A Tale of Two Unlucky Prisoners

Historic Environment Scotland's Alex Adamson tells us two tales from Linlithgow's dark underbelly

Submitted by SarahManavis on 17-10-2017 18:49:16

Today, Linlithgow Burgh Halls is a modern multi-functional venue, visitor attraction, art gallery, hireable space, café and much more.  How times have changed from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when it held the local prison and court.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were few jails of any size.  Each county and burgh had its own prison with the cost being borne by the local authority.  In the case of Linlithgowshire it was situated in the west side of the Burgh Halls, or as it was then known, the Town House, or Tolbooth.

Accused prisoners in nineteenth century Scotland did not have a happy outlook.  Conviction rates were high and penalties were severe.  It should be no surprise that from time to time an accused man decided to resort to desperate measures rather than go through the justice system.


Our first story comes from 1814, and was reported as far afield as London on New Year’s Day 1815.

In October of the preceding year, John Grant, known as Brosie, and a number of other Grangepans residents (including miners Thomas Frew senior and junior and a number of their relations) had been accused of assaulting and robbing travelling merchant Charles McBrierty.  They were arrested soon after and held in Linlithgow pending transfer to Edinburgh for trial.  On 1st November the Frew clan somehow managed to escape, leaving Grant behind in Linlithgow Prison.  On 20th December Grant saw an opportunity and also made a break for it.  However, he was instantly spotted and the alarm was raised.  The chase was soon on, and he was pursued by a number of people, some on foot and some on horseback.  He stood no chance of getting to the busy High Street.  Finding himself hemmed in and likely to be recaptured he fled in the only direction open to him – north towards Linlithgow Loch. He plunged into what must have been freezing water and managed to swim almost to the far side.  Meanwhile, his pursuers raced round the sides of the Loch, intent on apprehending him wherever he might come to land. With the north bank in sight, Grant saw that escape was impossible.  The onlookers reported that he sank, and did not rise again.  Eleven days later, when the report was written, the body had still not been found.

Skipping forward 30 years we come across another grizzly tale relating to the prison.  The story began in January 1845 when a spate of robberies occurred in Linlithgow.  The perpetrator was not identified with certainty but was widely suspected to be a local young man called Barclay.  These suspicions were strengthened by his unexplained disappearance at around the same time.  The authorities were therefore keeping a lookout for him and when he reappeared in late February he was taken into custody and held in the town prison.

Over the next few days, he was brought before local magistrates and questioned a number of times about the thefts.  They decided that there was sufficient evidence to put him on trial before the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh and until the trial he was to be kept in Linlithgow.  The sad account of what happened next, as recorded in the Glasgow Herald, sheds interesting light on the running of a local jail (as well as on punctuation), and is worth giving verbatim: 

‘On Monday morning the jailor, as usual, proceeded to his cell to inspect it and ascertain the state of the prisoner; in doing so, he shut the gate to the court, the key of which he put in his pocket, and while he was in the prisoner’s cell he allowed him to walk in the lobby.  After being satisfied as to the comfort and security of the prisoner, he went to the next cell, when Barclay suddenly closed the door upon him, and fastened it on the outside by a bolt, so that the jailor was imprisoned in the small space; however, as the window communicated with the street, by his cries a number of people were soon collected, but as the outer door of the jail was locked, no-one could gain admission to relieve him.  Meantime, Barclay knowing that it would occupy some time to force an entrance, very deliberately prepared means for putting a period to his existence.  He first tore his sheets into strips, and having a piece of rope which he had secreted about his person, which showed his pre-determination for self-destruction, he formed a noose, and throwing it over an iron stancheon, he fastened it about his neck, when, mounting on a bucket, he kicked it from under him, and in a few minutes ceased to exist.

The crowd outside meanwhile were endeavouring with powerful instruments to break open the door, and the cool and resolute manner in which Barclay showed his determination to commit suicide gave energy to their exertions, in order to save the infatuated individual; but notwithstanding all their endeavours, he had completed the rash act before the outer door of the jail was forced open, and the jailor relieved from durance.’

Two years later another prisoner was to manage to break out of Linlithgow prison. On Monday 2nd August 1847 the Glasgow Herald reported that James McNeill, who had been serving a sentence in the prison since March, had escaped, taking with him: ‘several items of wearing apparel, the property of the Prison Board’.

Would they expect him to leave his prison clothes behind?  Apprehended and brought before the High Court of Justiciary, he had an additional four months added to his sentence.


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