Old Town Jail History

Town Prison, Military Detention Barracks, Sweetie Factory and Visitor attraction…the Stirling Old Town Jail has enjoyed a colourful history. Here are a few of its high – and low – points, over the past 170 years!


Reformer, Frederick Hill, first Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, was so shocked by conditions in Stirling’s Tolbooth that he condemned it as the ‘worst prison in Britain’, and pressed Stirling’s County Prison Board to build a new County Jail – better known today, as The Old Town Jail.

The New County Jail

Designed by architect Thomas Brown, the New County Jail was built according to the ‘Separate System’ devised by William Brebner. Prisoners were kept separate at all times, to encourage repentance and hard work – free from distractions and bad influences. Paid work, food and education were available to those willing to work, providing convicts with the skills to lead honest, productive lives on their release.

Click HERE To find out more about the Panopticon, and other features of this unique building.

Daily Life

Though luxurious compared to the stinking huddle of the Tolbooth Cells, conditions in the New County Jail were still harsh by modern standards. The drudgery of daily life was summed up by James Nicol – Prisoner No, 22 – after a brief stay here in 1867.

The Crank Machine & The Dark Room

Although whippings, brandings and luggings were a thing of the past, prisoners at the Old Town Jail might still suffer a number of painful and peculiar punishments. The Crank-Machine was a wall-mounted drum containing a quantity of sand. Turning a handle prisoners would scoop up sand…and drop it again. It was designed to be useless! Hard-cases would be confined in The Dark Room – a tiny chamber located in a corner of the perimeter wall. The only light provided by a tiny hole at the top of the chamber, 40 feet above.

Military Prison

In 1888 the New County Jail was requisitioned by the War Office and became the Military Detention Barracks for the Scottish regiments. In September 1935 the Barracks were decommissioned. It’s staff and inmates left their mark on the Jail – much of the graffiti on the cell doors was scratched there by squaddies!

Dereliction and Restoration!

Used briefly as an the HQ of Stirling’s Civil Defence Volunteers – ‘Dad’s Army’ – during World War 2, and as a storage depot for the Caledonian Confectionary Company in the ‘50s, the Jail soon fell into disrepair and dereliction. In the 1990s the middle floors were restored for use as office-space, and other cells became Stirling’s first Five-Star Visitor Attraction- open from 1996 until 2012.

In 2015, the combined efforts of Destination Stirling, Creative Stirling, Stirling Council, Forth Valley Enterprises, Stirling Electrical, and David Kinnaird of the Stirling GhostWalk, succeeded in re-opening the Old Town Jail and telling its story.



Crime does NOT pay!

For centuries a statue of Justice looked down on the market-place from a the entrance to Stirling’s Toolbooth. The pug-faced figure witnessed many tales of murder, mayhem and mischief over the years, and some of these strange stories are told within our Jail.

Baird and Hardie
‘The Radical Weavers’

Hanged and beheaded for High Treason in Broad Street on 8th September 1820, weavers John Baird and Andrew Hardie were executed for joining a protest march demanding that ordinary men be granted the right to vote.
Heroes to many, a plaque was placed on the Broad Street wall of The Tolbooth – facing the sight of their bloody ends – on May Day: commemorating their sacrifice ‘FOR THE CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND TRUTH’.

Allan Mair
‘The Oldest Swinger In Town’

Eighty-four year old farmer Allan Mair was the oldest person hanged in the whole of Britain in the 19th-century – and the last person to be publicly executed at Stirling’s Mercat Cross, on the 4th October 1843.
Too weak to walk, on the day of execution, he was carried to the scaffold on a chair…and was STILL tied to the chair when he was hanged!

‘He Died With His Boots…Off!’

Alexander Millar, known to locals as ‘Scatters’, was sentenced to hang in Broad Street on 8th April 1837. His grandmother – a witch, he claimed – had made a prophecy that he ‘would die with his boots on’. With this in mind, Scatters unbuttoned his galoshes as he reached the gallows, and threw them into the crowd – sure that this would ensure his survival. It didn’t.

Poor Jamie:
“The Quality Of Mercy…”

Feeble-minded burglar John Campbell moved locals to pity when they heard his nightly wailing from the Tolbooth, in May 1824 – and they asked the Court to show pity and spare his life. After being kept awake night after night, they changed their minds, and begged the Court to hang him as quickly as possible!

True Confessions:
‘Crime DOES Pay…Sometimes!’

Those attending hangings and public punishments in the 18th and 19th-centuries often collected macabre mementos of the executions – single sheet Broadsides, detailing the dastardly deeds, confessions and repentance of executed felons.

If the ‘Confessions’ of William Taylor, hanged in Broad Street in 1790, seems rather more poetic than might be expected from an illiterate burglar, it shouldn’t be a surprise – most Broadsides were the hasty work of hack journalists trying to cash-in.