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OUR HISTORYStirling Old Town Jail
Since 1847

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

Inspired by his friend, Elizabeth Fry, and the work of other ground-breaking Prison Reformers, Frederick Hill was appointed as Scotland’s first Inspector of Prisons in 1840. On his first visit to the Burgh the following year, he was shocked by the dire, dehumanising conditions in the Stirling Tolbooth.

He condemned the Tolbooth as “The worst prison in Britain.” This spurred Hill and other Reformers to force Stirling’s County Prison Board to build the New County Jail – better known today as The Old Town Jail.


April 1847

Stirling County Jail

On a brisk morning in November 1847, prisoners were transferred to the New County Jail, designed by architect Thomas Brown, and built according to the Separate System devised by William Brebner.

June 1847

Separate System

Under Brebner’s system inmates were kept apart from each other. Each in their own cell, they would be taught basic literacy, trained in a trade by prison staff, and could earn a wage – a Penny-a-Day – for their labour. These new skills were seen as vital to reforming their characters, and breaking the cycle of poverty which had forced many into a life of crime. Harsh by modern standards, but effective. The Separate System’s focus on rehabilitation reduced re-offence among Stirling’s convicts by almost 47% in its first ten years.


The fall of the separate system

Despite its early success many in government resented the expense of the Separate System. Budgets were cut, and with less focus on reform, it wasn’t long before two, three or even four convicts could be found in many cells. With little time to teach or counsel prisoners, much of the guards’ time was taken up imposing harsh discipline over an overcrowded prison population.


Children in Chains

Despite the decline of the Reform System there was some good news for Britain’s youngest convicts. In 1886 the Children In Prisons Act was passed by Parliament – ending the centuries-old practice of imprisoning children as young as six years of age in the nation’s Jails alongside adults. 



Military Prison

The New County Jail was requisitioned by the War Office and became the Military Detention Barracks for Scottish regiments, run by the Military Provost Staff Corps. This was not a jail for Prisoners of War but for soldiers guilty of theft from stores, Absence Without Leave, Desertion, or other disciplinary offences. Their time was taken up with Drill, Square-Bashing or repairing their kit. After a dispute over rent due to Stirling Council, the MPSC closed its Detention Barracks on 30th September 1935.



The Detention Barracks was decommissioned and the prison closed in 1936. During the Second World War it was used for gas-mask storage and distribution, and training for Stirling’s Civil Detention Volunteers – the Home Guard, or ‘Dad’s Army’, as it was known.

The remains of an escape tunnel dug by Home Guardsmen, during an exercise in 1943, can be found in one of our cells – no one told them the outer wall went 15 feet below ground level!


Sweetie Storage

The building was used to stock ingredients for the manufacture of sweets by the Caledonian Confectionary Company, now based in Falkirk. Locals tell of the sweet scents that would waft across the Old Town.




From the 1940s the Jail quickly became derelict. In the ’60s and ‘70s it was mainly used by the Burgh’s Truant Officers as a drop-off point for pupils skipping classes from local schools – or by reckless local tykes who used the ruin as a playground.



In 1991 restoration of the Jail began. The middle floors were renovated for use as office-space, mostly for companies working in local arts and tourism. The ground floor was restored to its former glory, with a new viewing platform and exhibition space added to the Tower. The Stirling Old Town Jail, as the new attraction was known, was open from 1996 until 2012 – and became the Burgh’s first 5-Star visitor attraction.


2015 onwards

New Start

After a brief closure, the Old Town Jail re-opened in 2015 as an independent visitor attraction – running our popular live-performances, self-guided audio tours, hosting events, and adding each year to our dynamic displays and exhibitions.

Our team have made a passionate, ongoing commitment to the Jail’s heritage, laying solid foundations for the next stage of the building’s history. And the key to that, dear visitor, is you!

If you have any burning questions or would like to arrange a special trip or event then get in touch.
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Old Town Jail Ltd The Old Town Jail St John Street Stirling FK8 1EA Company Number: SC632811

Old Town Jail Ltd The Old Town Jail St John Street Stirling FK8 1EA Company Number: SC632811