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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
October 1986

PRISON LIFE IN INVERNESS BETWEEN 1700 AND 1720
George Watson

The following extract is from a paper given to the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club by their President Mr. William Mackay in 1885 given under the above title.

About the end of the 17th century John Sinclair of Rattar, in Caithness, became indebted to Alexander Rorison, in Thurso, in the sum of 1400 and, on his failure to pay, the machinery of the law was set in motion, with the result that, in May 1700 he was confined as a debtor within the prison of Tain. He remained in confinement till January 1702 when - taking advantage of the insecure state of the prison of of the negligence or connivance of the gaolers - he escaped. From Rorieson's point of view this was about the best thing that could have happened, for Sinclair's escape made the Magistrates of Tain liable for the debt - and they had to pay it. The debt, however was not extinguished, the right was simply transferred from Rorieson to the Magistrates, and they, smarting under their loss, mercilessly pursued the fugitive who was speedily retaken and cast into the 'vault of the steeple' in Inverness, as being perhaps, a more secure place of confinement than his recent quarters in Tain. He was in this vault for many months previous to July 1705, and he' continued in it till, 1709 when he addressed the following petition to the Magistrates of our town:-

"Unto the much Honoured William Duff, present Provost of Inverness John McIntosh, Robert Ross and Mr. Alexr. Clarke, present Baylies their. The petition of John Sinclair of Rattar prisoner in the Vault of the Steiple,

"Humbly Sheweth

"That whereas I the said Johne Sinclair, prisoner as aforesaide, hath continued therein moir than these three yeares by gone and that with the grytest severity of callamitie and afliction during all the tyme, not haveing the use or benefit of the least fyre or litle candle light allowed me, not so much fyre as to warm me ane drink or anie other nesessar sustentatione, tho ever so seike or unweile. The said vault being so cold and obnoxious to the health and lyfe or anie Mankynde that it is a vonder in nature that a persone of my aidge hath continued alyve so long in it. For when the wind bloes moir than ordinar it will bloe out the candle, and wold whirle the cloathes of the bed wheir I doe lye and when their was rain moir than ordinar I wold be necessitat to alter and chainge my bed twise or thryse somtymes in the night, in the darke without light, and that for raine drap that wold and does run doune through the far end of the said vault, and when there are dry snow with wind it will cover whyte the floure and the bed and bed cloathes, and when there is any Sharpe Frosts or cold weather I wold be necessitat still to keepe my infamous bed, and hardlie could it afford me anie warmness or heate for the excessiveness of the coldness of the place, and whilk hath severall other dangerous Inconveniences.

This hath not onlie overcome my naturall strength and hardie constitutione, but lykevayes hath drawne on and lngendered severall dangerous diseases and distempers in my bodie, that this month bygone and moire I have beine necessitat to keipe my bed by sickness, and feu or non who did see me expected my lyfe, and continues little better as yet. But since the Mercy and Providenceof the Almighty God hath Spaired and continued by lyfe, and that I have not dyed heir like ane beast without anie person to wait on me or to caire for me, nor could nor can hove anie, the place being so cold.

Therefor I humble beseech you to cause bring me doune to the Tolbooth, wheirby I may have the use and benefit of ane fyre, and the administration of some doctor or other for my sickness, with the converse of some good people whilst the Lord is pleased to spaire me, whilk in compassione and Christiane dutie should not be denyed to anie mortall Mankynde and whilk is begged for by

"Your most distressed supplicant,

J. Sinclair of Rattar"

This appeal could not be resisted, and on 21st November, 1709 the prisoner was removed to the inner Tolbooth, but as the Town Council were at that time in the habit of cleaning out that establishment with a spade, and of burning great quantities of peat in it to counteract the evil effects of its frightfully insanitary condition, poor Rattar's last state was probably worse than his first .....

Reference: Transactions of the lnverness Scientific Society and Field Club,

Vol. III page 98.