Jedburgh Castle Jail: History

The history of Jedburgh Castle Jail

Jedburgh Castle Jail is located at Castlegate, Jedburgh. The site originally held Jedburgh’s medieval castle: the fortification was described as a protected pele tower and two larger fortified towers. 

In October 1346 King David II (of Scotland) led a Scottish invasion into northern England, at the head of a twelve thousand man force. The army was halted at Durham by Lord Ralph Neville, with King David captured and the army routed. From then, Jedburgh Castle fell into English hands. In 1409, the castle was demolished by the Scottish to prevent the site’s strategic use by the English.

Extract of John Ainslie's map, 1780
Extract of John Ainslie’s map, 1780

The site of the castle ruin became known as Castle Hill by the 18th century, with John Ainslie’s map Jedburgh and its Environs, published in 1780, noting that the hill was also the site of the Jedburgh ‘galows’ (gallows). Between 1820-23, plans were drawn up by architect Archibald Elliot for the construction of a new jail for Jedburgh, the town having essentially outgrown the old jail. The first stage was the clearance of the gallows and the remains of the old castle by 1823.

Extract of Wood's map of 1823
Extract of Wood’s map of 1823

The work was undertaken by Mr Gillespie, builder. The prison was built using the John Howard system, aimed at reforming prisoners as well as providing adequate punishment.

The first map of the new prison is likely depicted on John Wood’s map, dating to 1823. 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. The aim of the John Howard system was also to provide prisoners with good living conditions: in 1834, Parish Minister John Purves inspected the prison and concluded that there was “no more comfortable place of confinement in Scotland“.

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“.


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 referencing 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 (potentially in 1968, though this date is a little tenuous) to the best of their ability to the 1823 layout.

Jedburgh Castle Jail remains the last ‘John Howard’ prison standing: it is now part of registered charity Live Borders, Charity SC034227.


Have you ever experienced something strange or allegedly paranormal on a visit to Jedburgh Castle Jail? If so, would you consider sharing the event? Please use our Reporting Desk to tell us about it!  We’d love to be able to generate a map of everyone’s experiences to help focus our research and fieldwork.
Thanks in advance

Contact us

Anonymous submission