1820 Howard’s approach was seen as too lenient and was replaced by a much tougher regime. Howard  was honoured as the first civilian, with a statue in St Paul’s Cathedral. Today his name lives on in the Howard Reform League, who work to make our communities safer and promote lasting solutions to crime.

Watch out there may be some spooks

The ghost of Edwin McArthur, a prisoner  executed in 1855, is said to haunt the jail. His ghost is said to threaten visitors, but we didn’t see or hear him! The jail attracts ghost hunters each year on organised visits to seek out the ghosts.

Archibald Elliot

Ancrum born, Archibald Elliot, one of the best known Scottish architects at the time, designed the jail. He contributed to many significant buildings and streets in Edinburgh, including St Paul’s and St George’s Church, Rutland Square, the Regent Bridge, Waterloo Place and Calton Prison (now demolished). Elliot also worked on many country houses in Scotland, including Stobo Castle in Peeblesshire.

Jethart Castle

Jedburgh Castle Jail sits on the former site of the 12th century fortress Jethart Castle, built by King David I to protect the town of Jedburgh. The castle was one of the most important strongholds in the Borders.  King Malcolm IV died at Jethart Castle in 1165.  The Castle frequently changed hands between the English and the Scots during the wars of Scottish Independence. The Scottish Parliament ordered the destruction of Jethart Castle in 1409 to stop it falling into the hands  of the English again.  So it was

most happily captured {from the English} by Teviotdale men of middling rank and pulled to the ground.

The town gallows occupied the site until the prison opened in 1823.

12 More Museums for free

Jedburgh Castle Jail is one of 12 small museums and galleries provided free by Live Borders.  Each offers a unique insight into Borders’ history, people and culture.  There is something for everyone from archaeology to art, hosiery to history, jumpers to jailbirds and mini beasts to Mary Queen of Scots.  We highly recommend you pick up a copy of the Museums and Galleries Guide produced by Live Borders or you can download it from their website here.

You can find out more about Jedburgh on the town website

How to Find Jedburgh Castle Jail

Address: Castlegate, Jedburgh, TD8 6QD
Opening Times: Mon-Sat 10am to 4.30pm, Sun 1pm-5pm
Open: Mon 21 March – Mon 31 October
Audio tour, foreign language and children’s tides, audio visual display on ground floor for wheelchair users.
Admission: free

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