The Architecture of Robert Adam(1728-1792)

The Influence of Scottish Politics on the design of the Bridewell


Prison in late 18th
Century Scotland

Robert Adam's Designs for the Bridewell

Scottish Politics and the Bridewell Designs




On 1st November 1791 the Edinburgh Evening Courant reported the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of the new Bridewell for Edinburgh. There was some ceremonial associated with the event. With the band of the 53rd Regiment providing a musical accompaniment, a procession made its way from the Assembly rooms to the site on Calton Hill. A strict order of precedence applied to the marchers, headed by the Lord Provost, Magistrates and Council, in their ceremonial robes, preceded by the sword and mace and followed by the Sheriff-depute, attended by the Noblemen and Gentlemen of the County. Bringing up the rear (typically for the time for this kind of ceremony associated with a new building) were the Masonic Lodges. The Masonic Grand Master performed the "mysteries" of the ceremony of laying the foundation stone and gave a short speech in which he described the building's purpose as a "House of Public Discipline" required because of "...a degree of corruption of the manners of the people, to which, I am sorry to add, the too general use of spirits among the lower classes of both sexes." The building was intended to be "a terror to the idle and profligate" who are to "leave it for amendment in their behaviour and inured to habits of industry".

This description is an interesting vignette of Scotland's hierarical and authoritarian political establishment of the time. The public statement of the function the Bridewell was to serve ties in with the Act of Parliament authorising its construction, passed some ten years before and with earlier designs for the building dating from that time. This description does not seem to tie in with the high security prison that had actually been designed by Robert Adam, that the foundation stone was being laid for.

[Add Image and description of Brown's designs and the front page of the 1782 Act ?]
All of Robert Adam's Castle Style designs for the Bridewell in Edinburgh include a walkway around the outside of the main prison walls. The detailed design of this walkway varies between the plans for the different schemes but all include a railed or pallisaded wall around the outer perimeter. At the angles on each version of the plans there is a different arrangement proposed to provide a defensible point, sometimes doubling as a sentry box. The requirement for defence of the building is explicitly mentioned on one of the later plans. This is a version where the design has undergone much paring down (probably to cut costs) but where the walkway is still included. Around the walkway on this drawing is inscribed a note

"A walk with Wooden Pallisades with Centinel Boxes on the Angles for guarding the outsides of the Walls, to prevent attacks from without or getting over the walls from Within"

Presumably it was envisaged that such attacks might be attempted to try to release the kinds of prisoners who may be kept there.

In addition to this defensive function, the building was designed with a high level of security internally for those held there. Adam adopted Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon "invisible inspection" system for the design of the building. This method of centralised observation of prisoners, discussed elsewhere, provides a level of security that seems far in excess of what would be required to hold the thieves, drunks, prostitutes and vagrants that the building was ostensibly intended for.

It seems unlikely that the Adam would be adding this kind of functionality without being asked to do so. To make some guess at why, it is perhaps necessary to look at the political situation in Scotland at this time.

Scottish Politics in the late Eighteenth Century - The Rights of Man
In the second half of the eighteenth century Scotland has been described as a "society that was fundamentally stable but obsessed with its own instability" [Scotland. A New History" Michael Lynch]

This view is augmented by a near contemporary view of Henry Thomas Cockburn (1779-1854) who in his diaries wrote of the Tory party during the period of the French Revolution in Scotland

"The party engrossed almost the whole wealth, and rank, and public office, of the country, and at least three fourths of the population. They could have afforded therefore, to be just and well tempered. But this as it appears to them would have endangered their supremacy, which they were aware was upheld by their opponents being believed to entertain alarming principals and ends. Hence the Tory object was to abuse everybody but themselves, and in particular to ascribe a thirst for bloodshed and anarchy, not merely to their avowed public opponents, but to the whole body of the people. It is frightful even to recollect the ferocious bitterness and systematic zeal with which this principal was acted upon; and this under the direct sanction of Government." [Fyfe, J.G. Scottish Diaries and Memoirs 1746 -1843. Quoting from Henry Thomas Cockburn]

A Country of Deep Inequalities
Scotland was at this time a country of deep inequalities, but in which there was a growing clamour for change. However the grip of the landed interests was tightening. Great landowners owned more than half the land and were tightening their control over the electoral system, because the right to vote depended on who held the superiority of the land as well as those who owned it. Commercialisation of the landed estates was the passport to wealth and (London) society . It was the basis of the development of many great houses of the time such as Culzean.

The great landowners were increasingly remote from their fellow Scots, both on their own estates and in society as a whole, but they cocooned their political position using an elaborate apparatus that depended on wealth, privilege, patronage and a weighted legal system.

This was never so candidly revealed as by the Justice clerk Lord Braxfield who at the trial of Thomas Muir in 1793 declared that "A Government in every country should be just like a Corporation, and in this country, it is made up of landed interests which alone has a right to be represented." (This same Judge once famously told a prisoner - "you'll be no worse of a hangin").

Henry Dundas.
Dubbed at the time "Satrap of Scotland" and "Harry the ninth, uncrowned king of Scotland", Henry Dundas became a supreme manipulator of this corrupt political system. Son of a minor landowner, but also connected to the Edinburgh Legal establishment, he was a loyal agent of the landed interests as a whole, and of the Hanovarian monarchy. He sat as MP and became Lord Advocate in 1775, and managed to dominate the government of Scotland for the next 25 years.

During the American war of Independence he did much to curry favour with George III, by making exaggerated objections to the Seceeders anxious to conciliate the American Colonies. George III found his boot licking egregious and described him in 1778 as a pest, however the ascendancy of Dundas in Scotland dates from this time. He was able to stay in control of the Scottish Lobby of MPs and to always ensure that they voted in a way that suited the crown. In the Westminster parliament in 1780, at a time when George III was particularly unpopular, a motion was passed that "the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished". This was passed by 233 to 215 votes, but only 7 of the 45 Scots MP's had supported it.

Dundas was able to control the vote of the Scots MP's and provide dependable support and to increase his influence for the next two decades. In the election of 1780 there were 41 government supporters returned out of 45 seats, and Dundas personally controlled 12 of these MP's. By 1784 this number had risen to 22, and in 1786 he controlled all but one of the Scottish seats.

He would have been helped in this by the very few number of people eligible to vote in Scotland at the time. In 1788, the thirty Scottish county members in the post-Union Westminster parliament were elected by a mere 2,662 votes. Edinburgh, the only burgh to be individually represented by an MP had only 33 voters. The system was totally open to corruption. Henry Dundas himself stated the "it would be easier to reform Hell". An example was the way the parchment barons were created at this time, to swamp, where needed, opposition of "real" voters. On top of this every other effort was made to secure political interest. Appointments to British State and Empire and Armed forces were also managed in the interests of the ruling classes. Reforms that were being demanded in England did not happen in Scotland at this time.

Dundas did do some good in Scotland. He liked to practise "civic virtue". For example he found the finance to complete the Forth/Clyde canal in1784 and sponsored a number of parliamentary acts to enable the continuing improvement of Edinburgh, including the building of the University, now called the Old College.

Challenges to the System
The political situation in Scotland by 1791 was very delicate. There were undercurrents of political unrest, and the whole country was poised for a period of political agitation. That civil unrest was in the air must have been clear to the authorities.

The American War of Independence, though lost by the British, had seen many Scots support, fight and indeed die overseas for the British cause. It had proved to the hilt the loyalty of the Scottish establishment and Scotland as a nation. There was a degree of instability throughout Britain caused by the return of soldiers from the war, many of whom were unable to find employment and turned to begging and stealing to stave off starvation. This indeed was one of the causes for an urgent demand for prison reform at that time. With the loss of the American colonies there was now nowhere to send "criminals", at least not until the first penal colonies were established in Botany Bay Australia ten years later.

The political administration of every country in Europe had been shaken by the phenomena of the French Revolution. How to prevent heads on pikes would have been in the minds of many at that time. The French revolution did much to stimulate political awareness in Scotland, and to awaken people to the possibility of reform, if not to the methods by which it was being achieved in France, which were generally deplored, certainly by the middle and upper classes.

In 1792 the most serious challenge to the established order to date took place. It was provoked by the refusal of the House of Commons in April 1792 even to set up a committee to investigate the manifold corruption of the electoral system in the burghs. Effigies of Dundas were burned in Dundee, Brechin and Aberdeen, and in Edinburgh the King's birthday was followed by 3 nights of rioting, on 4-6 June.

There was also a growth in the numbers of newspapers. In 1782 there had been 8 Scottish newspapers. By 1790 there were 27. By 1792 new newspapers were springing up weekly, the atmosphere being heightened by the remarkable successes of the French Revolutionary armies in the summer of 1792. In May the government issued a proclamation against seditious literature, in an effort to stop the circulation of handbills and placards. In particular they wanted to prevent the circulation of the second part of Thomas Payne's Right of Man which had appeared three months earlier. The proclamation had the reverse effect, giving the agitation new force, and leading to increased sales of the book.

Hand in hand with new publications was a burgeoning of political clubs, which took as their model the Edinburgh Society of the Friends of the People, formed in late July. Similar organisations were established in Glasgow, Dundee, Perth and Aberdeen. Dundee and Perth indeed became radical strongholds. By the end of 1792 almost every town in South of Aberdeen had it own parliamentary reform society, as did many villages. Trees of Liberty, symbols of radical democracy, were planted not only in major towns, such as Perth, but in more remote and unlikely places, such as Auchtermuchty and Fochabers.

The membership of these new political organisations was initially from the Middle classes- merchants, lawyers and shopkeepers.

The first General Convention of the Friends of the People in Scotland was held later the same year 1792, in Edinburgh. Thomas Muir, a middle class, educated son of a wealthy Glasgow merchant and himself an Edinburgh Advocate, read an address that he had received from a similar Irish body, The Society of United Irishmen. The program was annual parliaments, universal male suffrage and an end to the war with France. This had nothing to do with demands for Scottish Independence; it was a demand for end to corruption and the right to vote.

The authorities or "possessing classes" were generally alarmed that a movement that encouraged political mobilisation among the lower orders might lead on to effective demands for political and social reform.

What made the response to the French Revolution in Scotland so alarming to the authorities in Kirk and state was the way in which it involved groups well below those that were traditionally expected to take an interest in politics. &ldots;.

The Friends of the People societies after 1792 tended to be led by merchants, lawyers, manufacturers, teachers, but as the French Revolution became bloodier &ldots; lower middle class&ldots;. and skilled craftsmen, moved to the fore.

Money was given by the authorities to writers on papers like the Edinburgh Herald, and Caledonian Mercury, presumably to encourage anyone who wanted reform to be branded as a "Leveller", "Republican", or "French Democrat".

This situation could not be allowed to continue.


In Old Calton Burying Ground, off what is now Waterloo Place, is a memorial of in the form of an obelisk, a major landmark on the Edinburgh skyline, that on its plinth has the following inscription.

To the memory of

Erected by


The memorial also records the following:-

"I have devoted myself to the cause of the People, it is a good cause. It shall ultimately prevail, it shall finally triumph." Speech of Thomas Muir at the Court of the Judiciary 30th August 1793

"I know the what has been done these two days will be re-judged" Speech of William Skirving at the Court of the Judiciary 7th January 1794

By 1793 all had come to a head. For his speech to the Friends of the People Convention Thomas Muir was charged with sedition. Found guilty at his trial in 1794 he was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia. He was followed shortly after by Fyshe Payne and the others. Only one returned alive.

The Politics of the Bridewell
The stated purpose of the Bridewell was to deal with vagrants, petty thieves, drunkenness etc. If it was designed to be able to function as a political prison then this clearly needed to be kept a secret, given the political atmosphere of the time, if there were not to be rumbles from the populace that the Bridewell was actually a second Bastille. The only documentary evidence that might hint at such a hidden agenda is the description of the purpose of the defensive perimeter walkway "for guarding the outsides of the Walls, to prevent attacks from without". Also the high level of security that the prison was designed to provide (which may just have been the result of the implementation of the new Panopticon concept, taken to its logical fulfilment in a built form).

Irrespective of this, that a threat was felt by the authorities, real or imagined is clear. Given the requirement for a defensive function, as well as to provide up-to-date facilities for incarceration, the choice of the Castle Style must have seemed even more appropriate to Adam.

Designs for Defensible Positions & Castellated Gates for the Bridewell Perimeter

Castle Style Scheme 2

CS Scheme 2 - Plan detail

Fig. 1 Sentry Post and Bastion

Fig. 2 Sentry Post and Bastion

Fig. 3 Blockhouse ?

Fig. 4 Entrance Gate. Note Railing and wall

 Fig. 5 Main Entrance Gate - Railings and wall run into the side of this and into secondary gate (Fig 4). Gates are fortified and castellated. Sentry Posts have bastions which also have railings and wall. (Fig 2).


Castle Style Scheme 3

CS Scheme 3 - Elevation detail

Fig. 6 This detail from the East West section, apparently for CS Scheme 3 actually shows shows the elevation of the perimeter bastion arrangement of the CS Scheme 2, rather than the arrangements shown below. A circular sentry box sits within a circular palisade of sharpened timber stakes, set within a low perimeter wall with railings.

Castle Style Schemes 3 & 4. Figs 7-16 Various configurations for defensive positions

CS Scheme 3 - Elevation detail



Prison in late 18th
Century Scotland

Robert Adam's Designs for the Bridewell

Scottish Politics and the Bridewell Designs





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