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Crime and punishment through the ages in Wick


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Heritage Matters, The Wick Society

A key to one of the cells in Wick prison.
A key to one of the cells in Wick prison.

An early reference to the need for a jail in Wick came in 1672 when Parliament ordered that a ‘correction house’ be provided.

Whether something existed as a result or not the Town Hall and Burgh Jail in Tollbooth Lane was erected in 1750, on a site of the kailyard of the minister's manse, in Tolbooth Lane. The Statistical Account recorded that ‘the tolbooth was seldom occupied by prisoners', except for petty riots and a few for civil debts.

The Wick Heritage Museum is now the keeper of the key.

This building was superseded by the new town hall and prison in 1828. The Town Council erected the building on “a piece of ground adjoining Bridge Street”.

In 1846, Wick’s prison seems to have undergone something of an upgrade. A new house for the keeper and the matron had been built and the prison now had the addition of a bathroom. The County Board at the time noted these improvements and commented on the fact that the prison now seemed to be dry!

Just how secure the prison in Wick was must have been in question, for in 1837 a reward of ten pounds was offered for the capture of William MacIver who had escaped from the prison’s ‘airing ground’.

In earlier times, the jailor had to survive financially on what could be extracted from the prisoners. However, in 1741 George Sinclair, the Provost, decreed that all prisoners were expected to make a financial contribution. Prisoners of some means were expected to pay six shillings for each 24 hours in prison and those of ‘lower’ circumstances were to pay three shillings and four pence for each 24-hour period.

Punishment was to all intents hard labour, using what was known as the crank… a piece of machinery for punishment. Wick Heritage Museum has the privilege of having one of these in its collection.

“It served no other purpose than to exhaust and punish a prisoner who had been misbehaving in Gaol, or was sentenced to Hard Labour. The prisoners would have to turn the handle up to 15,000 times a day. It was the job of the warders to set the crank – it could be made easier or harder, depending on how much the authorities wanted to punish the prisoner to be set to the crank. As this was done through screws on the crank itself, this was how the slang term for prison warders came about. The original "screws" were the – inevitably unpopular – warders who adjusted the settings of the crank.”

Tragedy, however, came to Wick Prison in 1855 when Alexander Leith, a cotter from Keiss, who had been awaiting trial on a charge of sheep stealing, was discovered to have committed suicide.

Then in August 1859 the Wick jail came under siege in what is now known as the Battle of the Orange. The full story can be read in Iain Sutherland’s account but this from Iain’s The Fishing Industry of Caithness gives a flavour…

“When Sheriff Russell arrived a full bloodied riot with stones flying everywhere, onlookers being attached, 30 windows in the Town Hall broken and the gaol door being assaulted.”

Physical punishment was also dished out in schools.
Physical punishment was also dished out in schools.

Apart from prison, the custodians of the community’s morals for many generations were the responsibility of the church. The Kirk Session Minutes are peppered with people being hauled before the Session to answer for their misdemenours.

Engaged in any Sabbath activity other than being in church was considered an offence but the most common accusation was that of fornication. In extreme cases women could end up in the criminal court and in 1866, Elizabeth Sinclair from Calder, Halkirk, was brought before Sheriff Russell and a jury, accused of concealment of pregnancy. After deliberation by the jury, they brought forth the uniquely Scottish verdict of Not Proven.

A tally of prisoners in 1873 showed there had been 44 males and 12 females imprisoned over the course of the year.

In 1882, in accordance with national arrangements, the prison in Wick was closed. At the time there was only one female inmate and she was transferred to Dingwall jail.

Punishment, of course, was not restricted to criminals. Misdemeanours in school would result in the application of the tawse – “hold out your hands, boy”.

Three versions of the Lochgelly Belt on display in the Wick Heritage Museum will bring back a few memories for some!




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