Not far from the magnificent Jedburgh Abbey, a Royal Castle was built in the 12th century. Its location on the hill overlooking the town was perfect. It was a brilliant strategic location with views stretching far down the valley, from where to keep a lookout for attacking armies. Bear in mind that Jedburgh is very close to the English border and saw many battles between the Scots and the English. In fact, in 1409, Albany Regent of Scotland ordered the castle’s demolition so the English could not hold it.
The site was again brought into a functional state in 1823 when a Howard reform prison was built here. It is this – Jedburgh Castle Jail – that we came to explore one chilly and blustery afternoon.
Construction of Jedburgh Castle Jail
The building looks very much “castle-like” when one approaches it from Castle Gate. A high circular wall forms the outer perimeter. On the inside of this wall are several interconnected buildings. In the centre is the Jailer’s accommodation. From here, three “legs” sprout out South, East, and West, respectively. Another high wall connected the ends of each leg, creating outdoor space for inmates.
The Bridewell Block
The Bridewell is located in the Western leg of the prison. In the early years of the Jail, this was administered separately from the rest of the Jail. The Bridewell was intended to hold vagrants and petty criminals. Conditions here were harsher than in the rest of the Jail. This was so by design: the extreme conditions were there to reform and deter the prisoner from reoffending.
From the 15th century onwards, the distinction had been made between the genuine poor – those unable to fend for themselves – and the able-bodied poor vagrants – with no tie to the land. The former could be given licence to beg or be supported by their parish. The latter, however, were treated as outcasts by both church and state and could be severely punished for their idleness. In 1579, for example, it was decreed that all sturdy beggars should be arrested and whipped!
There was no heating and, as James Neild wrote in 1809, “nor is any water supplied, except what is fetched in by the keeper. The employment of the prison consists of pounding sand for scouring. The purpose of so employing them is merely to occupy the time.”
In this two-storey block, 16 individual cells can be found. Due to the individual cells and cell arrangement, it was possible to keep both male and female prisoners here.
Imprisoning the Insane
The first known incidence of an insane prisoner comes from the Inspector’s Report, dating from 1837: “One female lunatic, not charged with any crime, quite harmless, been in prison for more than four years.”
One individual known in the records only as “EL” had murdered her mother in 1845, under the delusion that she was a witch. She was “found to be insane and not fit for trial at Jedburgh” and then sentenced to be imprisoned until further notice from the High Court.
Closing Jedburgh Castle Jail
By the 1840’s Jedburgh Jail no longer met the required standards for jails. The cells were too small, the building too damp, and the drainage was terrible.
The Jail closed on 31 May 1886, and all remaining prisoners were sent to Edinburgh. The building is currently a magnificent museum.
Historical Sites Nearby
- Jedburgh Abbey is less than 1 mile from the Castle Jail
- The ruined Kelso Abbey is located 12 miles along the A698
- Peebles Cross Kirk lies 36 miles away
- Neidpath Castle is just outside the town of Peebles, 37 miles away
- Just across the border is the ancient St Francis Church in Byrness, 16 miles South
- Site visit and observation
- Onsite information boards
- Jedburgh Castle Jail and Museum information booklet
- Wikipedia website