Dumbarton Prison

Creative Commons License Text by Lairich Rig, January 2019 ; This work is dedicated to the Public Domain.
Images are under a separate Creative Commons Licence.

NS3975 : Dumbarton Prison: entrance portico by Lairich RigThe remains of Dumbarton Prison are beside present-day Glasgow Road.

To provide some historical context, the discussion begins with the prison's predecessor, the Tolbooth, which stood in a different place. Dumbarton Prison itself is then described. Finally, there are comments on later uses of the space that was formerly occupied by the prison grounds.

This article was created with the aim of providing convenient access to information, from several disparate sources, about the Prison and related topics; it therefore makes no pretensions to originality. The sources are mentioned throughout, and these should be consulted if further information is required; the collection of cuttings in Dumbarton Library includes other details that are not recorded here.

The article includes many notes, easily identified by their smaller font and by the horizontal lines separating them from the main text. To reduce the amount of scrolling required, notes will be found in the subsections to which they belong, rather than being collected together at the end of the article. All but the earliest sections contain a "back to top of page" link, making it easier to return to the clickable Contents menu at the top right corner of the page.

The Tolbooth

In the centuries before Dumbarton Prison was built, the place of confinement in Dumbarton was the Tolbooth. However, the Tolbooth was, first and foremost, a building for conducting municipal business.

The earliest surviving Burgh Records of Dumbarton (see note 1) date from 1627, and they make it clear that the Tolbooth was the regular place for carrying on Burgh business. The very first entry begins "in the Tolbuith of Dunbartan, the twentie-aught day of Apryil 1627". It mentions John Sempill (then Provost), and John Fallisdaill, one of the baillies (see note 2), presumably related to the Thomas FallisdailExternal link who had preceded Sempill as Provost.

At the Canmore archaeology site, an engravingExternal link shows Dumbarton's Tolbooth, with the Mackenzie House (see note 3) to its right. The caption to that illustration provides further details about the manner in which the building was divided up internally for the use of the council, for court cases, and for holding prisoners.


(1) The Burgh Records quoted in this article are taken from "Dumbarton Burgh Records 1627—1746", published anonymously in Dumbarton in 1860. A clue to the author's identity is given in the dedication, where the book is said to be "a small return for the privilege enjoyed by the transcriber of searching in their charter-room for documents illustrative of the History of Dumbartonshire". The second edition of Joseph Irving'sExternal link "History of Dumbartonshire" was published in the same year, and the writing style of the preface of the book of Burgh Records seems consistent with that of Irving.

Dumbarton's other prominent local historian in the second half of the nineteenth century was Donald MacleodExternal link, a friend of Irving, but Macleod's first book was not published until about 1875, and his writing style was, in any case, very different from that of Irving, being generally far more informal. Macleod would later write a similar work, "Ancient Records of Dumbarton and Glasgow", but on page 93, before quoting the entry about the disorderly sailor, he notes that this section of his book had principally drawn upon "the published Records of the Town Council of Dumbarton. To the courtesy of Mr John Irving I am indebted for liberty to make free use of the same, in the way of making excerpts". This acknowledgement not only demonstrates that Macleod was not the compiler of those earlier published records, but supports the idea that John's father Joseph Irving (d.1891) was the one responsible.

(2) In those days, before Burgh Reform, a Council would typically consist of a Provost, two Baillies (municipal magistrates), a Dean of Guild, a Treasurer (if he was a member of the Council, which he need not be), and, finally, some merchant burgesses and trade burgesses. A burgh council (here and elsewhere) was, at that time, a self-perpetuating entity, with the current members selecting the replacements for those who were to retire from office; this unsatisfactory state of affairs would end only when the Burgh Reform Act of 1833 passed into law.

(3) The Mackenzie House, built in 1732, enlarged in 1790, and demolished in 1907, was the townhouse of the Mackenzies of CaldarvanExternal link. In the engraving mentioned above, a distinctive stone can be seen above the central dormer window of the house. That old stoneExternal link, with its Latin inscription, is now incorporated into the modern extension of Dumbarton Public LibraryExternal link, where it can be seen above a side entrance.


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The Tolbooth stood on the north side of the High Street, directly opposite present-day Quay Street. Its location corresponds to the present-day sheltered entranceExternal link of the Artizan Shopping Centre. Its position opposite Quay Street is apparent in a view from a little further backExternal link. This is also well seen on John Wood's 1818 plan of DumbartonExternal link, where the Tolbooth is marked as "Gaol" (misspelled "Goal"), opposite Quay Street, with the property of Robert McKenzie (namely, the Mackenzie House) adjoining it on the southeastern side.

Relative to the Tolbooth, Dumbarton Cross was about 30 metres further northwest along the High Street, as described next.

Dumbarton Cross

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There is at present no Mercat Cross in Dumbarton, nor has there been for a long time, but it would have stood (see note 1) at the junction of the High Street and the Cross Vennel (later called College Street), that is, at about NS39507524. A photograph showing that pointExternal link in the foreground also shows, just behind it, the original southern end of College Street. The 1818 plan of DumbartonExternal link by John Wood marks these streets.

That a Mercat Cross was present in the seventeenth century is made clear by references to it in the Burgh Records of 1628, where it is stated that it was to be repaired, "oiled" (painted with oil-paint) and coloured. The Mercat Cross itself stood in front of Glencairn's Greit HouseExternal link (see note 2).

From the Burgh Records:

   1628, March 10
   The qˡᵏ (which) day in regaird the mercat croce of the burgh is ruynous, and also the briggis (see note 3) , wᵗ the last storme, Thairfoir thay cᵒcluid that the samyne sall be helpit, biggit, and repairit at the expense of the comoun guid, and the Thᵉʳ ("Thesaurer"=Treasurer) to pay thairfor as the magistrattis sall agrie, and that wᵗ all diligence.
1628, April 4
   It is decided "that the croce be repairit and biggit in the auld forme onlie, cᵒform (conform) to the former act".
1628, June 27
   Thay ordaine the magistrattis to agrie wᵗ the paynter, and causs color the stak of the Cross efter it beis oylit, and to caus the Thᵉʳ pay thairfor.

NS3975 : Former end of College Street by Lairich RigNS3975 : Glencairn's Greit House by Lairich RigNS3975 : Glencairn's Greit House (detail) by Lairich Rig(left) The former Dumbarton Cross, with the High Street in the foreground, and the original line of the Cross Vennel (College Street) receding behind.
(middle, right) Glencairn's Greit House, and its date stone.

Entries from the Common Good Accounts (see note 2) shed some light on the work carried out at the Cross and nearby; it will be seen that the Mercat Cross was not simply repaired, but was replaced:

1627—28: Lime is brought by boat from "Inchechunian" (Inchinnan — see note 4) by boat for work on the Cross, Tolbooth, bridge and kirk. Stones are brought from Greenock for the work. A gabbart (barge) arrives; the stalk of the old cross is hoisted up and then taken away in the gabbart. Payment is recorded for masons who hewed and built the Cross; for smiths who sharpened the masons' tools; and for barrowmen who brought mortar. Part of the road surface around the Cross had been damaged in the work, and was repaired.

1628—29: A payment is recorded to the painter who oiled and painted the Cross on the 9th of July 1628.

The Tolbooth was nearby, and there would also have been a tron (a public weighbeam). A flesh market was built nearby in 1670 (see note 5); its position is marked on an inset plan of Dumbarton on the 1777 Charles Ross mapExternal link of Dumbartonshire. Donald Macleod, writing in 1893External link, stated that the flesh market was pulled down in 1852, and that "Mr William Taylor's public house of entertainment now stands on its site". In front of the Flesh Market was the town well, fed, from the early eighteenth century, by a lead pipe on the bed of the River Leven, conveying water from a wellExternal link on the other side of the river, in what is now Levengrove ParkExternal link.

Amongst the other details marked on the inset plan on the Ross map are the Meal Mercat, and, at the edge of an area that was then (but is no longer) flooded twice-dailyExternal link, a small arch-like structure labelled "the Old Church Porch". That artefact is the College BowExternal link, which has been moved twice in the time since the Ross map was made.

NS3975 : The College Bow by Lairich RigNS3975 : The College Bow, newly cleaned by Lairich RigThe College Bow, shown before and after it was cleaned.


(1) See page 8 of "Historic Dumbarton" (E Patricia Dennison and Russel Coleman, 1999), published as part of the Scottish Burgh Survey. The main thoroughfares in the medieval burgh were the High Street, the Kirk Vennel (now called Church Street), and the Cross Vennel (later called College Street). The High Street and Church Street maintain their original course. The line of the Cross Vennel (College Street) can be seen on the 1937 OS map revisionExternal link. Although more recent developments have obscured its course, there are still some visible signs of it, as noted in the main text.

(2) "Dumbarton Common Good Accounts 1614—60", edited by Fergus Roberts and I M M MacPhail, 1972. The entries are not individually dated, but are grouped by year (running from Whitsunday to Whitsunday). Note 7 on page 57 of that work states that the Mercat Cross stood beside the house of the Earl of Glencairn (known today as Glencairn's Greit House).

(3) Dumbarton BridgeExternal link was built by John BrownExternal link in 1765; before that, there was no bridge over the Leven. Brown would also build a stone bridge over Gruggies BurnExternal link in 1768. That there were some stone bridges in Dumbarton in 1628 is made clear by the Burgh Records' entry for April 22 1628, which mentions repairs to "the tua staine brigges"; in the same entry is "Item, to lay the tries (timbers) alang ower Grugie's Burn".

(4) "Inchechunian" (1627—28) is Inchinnan: a later entry (1635—36) mentions quarriers at "Craig of Bargarren and Inchechinnane", where the name is easier to recognise.

(5) Regarding what was probably its predecessor, the Common Good Accounts mention, in the entries for 1648—49, money that had been borrowed for the building of the Flesh Market.


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An early record of confinement within the Tolbooth, and of instruments of punishment nearby, is provided by another entry in the Burgh Records, dated August 23rd 1627, and therefore made just a few months after the first surviving entry.

As with other such records, I have added, in italics, a few explanatory glosses for those whose comprehension of the Scots Language is poor, and have expanded the less obvious of the abbreviations. The entry itself relates to a certain disorderly sailor called William Sommerville (see note 1), and it is worth citing in full as a colourful account, not only of the kind of trouble that might arise in those days, but also of the manner in which the authorities would deal with it. Note the mention of stocks at the (Mercat) Cross; these would therefore be close to the Tolbooth. The lax regime within the Tolbooth itself is also revealed in that, even while being detained there, the sailor could have a dagger on his person, spend all night drinking, and, the next morning, wander around freely inside, and so be able to pester passers-by from the window.

   1627, August 23
       In pretoria burgi (see note 2) Dunbartan, die 23 August 1627, the qˡᵏ (which) day, in pⁿᵉ (presence) of the baillies and certain of the counsall.
       Fforsameikle (forasmuch) as William Sommerville, sayler, servand to Sir Wᵐ Alexʳ (see note 3), knyᵗ, was, at desyre of the said Sir Wᵐ, for his insolencie and trubill offerit to utheris of his cumpanie, pʳtᶜallie (particularly) to Wᵐ Ramsay, and George Ramsay his sone, and raising factionis and seditionis amangis his cumpanie and sailers committit in ward wᵗⁿ the tolbuith on Setterday, the xviij of this instant, and that sensyne (since then), vpoune the Sabboth day, in tyme of preiching, he abusit the Sabboth day, being drinking all nyt, He set out scoppis ("scoops": ladles or other long-handled vessels), cuppis, and uthir tryfflillis (trifles) at the windo, offering thaim to be sauld as the peopill came from the kirk, desyring thaim to by them and sik uthir waires as he had, And that thairupoune the baillie, Jⁿ Fallasdaill, cuming to him and desyring him to be quyet or otherways go to the chalmer (chamber) of the said tolbuith, qʳ (where) he mᵗ be keepit mair quyetlie, He not only refusit, bot wᵗ horribill aiths said thair was nane braithing durst put him thairin, And the baillie putting hand to him to put him thairin, he offerit to have drawn his daiger, warwᵗ (wherewith) the said baillie gat a grip thairof and held it, and wᵗ grit difficultie gat the same fra him efter he had receavit mony injurious words of the said Wᵐ. The said Wᵐ being accusit, acknowledgit his said offencis to God and wrangis to the said baillie, And declairs he is sorrie for the same, and alledges he was ouercome with drink and not setlit (and unsettled/disturbed).
       Thairfor the baillies, wᵗ advyse of the counsall pⁿᵗ (present), Ordaine him to give sattisfactioune to the minister, elders, and sessioune of the kirk of this burgh for his abusing the Sabbath day, and to pay to the kirk box, for the pure (poor), sex pundis Scottis money; And for his wrang to the ballies to be laid in the stokkis at the croce, and his burgeschip and freedome of this burgh giftit to him to be cryit doun (revoked), and thairafter that he humblie crave pardoun of the baillie for his fault done to him, and inact himselff nevir to offir injurie to ony inhabitant of the burgh in tyme-cuming, vnder the paine of ane hunderit lib. money, and perpetuall perjurie and defamation. Sua (So), according thairto, payit the said sex lib. money to the kirk officer for the pooris box, And actit himselff judiciallie, vnder the paine of perjurie and defamation, nevir to do nor offir injurie nor wrang to ony inhabitant of this burgh heirafter, and that vnder the paine of ane hunderit lib. because he had no man to be cauⁿᵉʳ (cautioner) for him.

A selection of other punishments are listed below, in summary form, and in no particular order, with references to either the Burgh Records (BR) or the Common Good Accounts (CGA); I have, even in direct quotes, modernised some of the language, but not in every case:

Putting to the horn: a trumpet was blown ceremonially to declare someone an outlaw. CGA 1616—17 mentions letters of horning against unfreemen.

The stocks: exemplified by the lengthy record quoted above. BR 24th Jan 1628 mentions a sailor, James Powar, likewise made to lie in the stocks at the cross.

Whipping/scourging: CGA 1639—40 records a payment made to David Glen for scourging a poor man and a woman; CGA 1657—58 has an expense for a fathom and a half of cord used to scourge a boy for house-breaking and for taking a horse; in the same year, payment is made to Andrew Davie, lockman, for scourging Katherine Smith through the town for "getting a bairn with a soldier". CGA 1659—60 records a payment to the same Andrew David for whipping "James Sempil, his woman" (that is, James Sempil's woman) from the Tolbooth to the Kirkyard, and, on a different occasion, for whipping a certain Allaster McAlpine through the town for stealing herring. BR 15th Oct 1636: "Robert Glen and James Weir, two young boys, upon the Sabbath day (the 9th), in time of preaching, went into Margaret Porter's chamber, in Robert Porterfield's house, and stole and took out thereof, none being in the house but they, who opened the door, fifty-seven shillings and two pennies, whereof seventeen shillings fourpence was found on them. They consent to refund this and the balance of the amount stolen, and for punishment are ordered to be scourged till they bleed. Caution entered for future conduct".

Witch-pricking: CGA 1650—51 Payment to "Alexander Boigs of Innerkip (Inverkip) for his pains for trial of the marks of those given up for witchcraft". BR 20th Nov 1628: the council conclude that Janet McLintock, accused of witchcraft "be lykewayse examinat, and gif neid be serchit to see gif sche hes the devillis mark in hir bodie insensibill, and to cut and cow hir hair as they sall think meit for the bettir tryall thairof".

Burning: CGA 1624—25 and 1628—29 record the expense of coals, peats, timbers and coal barrels employed when burning those convicted of witchcraft. Before this, they would typically have spent time in the stocks, and might also have been subjected to witch-pricking. Almost all of the victims were women. An exception was in 1655, when a certain John McWilliam was tried as a warlock. In 1639, Margaret Cowper was released under caution, and so spared a worse fate, if only because troubles in the realm meant that a Commission could not be organised.

Branding: in a lengthy entry, BR 5th Apr 1628, Isabella Cunninghame, caught stealing, was found to be branded on both cheeks; on the right, by "the Laird of Kerkinanan ... for allegit steilling of hors and hernies" (horse and harness), and on the left by the Laird of Craighall "for steilling a plaid monye years since". The assize decided that Isabelle should be "brunt and scurgit", and that her accomplice, Janet Campbell, "be scurgit".

Imprisonment: BR 20th July 1629, those owing money to the water works (that is, the River Leven flood defences) were to remain within the Tolbooth until they had paid.

Banishment: BR 14th Mar 1634, Margaret Hamilton is banished from the town for lying "in sae far as she socht help to bye a murning sheit for hir deid bairne, when sche had no bairne deid". See also BR 15th Oct 1658.

Penance: BR 18th July 1621, two men who had been grinding at the mill on the Sabbath day are fined and ordered to "stand in the publick place of repentance ane day"; in BR 21st July 1622, this also involved wearing the "hair shirt": the accused was "ordanit to stand ane Sabbothe bairfoottit and leggitt in the haire gowne at the kirke door, betwixt the second and third bells, and thairafter in the public place of repentance in tym of preaching, in manir forsaid". BR 9th Jan 1668 records a similar punishment, with "penance upon the public plaice in sackcloith".

For less serious offences, a wrongdoer might be fined (records frequently refer to the unlaw of a certain amount of money), or simply "ordered to crave pardon humblie on his kneis" (see, for example, BR 17th Apr 1638).


(1) A note on page 57 of "Dumbarton Common Good Accounts" points out that the ship from which the rowdy sailors came belonged to Sir William Alexander (see note 3 below), and explains why it was lying at Dumbarton at this time.

(2) This entry, like several others, begins with the Latin phrase "in pretoria burgi". In this context, it means "in the Burgh council-chamber", and it is employed as an equivalent of the phrase "In the Tolbooth" that otherwise begins the early entries.

(3) A footnote on page 14 of "Dumbarton Burgh Records" provides some brief biographical details about the Sir William Alexander who is mentioned in this and several other entries of the day. For example, he was granted a Royal license to publish a version of the Psalms; that version was originally the work of James VI, but had been revised by Sir William.


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The Burgh Records mention rebuilding and maintenance of the Tolbooth:

   1635, March 2
   It is cᵒcluidit, Efter the visitaᵘⁿ of the ruiff of the tolbuith, and the samyne being fand altogether ruinous, Thairfoir it is ordanit That wᵗ all diligence The pᵛeist and baillies caus warkmen entir and tak off the sklait and lath, and make the same anew. And becaus the comoun kist must be removit, It is cᵒcluidit that the sᵈ comoun kist be tane and put into Dauid Watsoun, clerk, his house and dwelling, and that the haill auld evidents, and speciall writtis, and siklikes thairin qˡᵏ are not comonlie usit, be put into ae box with tua lokkis be thaimselffis, and the said box to be set wᵗⁿ the kist, and the keys of the said box to be given to —".
1635, November 30
   The Counsall considering that the tolbuith is small, and requires repairs at ony rate, agrie to purchase certain adjoining property from Johne Buchanane."
1639, August 3
   The pᵛeist or comʳ at the last convention held at Dunfermling declairs he had receivet in name of the burrowis fra the agent thrie hundreth dollars or aucht hundreth and ten punds to ae acompt of the thousand punds grantit for the building of the tolbuith.

There is a gap in those records from early 1641 to April 1651, a period that includes the time when the rebuilding work funded by the payment from the Burghs was underway. However, Dumbarton's Common Good Accounts are another source of information; they record, in detail, expenses incurred in maintenance of the Tolbooth, and the larger sums expended during the rebuilding work. There are far too many entries to cite here, and it would be improper to do so, given that the book (1972) is in copyright. It will suffice here to give the gist of a few entries, by way of illustrating of the level of detail recorded.

For example, the entries for 1620—21 detail the cost of olive oil used for oiling the clock, and a fee for ringing the bell; the bell and clock are not specifically said to be in the Tolbooth, but the engraving (see earlier in this article) of the building shows a clock and a bell. Among the more unusual entries are those in 1628—29 that record the purchase of several "stools of ease" (toilets); a different and presumably unrelated entry that year records the burning of rosert (resin) in the Tolbooth "to put away the evil smell thereof". Another unusual entry, this time from 1657—58, records that rats in the Tolbooth had ruined the Burgh's leather buckets; these were probably intended for use in fighting fires (see note 1).

There are many entries for the period around 1642—43, while the rebuilding work was underway; a note on page 128 of the book explains that council meetings were being held in John Sempill's house, rather than in the Tolbooth, on account of that work. The Convention of Burghs would be held in Dumbarton in July 1643; a note on page 136 of the book explains that, since the Tolbooth was not yet ready, the Convention was held in John Buchanan's Hall instead.

(The book also contains, facing page 152, an illustration of the Tolbooth; the same illustration, signed "D.Massey", had appeared on page 107 of "Dumbarton Burgh Records 1627—1746", which was published anonymously in 1860, but which, as I explained above, I take to have been compiled by Joseph Irving. This illustration is not the one given at the Canmore link near the start of this article; the viewpoint is different, but the building itself appears much the same.)

The records for 1643—44 mention "John Sempills bakhouse which serves now for the Tolbuith" (Scots dictionaries give "bakehouse" as a meaning, but it is clear from the context that this one is a "backhouse"). The same building seems to be mentioned in other records from the same year: one describes moving a prisoner from "the foir voult (fore vault) of the Tolbuith to the bakhouse", while another mentions "the bak Tolbuith". The records show that the building was strengthened, serving not just for council meetings but as a prison.

An entry from 1645—46 records a payment to "John Neill, knokmaker in Glasgow" for installing the "knok" (clock) from the previous building in the new Tolbooth in November (1645).

The Common Good Accounts for these years are a useful source of information about the internal disposition of the building, since they record details about various vaults, floors, lofts, stairs, and windows, the painting on of the Burgh Arms, and the like. Entries about "hingand locks" (padlocks) and the installation of stanchions for windows provide some insight into how the building was made more secure.


(1) One of the notes on page 252 of "Dumbarton Common Good Accounts 1614—60" explains that each new burgess had to supply, for the town's use, a leather bucket for this purpose.

Murdoch Curry

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NS3978 : Strathleven House by Lairich RigStrathleven House, formerly called Levenside House.

The last execution to take place before the nineteenth century, and hence before the demolition of the Tolbooth, was that of Murdoch Curry in 1754. He had been a butler at Levenside House (now Strathleven HouseExternal link). An account can be found on pages 67—70 of the second volume of Joseph Irving's "Book of Dumbartonshire" (1879), and another on pages 62—66 of Donald Macleod's "History of the Town and Castle of Dumbarton" (2nd edition, 1877).

Curry was charged with "theft and reset of theft", and it is recorded that he was being held in the Tolbooth in April 1754. He was all the more unfortunate in that his master was Lord Stonefield; that is, John Campbell of Stonefield, a Lord of Session. Curry was sentenced to be executed on the 14th of June of the same year.

His case elicited great sympathy from the public, who felt that something more than the theft of a small sum of money lay behind this harsh sentence. It seems that even his jailer was moved by this sentiment. It is thought that he, William McAllister, left the doors of the Tolbooth open so that Curry could escape. His freedom, though, was very short-lived: Curry was apprehended while running along the Cross Vennel, by, as Macleod puts it, "the great-grandfather of one who, up till recently, held a high official station in the town", while Irving says that Curry was captured "by the diligence of the Sheriff Substitute", although this does not necessarily mean that it was the Sheriff Substitute himself who laid hands upon him. In a lengthy statement purporting to be Curry's "Last Speech and Dying Testimony", the person who apprehended him is identified only as "Robert".

From then to the time of his execution, Curry himself would be guarded much more closely, and even kept in fetters. In the meantime, a new gibbet was to be set up on the site of the old one.

For over a century, no further executions would be carried out in Dumbarton. Those that did follow took place when the Tolbooth was a memory; they will therefore be discussed under the heading of Dumbarton Prison.


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The replacement of the gibbet in anticipation of Murdoch Curry's execution has already been mentioned. The question then arises of where the gallows were located at this time.

The meagre evidence available suggests that they were somewhere near the place where they would stand in 1875, when the Burgh's last execution would be carried out (this will be discussed later, in the section about David Wardlaw). In the late nineteenth century, a short road called McLean Place passed to the north of Dumbarton prison; that road had earlier been known as the Croft Loan, but another name that was still in popular use was Witches' Loan (see note 1). This name suggests the possibility that the place of execution lay at the end of that road.

The book "Dumbarton Common Good Accounts 1614–60" (1972; Fergus Roberts & I M M MacPhail) includes an illustration of "Dumbarton about 1640". It is not an old map, but, rather, a schematic diagram, representing the authors' conception of the layout of Dumbarton at that time. In the diagram, the authors, for reasons that are not elaborated upon anywhere in the book, place the site of the gallows in the area between the Kirk Vennel (modern-day Church Street), Smiths' Vennel (one of the smaller roads leading off the east side of the Kirk Vennel), and the Knole Burn (the Knowle Burn or Mill Burn, which was also known at one time, for reasons that will become apparent later in this article, as the Gaswork Burn).

There is another piece of place-name evidence: there was once a bridge over the Knowle burn at about NS39907522 (on present-day Castle StreetExternal link; this bridge served as one of Dumbarton's ports ("port", in the sense of a controlled point of entry to the Burgh). The bridge was at a place (or a part of the burn) that was, revealingly, called the Gallow Mollan/Mollen, as is mentioned in passing in the last part of the description for Dumbarton Riverside Parish ChurchExternal link.


(1) The Dumbarton Herald issue of the 17th of April 1895 features a letter, headed "the Re-naming of Streets and Roads in Dumbarton", in which it is mentioned that "the Witches' Loan, leading to Croftbank HouseExternal link, has become McLean Place". The letter is signed "Donald Macleod, Balclutha LodgeExternal link, Roundriding RoadExternal link, Dumbarton, 15th April, 1895".


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The escape of Murdoch Curry, seemingly with the collusion of William McAllister, has already been described. Irving records that McAllister had come by his job in 1747 after his predecessor had helped a prisoner, named McArthur, to escape. Though censured by the Council for allowing Curry to escape, McAllister seems not to have been out of a job for long; Irving records that he, if not someone of the same name, was appointed "to detain Walter Gow a close prisoner in the charter-house, this being the strongest apartment in the prison" (Burgh Records).

As might be imagined, detaining prisoners in the charter-house would not be good for the survival of the documents held there; more will be said on this below.

For a vivid description of imprisonment in the Tolbooth in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and of the ease with which it was possible to escape, the best account is that given in "A Nonagenarian's Reminiscences of Garelochside and Helensburgh" (Donald Macleod, 1883). The nonagenarian of the title is not Donald Macleod himself, but his uncle Gabriel Macleod, and it is Gabriel's reminiscences that are given in the book. His description of the old Tolbooth is worth giving in full:

       "In 1820 a very intimate friend and relation of mine happened to be incarcerated therein, on account of his connection with a smuggling of whisky adventure. He was one of fifteen who were in custody for the same offence at that time. The northern and western districts of the county were those in which smuggling operations were most extensively carried on, and it was these districts which furnished the fifteen hardy fellows who were in durance vile. A Mr Brown who was of an enquiring turn of mind, called one day to inspect the jail. He was perfectly confounded and astonished, when he was ushered into the apartment which contained the smuggling party, and saw their respectable appearance, which was so different from that of ordinary gaol-birds. When he departed he deposited in the hands of Mr McColl, the gaoler, the sum of twenty shillings, to pay for a refreshment for the decent lads he had just left. The room which they occupied was right over the Town Council Hall, and was a large, roomy place, and cheerful withal, as the windows overlooked the High Street of the burgh, opposite the Elephant Inn (see note 1). It formed their living room by day and their sleeping room by night, their beds being made on the floor when night approached, and stowed away in the morning. There was a huge fireplace at the west end of it. The party were divided into messes of five each, and they each took their turn of cooking. The dinner of broth, beef, and potatoes was got up at the cost of twopence halfpenny a head, and that for no stinted quantity, but for as much as they could conveniently stow away. Government allowed at that time sixpence a day for the maintenance of those who were in custody for infringement of the Excise laws, they being not in the condition of criminals but of debtors to the Government, because of their inability to pay the fine of thirty pounds that was imposed on them. Along a passage communicating with the smugglers' den there was a condemned cell, called 'Bilsland's Hole'."
       "In it there was fixed strongly into the wall a massive chain, with apparatus at the end for safely securing the legs of the occupants. It received its name from one Bilsland, who, when under sentence of death, robbed the gallows of its prey by taking away his own life. He was buried at Poindfauld (see note 2), in unconsecrated ground. In the attics there was a large floored space the whole length of the building, in which, among other things, were contained a large number of public manuscripts in connection with burgh matters, to which the prisoners had access when they were up there on an exploring expedition. They were used by them for miscellaneous purposes, and thus many valuable historical documents were irretrievably lost. In it, also, the prisoners kept the necessary apparatus for playing fast and loose with the gaol regulations. There they had a long rope for lowering down any of their number who were anxious to make their escape."
       "The bribe paid by the runaways to their companions for their friendly offices was the price of a bottle of whisky, which was then only eighteenpence. The money thus obtained was converted into the national beverage by the following means:— A boy who was in the confidence of the inmates, was pretty generally on the look-out for a string being lowered from the top storey, with a stocking containing an empty bottle and the requisite cash to pay for the filling of it. It was duly filled, popped into the stocking, and speedily hoisted up and 'punished'. There was also up in the garret a saw, which the denizens of that establishment termed a 'steel doctor', with which they cut the stanchions which guarded the windows of the prison, and when they were got rid of there was no difficulty in the way of prisoners getting off Scot free upon the payment of the penalty above mentioned."
       "There was yet another mode of escaping from 'quod', and that was by means of a long double cord, thrown over the top of the door, at the bottom of the stair which led to their quarters, and to which they had access. In the bucht of the cord they fastened a piece of wood, three or four inches long, which by skilful manipulation, they managed to get into the handle of the large key which was in the lock on the outside, and by operating upon the double string they succeeded in opening therewith the door. They then daundered quietly out for a dram, and came back at their canny leisure, well primed, going contendedly to their own quarters."
       "The gaoler was a wonderfully indulgent man to those under his custody. For the prisoners who were in his favour he betimes left the outside door open, so that they might go out and enjoy themselves for a few hours. His confidence was never abused, as there was honour even among prisoners. The parties thus favoured always came back before the time arrived for locking up finally for the night."
       "The secret of the cord for securing a continuous supply of whisky, and the saw for facilitating the escape of those who were sick of prison life, was confidentially communicated by the old stagers to the new arrivals in the old Dumbarton Tolbuith. The position of the residenters in it might be termed, in spite of appearances, a free and easy one, but it was far too good to last for ever. That loose system of management has been supplanted by the more rigid and salutary one which is in full operation in the new 'County Hotel' (see note 3) in Church Street."
       "During my relation's stay in the Tolbuith, and before he had finished his term of six months, the prison was condemned on account of its insecure state, and its inhabitants of the human species were taken to Glasgow prison, there to put in the remainder of their term. The vehicle in which they were removed was a covered carrier's caravan. The prisoners were manacled together by handcuffs in couples, and were guarded by a small detachment of soldiers on each side, who, with fixed bayonets, formed their escort from one prison to another. There was not sufficient accommodation in the debtors' quarters for them when they arrived in Glasgow, so that a certain proportion of their number had to be accommodated in the criminal cells. The Glasgow Prison governor offered to supply the Dumbarton contingent with food at a certain fixed amount per man; but as it was the criminal diet that he served them with, they rebelled against it, and wrote to the Magistrates regarding the matter. They ordered chafers to be provided for the use of the debtors who were confined in the criminal department, so as to enable them to cook their own food, and in the course of time, and by degrees, as circumstances permitted, they were drafted into the place allotted to parties in their position."
       "My readers may possibly wonder that when escape from the old Dumbarton Tolbuith was so very easy, the prisoners who were confined therein did not make off en masse. The reason that they did not do so was this. The smuggling party, who alone were the denizens of the gaol at the time (if we except one woman from the country, who was confined on the charge of child murder), were all well-known and respectably-connected inhabitants of the surrounding district, who were in no way desirous of making their escape, to be hunted and most likely captured by the dogs of the law. They preferred possessing their souls in patience, and lying still until the time of their deliverance came round in the ordinary course. They then stepped out into society, and were not thought one hair the less of for their involuntary residence in Dumbarton; but, on the contrary, a general sympathy existed in their favour, as they were thought to be gallant lads."


(1) The Elephant Inn (or Elephant Hotel) that could be seen across the road from the Tolbooth stood on the site that would later be occupied by Burton's buildingExternal link. For more information, see the booklet "The Elephant Hotel, Dumbarton" (Michael C Taylor, 2008).

(2) Dumbarton still has a Poindfauld Terrace (NS40197586), the street-name commemorating a poindfauld, a pound where any livestock found wandering would be held; it is equivalent to the term "pinfold", which is employed in some parts.

(3) "The County Hotel": this is a joking reference to the County Buildings and adjacent Dumbarton Prison, which would replace the Tolbooth, as described later in the present article.


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After the Tolbooth was demolished (1830—32External link), Heggie's Buildings were built on the same spot. Those buildings were still standing in the 1950s, and their date of construction, 1832, could be seen inscribed above the entrance. Since then, Heggie's Buildings have also been cleared away, their former site now being the sheltered entranceExternal link to the Artizan Shopping Centre.

Dumbarton Prison


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Dumbarton Prison was built in conjunction with the neighbouring County BuildingsExternal link, which presently serve for the Sheriff Court and Justice of the Peace Court. The County Buildings had their foundation stone laid in July 1824, with work continuing until 1826. Details of this and of subsequent alterations and enlargements can be found in the building's entryExternal link in the Dictionary of Scottish Architects, and need not be repeated here.

The following comments about the building are taken from Joseph Irving's "Book of Dumbartonshire" (1879):

   "As the capital of the county, the town had always been the seat of the district law courts; but the officials connected therewith found only indifferent accommodation in the building designed for their use in Church Street, and begun with great masonic pomp in 1824. In 1863, the original structure was entirely transformed in its internal arrangements, and accommodation ample and seemly given to Sheriff, agents, and clients. Two spacious wings were also added, in one of which the public business of the burgh is carried on. These alterations and additions under the Court House (Scotland) Act, effected at a cost of £5170, were carried out under the Sheriffship of Robert Hunter, Esq., who, as Sheriff of Bute, succeeded to the united counties of Dumbarton and Bute in 1854."

A large-scale Town Map of Dumbarton from 1859External link shows the County Buildings (before enlargement) at the far right, slightly above centre; usefully, it also reveals the internal layout. As the map sheet shows, a cannon (a "Russian trophy", presumably from the Crimean War) was then present in front of the building. Incidentally, it can be seen that the College Bow was then further south on Church Street, on the other side of the road, where it formed a gateway at the end of a lane leading to the Burgh School. The College Bow had, by that time, already been moved once, from its position as marked on the Charles Ross map of 1777; it would later be moved again, to its present positionExternal link.

Just to the east of the County Buildings on that map sheet is the Jailer's House, part of Dumbarton Prison; the remainder of the prison appears on the adjacent map sheet to the eastExternal link.

A summary of the history of Dumbarton Prison is provided by the Lennox Herald newspaper, in its issue of the 15th of September 1883. It is probably correct in broad outline, but I view some of the dates given there with scepticism. It is worth adding that the presence of a GR Royal CipherExternal link on the prison dates it to before mid-1830. The following is not a direct quote, but a summary, with some paraphrasing for the benefit of modern readers:

       Until the passing of 'Building, etc., of Gaols (Scotland) Act' (59 Geo. 3 1819 c. 61) on 2nd July 1819, the responsibility for providing jail accommodation rested entirely upon the burgh. At that time, the only such accommodation was the decaying jail in the High Street. Committees representing the Town Council and the Commissioners of Supply held meetings between 1819 and 1824; in 1824, it was resolved that County Buildings and a prison be built. The County Buildings were to be in Church Street: a piece of land called the Tiend Barn was acquired from Mr Campbell of Stonefield; a conveyance to that effect was dated 18th June 1828(?). Towards the cost, it was determined that the county should subscribe £5000, the burgh £700, and that private subscriptions should be received to an amount not less than £500.
       Behind that site, between it and the Knoll Burn (Knowle Burn), was a portion of ground belonging to the burgh. This was to be conveyed to the Commissioners of Supply; in consequence, the amount to be subscribed by the burgh would be reduced by £100. A conveyance making the above arrangements was granted in 1832(?). This ground would be the site of Dumbarton Prison.
       The prison continued under the exclusive management of the burgh, and it was maintained almost entirely at their expense, until 1839. On 17th August of that year, the Prisons (Scotland) Act was passed (2 & 3 Vict. c. 42); in line with that Act, a Prison Board for the county was created. The Board consisted of seven Commissioners of Supply, one representative elected by the Burgh of Dumbarton, and (as an additional ex officio member) the Sheriff of the County.
       Additions and improvements to the prison were made in 1841–42, and again in 1854–55. In 1877, it was agreed that some ground between the east wall of the prison and the Knoll Burn be sold to the Dumbarton company of Rifle Volunteers; they subsequently erected a drill hall on the site.

The drill hall mentioned there can be seen on the OS map revisionExternal link of c.1897.

When the present article was being written, both the County Buildings and the ruins of Dumbarton Prison bore blue plaques dating them to 1826 (see also note 1 in the next subsection).


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The Dumbarton Herald newspaper, in its issue of the 7th of October 1852, has an article headed "Our County Prison", giving a description of life and conditions there. The article is uncritical to an extent that is typical of its time, but which will seem strange to modern readers; it reads like a press release by the Governor, who is acknowledged in the article as the source of the information. Despite that, it is of value in that it provides useful details about the building, and about the weekly and monthly routines of prison life. Following the article are some notes of my own:

        "Having lately paid a visit to this establishment, we were courteously shown over the premises by the intelligent and highly respected Governor, who seems not only thoroughly to understand his duties, but displays a most laudable anxiety to promote the well-being of the unfortunate persons under his charge. Our readers may be interested in the following particulars, which we learnt on the occasion:—"
        "The prison was built in the year 1824 (see Note 1), but its internal construction was altogether altered in 1841, when the new prison act came into operation. It now consists of 18 criminal cells and debtors' room, all lighted with gas, and heated with Perkins' heating apparatus (see note 2). The prison is dry and comfortable, and in a state of complete repair. It is visited by the members of the prison board, all in rotation, the date, the name of the visitor, and the result of the visit being recorded in the "Inspection Book". The prison is also visited by the Government Inspector, who examines every prisoner, and every cell and room, also the records, books, furniture, clothing, diet, &c., &c. The chaplain, the Rev. Mr Gray (see note 3), visits all the prisoners once a week, and devotes about two hours to each visit, imparting religious instruction, expounding the Scriptures, and examining the prisoners upon the books and passages under consideration. He also visits daily, when required, sick prisoners, and prisoners under punishment for prison offences, and attends at all suitable times any prisoner who may desire his spiritual advice and assistance, reporting quarterly the amount of time which he has given to his duties — the manner in which that time has been employed — how far the prisoners have shown a desire for their own moral and religious improvement — and to what extent he believes that they have really amended during their imprisonment."
        "The surgeon, Dr Buchanan (see note 4), visits every prisoner twice a week, and sick prisoners as often as the different cases may require. At the beginning of each month he makes a more minute examination into the state of health of each prisoner than at his weekly visits, when each prisoner is weighed, and carefully examined as to the state of his health, the result being duly recorded, and, among a variety of other particulars, reported quarterly."
        "The general health, as well as conduct, of the prisoners is good. For the last nine years only two of them have died, and these were persons far gone in disease before entering the prison. During the above period the number committed has been 1427, and the daily average in confinement 23. The number committed during the year ending 30th June, 1852, was 168 — the average daily number 23. Number at present in confinement:—"

   Civil prisoners     5  Male     0 Female      5 Both
   Criminal " " "23 Male     6 Female     29 Both
   Total  34

        "The criminal prisoners are all employed at one or other of the following branches of labour:— Weaving, door-mat making, net making, teasing hair, teasing oakum, knitting, sewing, tailoring, &c. All description of prisoners, who wish it, are instructed in reading, writing, and arithmetic, whether entitled by the rule to instruction or not. There is also a library connected with the prison, the books of which are much used by the prisoners, and in many cases with attention, diligence, and care. The board have under consideration an addition to the prison, whereby the classification of the prisoners will be made more complete, and the "crank machine" (see note 5) introduced as a mean of bringing into practical operation the provisions of the 7th and 8th sections of the Act 14 and 15 Vict. cap. 27 (see note 6). Government is now paying for the maintenance of most of the convicted prisoners, whereby the assessment on the county is much lessened. The expenses of this prison is under the average of prisons in Scotland, and, as noticed by the inspector in a late report, the whole arrangements are very creditable to the management of the governor and matron, Mr and Miss Macfarlan (see note 7)."


(1) Work on the prison may have started in 1824, as it did for the adjacent County Buildings, which were completed in 1826. That this is at least possible is indicated by the "Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland" (Volume II, ed. Francis H Groome, 1884), which, in its entry for Dumbarton (the town), dates both the Prison and the County Buildings to 1824.

(2) "Perkins' Heating Apparatus": a central heating system patented by A M Perkins; much like modern systems, it used water circulated in a pipe, under high pressure, to distribute heat from a boiler.

(3) "The Rev Mr Gray": Andrew Gray, d. 3rd August 1881; minister of the parish of Dumbarton for thirty-eight years.

(4) "The surgeon, Dr Buchanan": Dr Robert BuchananExternal link of Knoxland House, in the area of Dumbarton that is still called Knoxland. The house was demolished before the end of the nineteenth century, when the New Town was developed. There is a Buchanan StreetExternal link there.

(5) "Crank machine": a prisoner might be required to turn the crank on this machine a large (and pre-set) number of times; a dial showed the number of turns made so far. The machine performed no useful function, but was designed so that turning the crank was not just tedious and pointless, but also physically exhausting.

(6) "Act 14 and 15 Vict. cap. 27": Prisons (Scotland) Act 1851.

(7) "Mr and Miss Macfarlan": the article does not specify their family relationship, but the Governor and the Matron were brother and sister.

Patrick Lunnay

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After the execution of Murdoch Curry in 1754, no other was carried out in the town for over a century. However, as Joseph Irving records, "in May, 1856, Dumbarton narrowly escaped another exhibition of this kind, a railway labourer, named Robert Gordon, being sentenced at the Glasgow Spring Circuit of that year to be executed 'at the usual place of execution in Dumbarton', for the double crime of murder and robbery, committed near the village of Gartocharn, parish of Kilmaronock, on the night of the 31st December, 1855. Subsequently this sentence was commuted to banishment for life."

The next execution to be carried out here would prove to be the second-last, and it was the last to be carried out in public.

Patrick Lunnay was "accused of the crime of murder, in so far as, on the evening of Sat. the 10th or the morning of Sun. the 11th of November last [1860], in or near Bank Street of Alexandria, opposite the house of Duncan McNaught, grocer and flesher, he attacked and assaulted the now deceased James Cassidy, shoemaker residing in Bank Street, and with a knife, or some other sharp and cutting instrument, to the prosecutor unknown, stabbed and cut the said James Cassidy fourteen times, on the breast and chest, stomach, belly, side and thigh, whereby he was mortally injured, and immediately died, and was thus murdered by the said Patrick Lunnay or Lunney" ["Dumbarton Herald and County Advertiser", issue of Thursday, 3rd January, 1861].

The two were fellow lodgers and bedfellows in the house of Mrs Connelly in Bank Street, Alexandria. While they were indoors, an argument had broken out between Lunnay and Cassidy over some trivial matter; according to witness testimony, the two men were often at each other's throats. On this occasion, Lunnay had challenged Cassidy to fight him, but others present had intervened to prevent violence breaking out there and then; Lunnay had then challenged Cassidy to go outdoors, to fight there, but Cassidy wished to avoid this. A little later, it appeared that the matter had been settled between the two men. Before going to bed, Lunnay had gone outside (to "make water"), had apparently encountered Cassidy, and had returned to the house, where his disturbed demeanour made it obvious to those present that something terrible had occurred.

According to his own testimony, Lunnay was a native of Ireland, and he claimed, at the time of his trial, to be 21 years of age. In appearance, he was said to be a "strong, good, but determined looking man". His execution was set to take place on the 18th of January 1861, directly in front of Dumbarton's County Buildings. A barrier was erected around the scaffold to prevent the crowd from getting behind it, and from getting too close. The executioner's name was Calcraft. William Calcraft is described as being "of middle size, strongly built, at least sixty years of age, with a good deal of bushy grey hair about the face".

The sentence was carried out shortly after eight in the morning; because of the possibility that an execution would take place in Glasgow the next day, a scaffold had been brought from Paisley instead. After all signs of life were extinguished, Lunnay's body remained on the scaffold for "the customary time" (described elsewhere in the same reports as about forty minutes), before being cut down and then interred within the precincts of Dumbarton Prison. A black flag was flown over the County Buildings when the execution had been carried out.

There is an articleExternal link about the execution in the Glasgow Herald issue of the 18th of January, 1861.

David Wardlaw

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The last execution in Dumbarton was that of David Wardlaw in 1875 (he is one of my ancestors, a fact that sparked my own interest in Dumbarton prison, and which would eventually lead me to write this article).

As noted in the previous section, Patrick Lunnay had been executed in public, in front of the County Buildings, in 1861. The passing of the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 would put an end to such spectacles. The last execution in Dumbarton was therefore carried out in private. It took place shortly after 8 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday the 19th of October 1875.

Details can be found on page 4 of the Glasgow Herald issue of 20th October 1875External link.

Wardlaw, unlike Lunnay, was not a young man. He was a shoemaker in the village of Bonhill; his wife Mary (née Brown) was employed as a washerwoman. The two had a serious drinking problem, and, when drunk, the couple would frequently fight; often the wife was afterwards seen to bear the marks. Oddly, they were said to live together quite contentedly when sober. One night, when Wardlaw's wife returned to the house, an earlier quarrel was reignited; Wardlaw then hurled her down a flight of steps, before threatening to put her head under a well at the foot of the stairs. He then dragged her indoors, where the sound of blows was heard for a time, followed by silence. In the morning, when concerned neighbours came to investigate, the by then lifeless body of Wardlaw's wife was seen to bear marks where it had apparently been pummelled with a mallet of the kind normally used to break up lumps of coal.

As had occurred earlier in the case of Lunnay, the jury who convicted Wardlaw urged clemency; in the case of Lunnay, very little had happened as a result. Wardlaw's case, though, elicited greater sympathy (see note 1), on account of his age, his being under the influence of drink, and from a growing distaste for executions in general. A petition started by the inhabitants of the Vale of Leven drew about 1500 signatures.

In his final days, he was moved to a different part of the prison so that he would not be faced with a full view of the scaffold being set up, or other preparations that were by then taking place within the prison grounds.

With regard to the execution itself, the requisite equipment had not been available locally; the scaffold had been procured, instead, from the Glasgow authorities. It was erected at Dumbarton Prison, "against the wall at the back of the prison, considerably to the right in the open space, and not far distant from the spot where Lunnay, the last man executed here, is buried". The executioner was William Marwood, whose method of hanging was without doubt more humane than that of Calcraft.

Two black flags would be flown as soon as the execution took place, and they would remain flying for one hour. One would be in front of the prison, and the other in front of the County Buildings.

After sentence had been carried out, and Wardlaw's body taken down, "after a brief space the coffin lid was closed and fixed down, and the body was lowered into a grave newly dug side by side with that of Patrick Lunnay".

Both the place of execution and the nearby burial site were within the prison precincts: the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 stated that "judgement of death to be executed on any prisoner sentenced on any indictment or inquisition for murder shall be carried into effect within the walls of the prison in which the offender is confined at the time of execution" and that "the body of every offender executed shall be buried within the walls of the prison within which judgement of death is executed on him".

The scaffold was explicitly said to have been placed in contact with the eastern wall of the prison. The Glasgow Herald issue of 20th October 1875 states that the scaffold was "erected in the courtyard to the extreme back of the prison buildings", and that, to reach the scaffold, "the convict had to walk a distance of over 100 yards in the open air". The entrance of the prison was on its western side, and the above descriptions appear to be from the perspective of someone at the entrance, looking ahead (eastwards). The "back" of the prison would then be the eastern boundary wall, and the phrase "considerably to the right" would indicate a location towards the southern end of that wall.

It can reasonably be inferred, then, that their joint burial site was somewhere within the southeastern corner of the prison grounds, and thus was probably in the vicinity of NS39877533 (more will be said on that topic later in this article, in the description of the town's gasworks).

On the day, some are said to have climbed trees or gone up onto rooftops to get a better view, but it is thought unlikely that they would have managed to see the execution.

In what seems, to me, to be a curiously modern twist, the execution itself would soon be overshadowed in the local press by another topic, namely, the row over the drinks bill that had been run up by Marwood, the executioner, while he was here on his official duties. The row would lead to the resignation of the prison's governor.


(1) "The Scots Black Kalender" (Thomas M Tod, 1938) describes David Wardlaw as "a little old man"; he is there said to have been 56 years old. That would not generally be seen as "old" nowadays, but harsher living conditions then, combined with the influence of drink, likely took their toll. The book states that he had been married for about 30 years, and that three different petitions were started: one by the inhabitants of the Vale of Leven, another by the jury, and the third by the Town Council and some advocates (the Counsel attending the Western Circuit).


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The Prison (Scotland) Act, 1877 (40 & 41 Vict. c. 53), came into effect on the 1st April 1878, passing control over the prison system to the Secretary of State. Section 57 stated that legal estate in the prison and in land belonging to them would be vested in the Prison Commissioners, but "shall from time to time be disposed of by such Commissioners in such mode as the Secretary of State, with the consent of the Treasury, may direct".

Later, the Home Secretary directed that the Prison of Dumbarton should be discontinued as from 15th August 1883. Section 40 of the above-mentioned Prisons Act (Scotland), 1877, then came into play. The relevant part of that section is as follows:

"Where any discontinued prison forms part of or is immediately contiguous to any buildings belonging to the commissioners of supply of a county or the magistrates of a burgh, as the case may be, such commissioners of supply or magistrates, as the case may be, may, at any time before such prison is sold by public auction, require the Secretary of State to sell the same to them at the upset price named in the advertisement of sale, and thereupon such prison, but without any furniture or effects belonging thereto, shall belong to such commissioners of supply or magistrates, as the case may be, in the same manner as if they had purchased it at a public auction under this section."

The upset price fixed by the Secretary of State for Dumbarton Prison was £950. To satisfy the legal technicalities of the above section 40, the sale of the prison was advertised, but the site was not actually exposed to sale. Instead, it was understood that it would be sold to the Commissioners of Supply at the stated price.

(The above comments are from, or are paraphrased from, the 15th of September 1883 issue of the Lennox Herald newspaper.)

Dumbarton Prison thus ceased to be employed as such in 1883, but the building found another use: John Irving, writing in 1924, stated that "the disused jail has now in custody only the great accumulation of County documents". It would serve this function until the 1960s, when new County Council OfficesExternal link were built at the foot of Garshake Road. In centuries past, the attic of the Tolbooth had likewise served as a repository of documents, though with frequent incursions by prisoners.

The prison itself was almost entirely demolished in 1973, on account of realignment of the A814 (Glasgow Road). Part of the entrance portico survives in place. However, the wall in which it is now set dates from 1973; that modern wall also incorporates some rubble from the prison, a royal cipher, and some original cell windows, although these are not in their original place.

NS3975 : Dumbarton Prison: entrance portico by Lairich RigNS3975 : Dumbarton Prison - Crown Stone by Lairich Rig(left) Part of the entrance portico has been retained in place.
(right) A Royal Cipher detail, incorporated in the adjacent modern wall.
NS3975 : Dumbarton Prison - entrance portico by Lairich RigNS3975 : Dumbarton Prison: cell windows by Lairich Rig(left) The entrance portico, surmounted by the Burgh Arms.
(right) Some cell windows, not in their original place, have been built into the modern wall.
NS3975 : Dumbarton Prison: door by Lairich RigNS3975 : Dumbarton Prison: Burgh Arms by Lairich Rig(left) The oak door at the entrance, with iron studs and a peephole.
(right) The Burgh Arms, above the entrance.

For more information, see the Canmore entryExternal link (with some photographs) and the Listed Building reportExternal link for the ruin.

It is worth stressing that the front aspect of the prison was taller and much wider (on both sides) than the modern boundary wall in which the entrance is now set; for example, the northeastern part of the prison grounds, as they were in 1859, would have extended to the other side of what is now Glasgow Road. The surviving entrance portico projected slightly from the front of a taller building.

I have no photographs of my own that show Dumbarton Prison before it was demolished, but the CanmoreExternal link site has several.

Long before 1973, much of the area formerly taken up by the prison precincts had already been given over to a gasworks, as will be related next.



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From John Irving's "History of Dumbartonshire", Vol 3 (1924): "the old Gas Works, founded in 1831 (but see below) by a private company, were purchased by the Corporation in 1873, at which time the annual make of gas was about fifteen million cubic feet, and the number of consumers about 2000".

On one of the map sheetsExternal link from the 1859 town plan of Dumbarton, the gasworks can be seen to the south of the Prison precincts.

The Lennox Herald issue of the 4th of April 1903, in an article describing the opening of Dumbarton Municipal BuildingsExternal link, states that the gasworks date from 1829 (a different date was given above), but that they had by then (1903) been expanded three times, so that they now covered 2¼ acres of land.

They now embraced land formerly occupied by a Drill Hall (mentioned earlier in this article) and the prison precincts; "this extension threw into the works the graves of the last two men hung in the town. Their remains now lie within the new purifier shed, though it was not found necessary to disturb them in any way, the spades of the workmen stopping within a foot of the particular spot". It was noted that the gasholders were now three in number, and that, on account of frequent flooding by the Gasworks Burn (as the adjacent part of the Knowle Burn had come to be known), the level of the ground had been raised by two feet.

John Irving states that, by 1923, both the annual make of gas and the number of consumers had increased greatly: "these figures had risen to 121 million cubic feet and over 5000 consumers. It was with great demands these figures could be met, and the restricted nature of the site prevented any adequate enlargements. The Corporation therefore wisely decided to erect a complete new plant, and, having received a generous offer for the old site, proceeded at once with erection of new works in the east end of the Burgh. The site chosen is on the Dumbuck Estate, and ample space is allowed for all possible extensions in the future. Plans were drawn out for the whole plant, which was designed to have a nominal capacity of three-quarters of a million cubic feet per day. Early in 1921, work was commenced, and proceeded continually till the opening of the works in October, 1923. The cost of the scheme amounted to about £133,000, of which £60,000 was obtained by the sale of the old works."

The Dumbarton East gasworks were finally rendered obsolete by the introduction of North Sea gas (see note 1), and have largely been cleared away; housing has been built over much of their former site. The pictures below show what remains of the gasworks at the time of writing (in 2019).

NS4074 : Disused gasometer, Castlegreen, Dumbarton by Lairich RigNS4074 : Disused gasometer, Castlegreen, Dumbarton by Lairich RigThe remains of the gasworks at Dumbarton East.


(1) For this, and for additional information, see the "Dumbarton Remembered" feature (by Mike Taylor) about Dumbarton Gasworks in the Lennox Herald issue of March 21st, 2003.

Council Offices

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By 2019, new Council Offices occupied the area behind the facade of the old Dumbarton AcademyExternal link building, replacing the former offices at the foot of Garshake Road. The car park for the new offices overlaps the area that used to be occupied by Dumbarton Prison.

NS4175 : West Dunbartonshire Council Offices by Lairich RigNS4075 : Flood storage pond at Garshake by Lairich RigThe previous offices at the foot of Garshake Road.

While construction was under way, I visited the site entrance, and spoke for a few minutes with the site manager (or equivalent); I endeavoured to be as brief as possible, but am no less grateful for his taking this time out from his other duties. I mentioned that, in connection with the prison, two men had been buried somewhere in the general area (I mentioned my family connection, to explain my own interest). I was assured that nothing had been found. The conversation was not intended purely for my benefit: if human remains were to be found unexpectedly on a construction site, this would understandably be a cause for concern, so I felt that it would be useful to raise the matter with those working here.

NS3975 : Dumbarton Burgh Hall by Lairich RigNS3975 : Former site of Dumbarton Burgh Hall by Lairich Rig(left) A low burgh hall, soon to be demolished.
(right) The cleared site.
NS3975 : Construction on site of Burgh Hall by Lairich RigNS3975 : Construction on site of Burgh Hall by Lairich RigEarly stages of construction in 2016.
NS3975 : The Old Burgh Hall by Lairich RigNS3975 : Construction of new council offices by Lairich Rig(left) Construction, December 2016. The offices are being built behind this facade.
(right) Construction, May 2017. The foreground area would become the car park for the offices.
NS3975 : Construction of new council offices by Lairich RigNS3975 : New Council Offices, Dumbarton by Lairich Rig(left) Construction, July 2017.
(right) The offices, shown nearing completion in 2018.

For a time during construction of the new offices, a circular feature, like a large well, could be seen from adjacent Castle Street; this was the base of one of the gasholders that used to stand here. That feature is now buried beneath the new car park associated with the offices. However, there are other visible signs of earlier uses of the site: as illustrated earlier in this article, a small part of Dumbarton Prison still stands behind the County Buildings, and the boundary wall incorporates other fragments of the prison.

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