The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)

The Castle Style

Edinburgh Bridewell

Prisons and Punishment in Late Eighteenth Century Scotland


Prison in late 18th
Century Scotland

Robert Adam's Designs for the Bridewell

Scottish Politics and the Bridewell Designs




"Frae a'the bridewell cages an' blackholes,
And officers canes wi' halbert poles,
And frae the nine-tail'd cat that opposes our souls,
Gude Lord deliver us."


The concept of prison as a form of punishment was virtually unknown in medieval Europe. The function of the prison was simply to hold the prisoner until such time as they could be disposed of. For common people, if found guilty this usually meant either execution, or banishment, or mutilation, or the payment of compensation. The concept of payment as compensation for a crime was a well established and matter of course means of restitution for murder, assult, theft and all other crimes from earliest times. The higher the victim's social standing, the higher the price. The compensation was awarded to the victim, if still alive, or the kin if not.1

David I (1125-1153) having been brought up at the court of Henry I and taken an English wife, introduced an Anglo-Norman feudal system to Scotland when the opportunity presented itself to do so, depriving rebellious barional families of their land and bestowing these under feudal tenure to Norman friends. With these land rights were privledges of justice, which meant juristiction over all inhabitants of the land held under charter, with the right to hold courts, fine, imprison, and even to hang vassals. These heritable juristictions were to last until 1747. Grants of charters by successive Kings gave nobles more and more power until they were virtually independent, the only crime that could not be tried in the nobles courts being treason.

Scotland came to be divided into royalties and regalities, those areas where the kings writ ran, and those where the barons. For over six centuries, in over one hundred heritable juristictions, the barons dominated Scottish life. The format of a court and jury of peers was used, but under baronial jurisdiction the system was open to corruption. Judgements were supposed to made by the whole body of the court including the jury. In the barons court, his tacksmen or tenents formed the jury and voted as they were told.

Once convicted, judgement was swift. There was expense involved in feeding and keeping a prisoner and this was not to be countenanced for long. An offender was either "clenzit or convikit", freed or hanged, or dealt with in whatever manner was decided.

Offenses and Punishments
From our perspective there are two aspect of the medieval judicial system that we find shocking; the kinds of offences that people were tried for, and the methods of punishment used if found a person was found guilty. Punishments that can only be described as severe and barbaric in the extreme, were applied even for relatively minor offenses.

This was a time when serious violent disorder was commonplace and peoples lives held cheap. There are many examples of extreme punishments for relatively minor offences in medieval and late medieval Scotland. For example a known thief, caught redhanded had his "luggs" (ears) cut off, was whipped, and then hung.

In respect of judicial executions, hanging was normal for men, while drowning was the more usual (and regarded as the most respectful) method of disposing of women; or burning at the stake for what were regarded as very heinous crimes. The worst punishments were reserved for "unnatural crimes" and witchcraft.

After the reformation discipline exercised by the Kirk (church) Sessions transformed the kinds the kinds of activities regarded as serious punishable offenses. The concern was less with violence and property, and more with offenses thought to fall short of the ways of God. These included "crimes" of fornication, adultery, blasphemy, sabbath-breaking, slanderous language, drunkeness, "horrid" swearing, witchcraft, and "unnatural" offenses.

The Kirk sessions zealously tracked down offenders, and began to use prison in a way previously unknown, as a means of punishment, with statutory authority to do so. For example for the vice of "filthy fornication" a fine was imposed of £40 Scots, or on failure to pay, eight days in prison on bread and water and two hours in the pillory. Adultery first became a capital crime in Scotland in 1563. As late as 1697 an Edinburgh student, Thomas Aikenhead, was hanged for declaring that "theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense". Some "crimes" and the resultant punishments seem quite extraordinary. A statue of 1661 ordained that a child that "beat or cursed either their father or mother, shall be put to death without mercy".

Early Scottish Prisons
Early prisons in Scotland were most often used to hold people prior to trail. There were some notorious exceptions, where vengence was the motive for keeping prisoners in dungeon pits for many years until they perished.

This gradually changed. A stay in prison gradually became a method of punishment in itself. Less important prisoners, held for crimes rather than political reasons, were held in the Tolbooth, originally a booth at a fair where fines were collected, but which gradually transformed into a building were courts were held and prisoners kept before sentence.

The best known of the Tolbooths is in Edinburgh though all towns of reasonable size would have had one. In Edinburgh the original Tolbooth by 1555 had an iron room where those sentenced to death were held, and a thieves hole and jailer's house. By 1562 another Tolbooth had been constructed on part of the site now occupied by the Signet Library. A section of St Giles Cathedral was also partitioned off and converted into a prison and municipal offices etc., also called a Tolbooth, the two being connected by a covered passage.

In larger towns there had always been pit-like castle dungeons to hold state and political prisoners for longer terms. But after both the 1715 and 1745 rebellions in Scotland, there were not enough prisons to hold political prisoners. Transportation came to be used to deal with prisoners, political and otherwise, but with the loss of the American colonies in 1775, there was nowhere to send prisoners to. The delapidated hulks that used to be the transport ships, now moored in English Esturies, were used as floating prisons because hey were secure, and it was an expedient, but not an appropriate long-term solution.

Early Reformers of Prisons and Punishments

Samuel Romilly (1757-1818)
Romilly was horrified by the harshness and savagery of English laws. He attacked the House of Lords (with its seven bishops) for their pronouncement that transportation for life for the theft of items of five shillings value was not enough and only the blood of the offender could atone. After years of effort, supported by his friend Dugald Stewart of Edinburgh, he managed to get abolished by Act of Parliament the two worst of these laws, the death penalty for stealing more than a shilling, or five shillings worth of goods from bleaching greens. (Both Romilly and Stewart knew Jeremy Bentham. Romilly corresponded with Jeremy Bentham about the Panopticon and Dugald Stewart's copies of the Jeremy Bentham's three volume Panopticon, or Invisible Inspection, are held in Edinburgh University Library Special Collections).

John Howard (1726?-1790)
Howard was the great early prison reformer, before Elizabeth Fry. Howard had spent time in a French Prison in 1756 and so had firt hand expereince of prison conditions. Later as Sheriff of Bedford, he visited all the prisons in England and many of the Scottish and Irish ones. Horrified by what he saw, he published his detailed observations at his visits In the State of Prisons (1777) and urged improvements:-

1. Prisoners be separated according to their sex and degree of criminality.
2. There should be solitary cells at night for each prisoner (because he believed solitude might lead to repentance) They should be together during the day for work, grouped together according their classification.
3. Prisoners' health should be considered. Adequate provision should be made for bedding, food, fresh air and baths. There should also be access to an Infirmary.
4. For moral improvement prisoners should have access to a chapel.
5. Jailers should be forbidden to sell liquor and should be paid a proper salary, so they would not have to extort money from prisoners for the bare necessities and ordinary comforts.

Howard designed an ideal penitentiary house, which, while it was never built, had an important influence on the design of prisons, including Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. Bentham obviously had respect for Howard. In volume 3 of Panopticon, or Inspection House, which discusses the management of a Panopticon, he acknowledges John Howard's work, not as a writer but as a humanitarian. His publications "afford a rich fund of materials: but a quarry is not a house. No leading principals: no order: no connection." He refers to Howard's saintly disposition.

Different Types of Institutions.

In 1779 the Penitentiary Houses Act was passed. This set up a National Penitentiary, constituting both Bridewells and prisons.

Bridewells had been around for some time. The name originally come from a well dedicated to St Bride, believed to provide miraculous cures, that was situated near an 11th century Norman tower, Montfichet, that stood beside the Fleet River where it joined the Thames. The tower was demolished by Henry VIII who built in its place a Royal Palace to receive and entertain with pageants and tennis Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and his court, who planned to visited London in 1525. The palace came to be know as the Bridewell.

In 1553 Edward VI handed the palace to the City of London who turned it into a place of reception for vagrants and homeless children and for the punishment of petty offenders and disorderly women. This was the site of public floggings and, in the 17th century, a ducking stool.

The buildings were left in ruin after the Great Fire, but rebuilt with two quadrangles. One became a prison and the other a hospital for paupers. This institution became a model for similar buildings around the country. The prison closed in 1855.

There were other types of correctional institutions in both England and Scotland for detaining different types of people. In Book 1 of Panopticon, or Inspection House, Letter XVI, Jeremy Bentham discusses the use of the Panopticon plan for a House of Correction (i.e. Bridewell) as opposed to a Penitentiary, but pours scorn on the distinctions. He suggests that the regimen in a House of Correction could be easier than his first proposal for the Panopticon, where many were to be held in close proximity by in solitary confinement, the difference being that "the gloomy paradox of crowded solitude might be exchange perhaps for the chearfulness of a common refectory".

"I will not pester you with further niceties applicable to the differences between houses of Correction, an Work-Houses, an Poor-houses, if any there should be, which are not work-houses, between the different modes of treatment that may be due, to what are look upon as the inferior degrees of dishonesty, and to blameless indigence. The law herself has scarcely eyes for these microscopic differences. I bow down therefore, for the present at least, to the counsel of so many sages, and shrink from the crime of being "wiser than the law".

Edinburghs First Bridewells and Proposals for a New Prison

Edinburgh's need for a Bridewell or similar institution is mentioned in an early nineteenth century book Modern Athens, quoting from an earlier account by Maitland.

"Edinburgh", says Maitland "being become, as it were, the common receptacle for the strolling poor, lazy beggars, idle vagrants, and common prostitutes, who crowded hither from all parts of the kingdom, wherefore it was, in the year 1632, judged necessary to erect a House of Correction, for employing ans publishing these disorderly persons, and pests of mankind"

Howard on an early visit to Edinburgh had expressed his low opinion of the city's prisons. David Steuart, Lord Provost of Edinburgh in 1780-82 agreed with him and in 1780 had the architect James Craig (responsible for the urban design of Edinburgh's New Town) design a new Bridewell for the city. 1 [1. Iain MacIvor. Unpublished manuscript of part of a book? "The Early Scottish Bridewells" in the NMR. Refers to David Steuart, Plan for a General Bridewell, Two engraved plans "JA Craig architect 1780" This manuscript has provided the source material much of this essay, as well as for the description of Craig's design which seems to have been overlooked by others]. This design was published anonymously in 1782 with a plan of management. This is the first design for a reformed prison in Scotland. The design is courtyard based, with solitary night cells on the ground floor and group work cells on the first floor. Prisoners were to be beggars, prostitutes who had already been banished from the town for theft or other crimes, and boys under fourteen convicted for stealing or house-breaking - there were apparently many of these. There was to be a keeper, three under-keepers, work-mistresses and sick-nurses chosen from the prisoners, as well as managers, a chaplain and a surgeon.. The prisoners were to be paid half the profits of the work they carried out, paid weekly.

Combined Prison and Bridewell - Proposal and Act of Parliament of 1782
Steuart, along with Archibald Cockburn of Cockpen, Deputy Sheriff of Midlothian, then conceived a more ambitious proposal for a comprehensive prison, both gaol and bridewell, to serve the City and County. It was then proposed that this new building might also serve other counties such as East and West Peebles, Fife, Clackmannan and Stirling. A new plan for a combined Bridewell and Gaol was drawn up by the architect and wright James Brown, who had laid out George Square in 1766. A specific site was chosen, close to the Pleasance, which forced a trapezium shaped plan with turrets at the cornes at the same heoight as the walls, all of which were crenellated and the turrets of which were equipped with swivel guns for the subjugation of riots. Internally the plan provides distinct areas for different types of prisoners.

David Steuart's term of office as Lord Provost came to an end in 1782, and the next Provost had no interest to follow the proposals through. For several years Edinburgh made do with a makeshift bridewell in one of the arches of the North Bridge.

Combined Prison and Bridewell - Act of Parliament of 1790 . There was new interest in the 1782 proposal, following the election of a new Provost Thomas Elder in 1788 . In 1790 a petition was made to the House of Commons to bring in a bill for erecting a new bridewell and gaol.

MacIvor suggests it is possible that Robert Adam was asked at this time to draw up plans of this and that the two earliest schemes by Adam, were first drawn up at this time (rather than in 1791).

In August 1790 Thomas Elder and Archibald Cockburn along with the Duke of Buccleugh decided on William Blackburn as the architect for Edinburgh's new Bridewell. Blackburn was a friend of John Howard. He had won a competition ofr designing a new national penitentiary in 1782, and had since designed a number of new prisons , at Gloucester, Preston manchester and Oxford. He was asked by the town council to visit Edinburgh, and he set off , but died on the way.

Competition Design 1791
Edinburgh had to find a new architect


The effect of the new leniency towards offenders was that somewhere needed to be built to house them.

Howard on a visit to Scotland persuaded the Lord Provost of Edinburgh to


early design by Brown?. Castellated style. Swivel guns mounted on walls at corners. Also to protect from attack from without. Purpose of Bridewell was also to incarcerate other undesirables: Indigent men and women, youth, bedlam etc.

John Howard's proposals

These early designs for the prison incorporated much of the very latest thinking about prison design. Jeremy Bentham clearly took the time to inform himself about the Adam clearly knew about John Howard's proposals for prison reform. This design enacts many of these proposals, namely:-

Designs of 1782 - City Library

Howard visited the City in **. Proposal for new Bridewell.

** would have received the comission but died.

The competition of 1790
Other architects were invited to submit designs for the new prison. There are designs by John Baxter for an "L" shaped plan, and by James Wardrop, Adam's main rival in Edinburgh for a radial plan. Adam apparently had to use all his influence to succeed.... the Panopticon may have been his trumph card in getting the commission.

3. The Politics of Late 18th century Scotland - Civil unrest in Scotland. The new brief. - a Bridewell and a political prison. Purpose of Bridewell was also as a jail to incarcarate Political Prisoners.

4. Design for the Bridewell.

2. Jeremy Bentham. Panopticon Principals and the 3rd Bridewell scheme.

Adam and Bentham. The origins of the Panopticon idea and the use that Adam made of it is covered elsewhere.

Note on Sanitation in cells.

Even in the new Bridewell there are aspects that are horrifying from our perspective. Black hole.


1 Joy Cameron: Prisons and Punishment in Scotland.

2. Joy Cameron: Prisons and Punishment in Scotland. P2 Referring to Ralph Pugh: Imprisonment in Medival England



Prison in late 18th Century Scotland

Robert Adam's Designs for the Bridewell

Scottish Politics and the Bridewell Designs





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