Haunting Sites: Jedburgh Castle Old Jail

Jedburgh Castle Old Jail, Site Investigation , 12th-13th November 2019

Jedburgh Jail, November 2019
Jedburgh Jail, November 2019

On the 12th November 2019 I was lucky enough to be one of the small group of guests invited by Chris and Annette Fox of Deadzone Paranormal Adventures to undertake a 24 hour paranormal investigation at Jedburgh Jail. Knowing that I just don’t have the stamina I used to (it’s age you know!) I went prepared – lots of coffee, food, energy drinks and a nice warm sleeping bag. While the idea was a noon til noon investigation, I knew that as soon as the cold seeped into my bones I’d need some shut eye.

Jedburgh Jail, November 2019
Jedburgh Jail, November 2019

Jedburgh Jail is the almost perfect investigation venue, especially with the keys to the gates. A large complex that can be locked down (if you’ll pardon the phrase, given the current circumstances), fitted with cameras to catch almost every angle (if you have enough cameras), some nice (or nasty) history to get the psychological triggers going, AND a plethora of experiences and sightings that others have experienced to examine.

The building itself, known as the Castle Old Jail, was actually built in 1823. Not a castle in itself, the building was built as a prison on the site of the medieval castle that had been demolished in AD 1409 by the Scots during the border wars, essentially to prevent the English using it as a strategic foothold. 

Jedburgh Jail at night, November 2019
Jedburgh Jail at night, November 2019

The jail was purpose built after the 1819 Act for the Building of Gaols in Scotland noted the need for the new facility. It was built to look like a castle, with battlements and a sham portcullis entrance gate – a nod to the site of the castle on which it was built as well as the psychological effect of having a mock castle as a jail. With its construction, the original old jail at the Newgate and house of correction south of Abbey Bridge fell out of general use.

The prison was designed by Archibold Elliott (a selection of his architectural drawings can be viewed on Canmore, Historic Environment Scotland). It was a model jail with a central gaolers’ house with rectangular cellblocks to the south, east and west. The cell blocks were segregated depending on their occupants, with the first of the three blocks holding male debtors and female prisoners, the second a block for male prisoners and the third the house of correction, or bridewell. The site was set out in a ‘D’ shaped plan with a double walled layout. This layout can easily be seen on the aerial photograph available here.

The 1823 jail was not the site of horror that many would have you believe. It was built as a Howard Reform Prison with the aim of providing prisoners good living conditions to promote prisoner reformation rather than simple punishment. In 1834, Parish Minister John Purves inspected the prison and concluded that there was “no more comfortable place of confinement in Scotland“.

Jedburgh Jail at night, November 2019
Jedburgh Jail at night, November 2019

However, five years later the Prisons (Scotland) Act, 1839, came into being which moved drastically away from the Howard system, promoting the isolation of prisoners in separate cells and a drastic increase in harsher discipline. Architect Thomas Brown brought Jedburgh into line with the act in 1847, with the dayrooms repartitioned and arcades closed on the ground floor of the debtor/womens’ block and a new lean-to added to the west side of the building. A square chimney tower was added to the male block, and a further lean-to added to that building. The Bridewell, it is noted, was the least altered due to its appropriate layout.

Jedburgh Jail from that point on got a reputation across the Borders for its brutality, with the following ditty, said to date from the time being in harsh contrast to Purves’ words in 1834: “I’d rather lie in the belly o’ a whale, than spend the nicht in Jethart Gaol“.

Dawn in the cells
Dawn in the cells

By 1880 however, the building itself failed to meet the regulations of the time. A report dating to 1880 stated that the cells were too small, damp throughout with unsatisfactory heating, ventilation, storage and bathing facilities, the latter specifically effecting the male prisoner population. It was also noted that there were no sewerage systems in place, and all such matter had to be carried out in buckets and disposed of in the garden. The jail closed on the 31st May, 1886, with the prisoners being transferred to better facilities in Edinburgh.

In 1890, the jail was sold to the burgh, who let out the Gaolers’ house until 1961. It was then decided to open the building to the public, with Aitken and Turnbull, Edinburgh-based architects restoring the building to the best of their ability to the 1823 layout (potentially in 1968, though this date is a little tenuous).

Now, according to many visitors to the Jail (the gaoler’s house is now the town museum) the building is now home to a number of ghosts, with a fair number of different forms of paranormal activity being reported. Research into these reports can be summarised via the list below:

  • Orbs
  • Scratches
  • Apparitions
  • Stones and other objects being thrown at visitors 
  • The sound of a cell door banging shut when no door is seen to move
  • The sound of a phantom bagpiper
  • Cell doors slamming shut on people
  • General poltergeist activity caused apparently by a spirit named Edwin McArthur who was apparently executed on the site in 1855
  • Electronic equipment draining, switching off or faulting for no reason
  • Inexplicable voices or heavy breathing sounds.

With this list in mind, the 7 strong team set up a network of CCTV cameras controlled from a central hub in the arcade beneath the debtor’s cells. A number of trigger objects were set up, including an ouija board and other paraphernalia. I’d just taken my camera, two camcorders and some audio recorders, with the main aim at the time of livestreaming some of the investigation. However, the wifi refused to work, so I only managed a couple of short streams via my phone onto Facebook until my data ran out. 

My main aim was to examine the structure and work out how the activity reported could be explained by the creaks and groans of the building, as well as take a video and photographic record (and experiment with photogrammetry in a couple of the cells). First thing, it became immediately obvious that the sound of a cell door often reported crashing shut (when no door was seen to move) was actually caused by the rope on the flag staff on top of the gaoler’s house snapping in the wind, echoing through the D-shaped structure and into the cell blocks. So that was one of the reported phenomena debunked.

Trigger setupOrbs… well the place was dusty and cold. My view on orbs runs along the same lines as official statements from companies such as Fujifim a decade ago, as well as studies by ASSAP and other organisations: that orbs are airborne particles such as dust, moisture, hair, skin particles, flies and other insects essentially caught in the flash of the camera. So nothing paranormal there.

The phenomenon of visitors (in particular visiting investigators) being scratched: this wasn’t something we experienced so I can’t comment on that.

As for the apparitions that have been sighted over the years, again I didn’t experience this, so can’t comment, along with the stones/objects being thrown, cell doors slamming on folk, inexplicable voices etc.

I did have major issues with my camcorders. Both new units with fully charged batteries, the camcorders kept draining rapidly. Normally one battery should last at least 2 hours of filming, but during the investigation that dropped to 10-15 minutes. This however I put down to the temperature. It was a cold, cold COLD investigation (we had frost on the grass overnight and only missed a heavy snowfall by a couple of days) and batteries can be affected by the cold, reducing battery life drastically. This was proven by returning to the warm hub and battery life would rise again. Its likely power drainage experienced by other groups in the past could be down to temperature, but without access to environmental data that can’t be stated categorically.

Unfortunately, the phantom bagpiper didn’t make an appearance, so its difficult to say what could cause this audio phenomenon. The position of the building itself will make it highly susceptible to noise pollution from the town, so it could be that the bagpiper was in another part of town, and the soundwaves found their way to the jail. Again, just supposition.

There were a couple of incidents of interest during the investigation. At one point, the CCTV appeared to show the trigger object ouija board disappear for several seconds, only to reappear. Physical inspection showed that the planchette had moved: Chris from Deadzone reviewed the footage at the time and couldn’t see an issue with the recording timestamps. Unfortunately, his guests (whom the system belonged to) have not shared the footage for further study. Chris did have a motion-sensitive trap camera also set on it, but found to everyone’s surprise that when he downloaded the images, they deleted themselves off the memory card and didn’t save to his laptop. The data was irrecoverable.

There was also a further small item of interest in the form of one of the guests taking a series of video and photographs which appeared to show the face of a woman within a doorway on one of the cellblock upper floors. Unfortunately, both myself and another investigator attempted to replicate the image, while it was visible still on the original camcorder, but without success. This undoubtedly suggests that the ‘face’ was nothing more than a digital artefact caused within the camcorder taking the image, though it has been noted that the guests in question have published the image in a magazine claiming it as a ghostly image. Unfortunately, access to the original image for further analysis for myself or the investigation hosts has not been forthcoming.

Finally, on the activity side, we come to the ghost of Edwin McArthur, described on a multitude of websites as a dark entity that haunts the jail, and that he was executed in 1855 at Jedburgh. Most investigation groups who have visited the jail with a spiritualist medium have had said medium come up with that name, as the cause of the alleged violent poltergeist activity.

Interestingly, prison records at that time were extremely thorough and well kept/documented, despite the viewpoint that records were poor and names can’t be checked. They can, especially since the lovely people and volunteers at the National Records of Scotland are digitising the records. There is no record of an Edwin McArthur being executed at the Jail in 1855: in fact there is no record of McArthur existing in the jail at all. Chris also asked the jail custodian who was with us for the night, who confirmed that he hadn’t seen the name on any records. Make of that what you will, but it is certainly suggestive of imaginative thinking followed by numerous google searches and the name attaching itself to the location and becoming a ‘false history’.

The best ever ghostOne last element that could be debunked immediately was the Border Telegraph’s article of 23rd April 2019, entitled ‘Failed selfie captures the best ever photo of a ghost”. The article can be seen here. Please look at the ‘ghost’ then look at the image to the right. I don’t think I really need to write any more words on this alleged ghost…

The 24 hours went a lot quicker than I thought, and amazingly I still had most of my energy drinks to see me through the 60 mile home trip. It was an excellent experience, and I’m thrilled to say that Chris and Deadzone have re-booked Jedburgh for further investigation work… and I’m invited! Looking forward to the next visit there, and also hope to sample the local chippy a lot more extensively next time… 


The Borders

3D model

Cell 8, female block
Chris and Annette Fox
Many thanks to Chris and Annette for the opportunity to aid in the investigation

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