The Place and its Purpose

Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland

Prisons have a much higher proportion of men and women with mental disorders than the general population. This was also true in Victorian times, when ‘the liability of the criminal classes to an excess of insanity is very great, and much beyond that of the free population of the country’. The Prisons (Scotland) Act (1844) defined ‘criminal lunatics’ as ‘insane persons charged with serious offences’. From 1846 Perth Prison provided specialist housing for those not responsible on account of their insanity and in 1865 established a separate Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD). The then resident surgeon J. Bruce Thomson called inmates ‘prisoner-patients’ or ‘state lunatics’, ‘inasmuch as, having committed grave and heinous crimes dangerous to the public, they are placed at Her Majesty’s disposal, under the care of the State.’ Criminal lunatics became part of an integrated system during Victorian times, rather than anomalies in both justice and health care.

Predating Broadmoor, England (1863) and Dundrum, Ireland (1850), Perth was the only such facility in Scotland until The State Institution for Mental Defectives (now The State Hospital) opened at Carstairs, Lanarkshire in 1948.

During the 1860s Perth Prison had about 600 inmates and 60 staff, with accommodation for 35 males and 13 females in the CLD. In 1881 a separate female lunatics' wing opened, increasing capacity. Originally run by a board of management, Perth came under the Prison Commission for Scotland from 1877.

Offenders were admitted to the CLD not for the crime committed, but for the threat presented by their insanity. It contained, managed, and tried to make better, men and women with debilitating and dangerous mental disorders, prior to either transferring them to an asylum or prison or (from 1871) discharging them conditionally or unconditionally, after assessment of the risks posed to the community.

How do we know what the prisoner-patients had done and why? Crown lawyers conducted investigations called 'precognitions' prior to trial, amassing evidence from anyone who knew of the offence and the accused. Newspapers often mediated trial proceedings to the general public. Medically and legally qualified civil servants supervised admission, incarceration, and release. Physicians and surgeons collected histories before admission and kept detailed case notes as they tried to help sometimes dangerous, often damaged and vulnerable, but almost always complex and severely disordered patients.

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there" (L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

By examining the rich and varied history of the prisoner-patients, the exhibition's aim is to raise awareness of mental disorders inside and outside prisons because, regardless of circumstances, anyone's life can be tragically affected by them. Highlighting the treatment of prisoner-patients in a society with very different medical science, laws, welfare systems, conceptions of the rights of individuals and communities to those today allows us to reflect on the same issues now, and approach those suffering from mental disorders with better understanding and greater compassion.

Image of the General Prison at Perth
General Prison at Perth, NRS, RHP24487

The Prisoners - Patients

Image of Marjory McKeraker or McGregor

Marjory McKeraker or McGregor

Admitted 1861. Murder

Marjory McKeraker or McGregor murdered George Munro, her illegitimate son, aged four. Child murders made up half the female admissions to Perth’s Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD), these mostly of older, rather than new-born infants.

There were two strands to how contemporaries understood Marjory’s horrific act. The first was ‘derangement of religious thoughts’, Marjory being an avid attender of the radical Free Church of Scotland that flourished in her native Highland Perthshire. Victorians believed misdirected religious devotion could manifest and cause derangement, especially among women, whose minds they thought weaker than men’s.

‘Afraid of the devil…her mind tossed between hope and despair, sleepless, attempted to throw herself out of the window, thought herself lost, dying, burning secretly and suddenly got hold of a razor and cut her child’s throat and then attempted her own. The opinion of the witnesses was that revival excitement had brought on this paroxysm of insanity. A few Sundays before she spoke out in prayer in church and the clergyman thought her mind was wrong (afflicted), very ignorant of the Scriptures, mind considered by several witnesses not strong; got drunk at times. When calm she looked sane, but now and then became suddenly mad on her way to Perth and outrageous.’

Both legal and medical authorities looked closely at personal morality because they thought insanity was the result of failures in character.

‘She is reported to have been a very loose character, at one time on the poor roll. She has had two illegitimate children and has lived with other men, previous to her marriage with her present husband, who is said to be a weak fellow.’

Petite at 4 feet 10 inches tall (1.5m), with a fresh complexion, black hair, and grey eyes, when first imprisoned, Marjory spoke of ‘the wickedness of her past life’. She said, the devil came to her and told her that reading the Bible would stop her getting to ‘the good place’. Asked about the murder, she said she ‘believed that she and her boy were “in the bad place” and that to get out of it, her duty was to cut her own and the child’s throat’. But a few days later she spoke of ‘the love she bore him and with sorrow and remorse at the deed she had done, recalling with convulsive weeping the parting smile of her child as she was to seize the murderous weapon’.

Marjory’s homicidal attack was a one-off and she made good progress in her early years at Perth, first conditionally released in 1875. The problem was prisoners under conditional release required a guardian. Private individuals responsible for their supervision, Guardians were legally answerable to the Scottish Office. The records note that ‘her friends [relatives, including two married sisters living in Perthshire] are not at all likely to come forward’ and the compassionate householders who did take her in sooner or later thought better of the arrangement.

By the 1880s resident and visiting medical men were unanimous that ‘hers is really a deserving case’ for discharge. Between 1877 and her unconditional discharge in 1907, at the age of 74, Marjory went through several guardians and two readmissions.

We last read of her living with a married niece in Dundee, working as a cleaner.

Image of Margaret Hunter or Beaton

Margaret Hunter or Beaton

Admitted 1867. Murder

From a family of poor Paisley handloom weavers, Margaret married James Beaton, labourer, aged just 17 years in 1860. With a history of mental disorder, she murdered her fifth child, two month old Alexander in April 1867. The first doctor to examine her after the murder was a local man, who ‘found her to have a dull melancholy despairing look … of a person labouring under disease of the brain’. Too insane to plead, Margaret was not tried until October that year when she was found guilty and immediately admitted to Perth Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD). Margaret told her sister Catherine: ‘I have killed my wean.’ Catherine and several other witnesses said that the death of their mother nine days before the murder had affected Margaret badly. Emotional causes of mental problems, such as bereavement, were usually reserved for females. The after-effect of childbirth was also a factor.

Over a period of years her Perth case notes ranged from ‘outrageous, incoherent, delusional’ at worst, to ‘an unstable temper’ at best. In spring 1877 she was ‘very excited, filthy and obscene in her talk. To be locked in padded room and have strong purgative.’ With few staff, physical restraint was occasionally used on dangerous patients. Medical treatments for mental disorders were largely limited, until the 20th century, to traditional palliatives and evacuants.

The reason for the outburst? 'She recently got a letter from her friends [relations] telling her they had no means of accommodating her, even though she was conditionally liberated.' This may have been wise. During one of her later conditional discharges in 1889, Margaret assaulted her brother George's wife and burned her own clothes, causing him to renounce his guardianship. The medical superintendent and two prison officers who went to collect Margaret found her 'noisy and incoherent, with occasional furious bursts of maniacal excitement...her mind has completely broken down'. She kept petitioning unsuccessfully for release, one letter of January 1895 annotated simply: 'A lunatic full of delusions'.

With feeling, the medical superintendent concluded: 'This poor woman seems only to be sane in confinement.'

She was eventually discharged, in February 1898, to Glasgow District Asylum at Gartloch, a general aslyum, after 31 years at Perth. Transferred from there to Govan District Asylum, Paisley, in October 1898, she was released, aged 60, in October 1903, but had to be brought back a few days later and ‘is likely to remain to the end’.

Margaret Hunter or Beaton. Petition asking for her liberty, 28 January 1895 (NRS, HH18/60). Voices: Calum Philip and Georgie Purvos

Margaret Hunter or Beaton. Petition asking for her liberty, 2 August 1897 (NRS, HH18/60). Voices: Calum Philip and Georgie Purvos

Image of Elizabeth Gilchrist or Brown

Elizabeth Gilchrist or Brown

Admitted 1868. Murder

Elizabeth was aged 21 when she killed her six month old daughter Jessie by giving her laudanum because 'the child had been troublesome and was teething and I thought the laudanum would make her sleep'. Yet moments later she added: 'I did mean to destroy her.' An alcoholic extract of opium, laudanum was readily, cheaply, and legally available in Victorian times, widely used for pain relief - and recreationally. Laudanum was administered to Elizabeth at Glasgow Royal Lunatic Asylum, where she was twice a patient, to help her sleep during manic episodes.

In common with many prisoner-patients, Elizabeth had a history of mental problems, which also ran in her family. 'Her ideas are confused and incoherent. She cannot rest and she is perfectly indifferent, impulsive and reckless about everything...Her homicidal tendencies have been often manifested. She is also suicidal and has very frequently attempted to destroy herself. Her reason is so far gone, and she has become so degenerated, that if not prevented she would eat excrement, anything, her own flesh; her fingers or toes especially...Such is her present diseased state of mind that she cannot be left unattended for a single moment either by night or by day.'

Medical men focused on sex-specific physiological events like pregnancy, childbirth and lactation, when looking for causes in women. 'Puerperal insanity' was the label applied to Elizabeth. A term used only during the 19th century, this diagnosis encompassed a wide range of symptoms, some of which might now be classed as post-partum psychosis. Prison policy was not to release puerperal maniacs until the end of their childbearing span.

Gendering could, however, work to women's advantage in eliciting sympathy. Authorities often shifted blame for wrongdoing onto menfolk, who should have behaved better. Gartnavel described her husband Robert Brown as 'a young good-for-nothing', whom she married when aged just 17 and who had recently died in Argentina 'after a short life of dissipation and vice'. He allegedly neglected her and took her out of Gartnavel before she was ready, just to save money.

In her pre-trial statement, Elizabeth recorded that since returning home from Gartnavel, 'I felt sometimes the old depression which had afflicted me come back and when in these turns I had thoughts of killing myself. I told my husband... and he did not know what to do with me... I felt my mind affected and it was in that condition that I gave the laudanum to the child.'

By the early 20th century Elizabeth had been discharged from, and readmitted to Perth Criminal Lunatic Department(CLD) multiple times; at one stage her son smuggled her to America for a fresh start, but that too ended in relapse. Deemed no longer dangerous because 'her mental condition has now permanently settled down into consecutive dementia', she was transferred to Ayrshire District Asylum at Glengall in March 1904, and died there in 1909.

Image of Elizabeth (Eliza) Sinclair or Clafton

Elizabeth (Eliza) Sinclair or Clafton

Admitted 1871. Murder

In March 1871, 25-year-old Eliza cut her own throat at the family home in Stow (Midlothian) then spontaneously did the same to her daughter Isabella (11 months) and son Daniel (three years). Eliza lived, the children did not. Found guilty but insane before the High Court of Justiciary, she was committed to Perth Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD) 'until Her Majesty's pleasure shall be known'.

Neighbours of long acquaintance who gave supportive testimony said Eliza was a good wife and mother, but a fragile person, with low resilience. 'If any person did anything to the prisoner to offend her she took it very much to heart & became very dull & quiet'.

Thus when accused of stealing from a local grocer by the owner's daughter, Christina White, Eliza fell apart. For their part, medical men thought the underlying cause was lactation and possibly the psychological impact of physical injury during earlier childbirth.

Clinicians assessed prisoner-patients regularly to see if they could be released, conditionally or unconditionally, carefully monitoring steps towards freedom. Along with Marjory McKeraker and three other female inmates, Eliza had the privilege in August 1880 of walking outside the prison walls for a few hours a week under guard, because they were all 'perfectly sane' and unlikely to relapse without some advance warning.

Eliza was first discharged in 1881. Conditional release was closely monitored by a nominated guardian with whom the prisoner-patient had to live, to prevent any danger to self or public. The Scottish Office paid guardians, but the task was onerous.

Eliza had a mind of her own. By leaving her guardian and associating with her husband and other men, she was readmitted several times for breach of conditions. In August 1882 she gave birth to a son, who was taken from her by the Inspector of the Poor once weaned. She was pregnant again in March 1890 and, unable to work for her living (she tried to throw herself out of a window when the officers came to collect her), recommitted. Her baby girl was removed from her in April 1891.

Eliza's case history makes her sound rootless and irresponsible, but her life was typical of working-class people in Victorian times: employment could not be guaranteed and poverty was an ever-present threat; geographical mobility was normal and frequent; and personal relationships could be dissolved easily by the acid of poverty. She herself was illegitimate, her father a married man, her mother then an unwed servant. Eliza married the weaver Samuel Clafton in spring 1864, who used the name John Smith in an effort to evade a paternity suit in Yorkshire. Footloose and unreliable, he was regarded as quite unsuitable to act as her guardian.

If the description of the murder and its aftermath in the trial documents and newspapers is harrowing, Eliza's redundant suicide note is even more deeply affecting.

'Dear Husband. I write you a loving farewell, and my children, give my kind love to mother sister and all inquiring friends be good to the bairns, I hope you will forgive me and God will forgive me, Kirst White has done all this. She swore that I had taken siller [money], which is false, but they hang every body. I have nothing to live for; I have no friends in this world.'

No longer insane, Eliza was removed to Dysart poorhouse in December 1897 because she was unable to support herself. Days later, she drowned herself in the River Leven.

Eliza Sinclair or Clafton. Declaration, 12 April 1871 (NRS, AD14/71/295). Voices: Jade Anderson and Craig Smillie

Eliza Sinclair or Clafton. Petition to H.M. Prison Commissioners, 10 June 1887 (NRS, HH17/23). Voices: Jade Anderson and Craig Smillie

Eliza Sinclair or Clafton. Jane Crombie’s statement, 17 June 1871 (NRS, AD14/71/295). Voices: Mia Colquhoun and Craig Smillie

Eliza Sinclair or Clafton. Eliza’s husband, Samuel Clafton’s statement, 14 March 1871 (NRS, AD14/71/295). Voices: Jonathan Craig and Craig Smillie

Eliza Sinclair or Clafton. Suicide note, c. 1871 (NRS, JC26/1871/307). Voices: Jade Anderson

Image of John McFadyen

John McFadyen

Admitted 1872. Murder and theft

John was convicted of drowning a two-year-old boy called Alexander Shields in the river Clyde at Glasgow. He had abducted 'Sandy' from the street while the boy was waiting to greet his father's return from work, stripped him and threw him in the water, holding him down with a stick. The child's distraught mother caught him running away with her son's clothes under his arm.

John stated matter-of-factly: 'I drowned said child for the sake of its clothes.'

The jury found him guilty of murder and theft, recommending mercy because of his 'weakness of intellect...almost completely an imbecile'. The judge decided otherwise and sentenced him to hang in January 1861, subsequently commuted to penal servitude for life.

Victorians favoured institutions as a cure for social problems. John had spent the years 1855 to 1860 in the House of Refuge (Reformatory Institution), Duke Street, after his first conviction for theft (also stealing clothes from a child). The chaplain-superintendent described him as 'mentally, morally & physically stunted or undeveloped'. Despite three hours of lessons a day, he could only read a little, hardly do any arithmetic, and was unable to write. His memory was poor, as was his impulse control. 'A very slight temptation to ordinary minds would appear to him a strong temptation.'

John was aged 20 when he committed the murder in 1860, but doctors judged he had a mental age of just six. He was barely 4 feet 9 inches (1.5m) tall and weighed 7 stone (45kg). Born in Belfast, John was transferred from Broadmoor to Perth in 1872.

Awaiting trial, a cell-mate for nine weeks spoke of McFadyen's mental state. 'He was a very childish companion. Very mischievous, taking away anything that was left, singing all day, constant talking, jumping on bed occasionally, singing snatches of songs. In talking he jumps from one subject to another. When speaking about his dinner he would jump to what happened at Reformatory School. He is passionate, very irritable, cannot read; and when I read he interrupted me...He is a great mimic, and the least thing makes him laugh immoderately. I do not think he understood his position. I have tried to make him sensible of it, and tried to make him pray, but he did not understand what I meant and asked if praying would bring him back to life. I had told him he might be hanged. When I told him how people were hanged, he laughed at it and said it would be all one to the grave digger. I think him of unsound mind.'

'Form of insanity: imbecility'. Victorians classed intellectual disabilities as either imbecility or idiocy; the terms had both legal and medical meaning, the former involving less extensive incapacity. The Mental Deficiency and Lunacy (Scotland) Act 1913 was the first systematic attempt to revise traditional categories of impairment, which have been fine-tuned ever since.

Aged 50, John was unconditionally discharged from Perth Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD) in 1891.

John McFadyen. Report of medical examination, 3 December 1880 (NRS, JC26/1860/265). Voices: Calum Philp and Craig Smillie

John McFadyen. Declaration, 27 August 1860 (NRS, JC26/1860/265). Voices: Richard Burns

Image of Alexander McKinnon

Alexander McKinnon

Admitted 1881. Housebreaking and Theft

A native of Hull, Alexander is the youngest prisoner-patient in the exhibition, aged just 18 years on admission. Like all the others he was in a manual occupation, which he gave as a tailor. With four previous convictions for housebreaking and theft dating back to August 1877, Alexander was described as 'an old offender'. He received a seven year sentence in May 1880, after being caught red-handed in a shop in Glasgow wearing eight stolen items of clothing. While many prisoner-patients had committed violent acts, nearly half of all admissions to Perth Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD) were for theft.

Initially sent to Woking Invalid Convict Prison in Surrey, he was transferred to Perth CLD in July 1881, with 'imprisonment' recorded as the immediate cause of his madness. The brief summary that accompanied him from Woking ended: 'A weak imbecile requiring constant supervision'.

The truth of this verdict became clear from the case notes during the six years he spent at Perth. 'A weak silly lad. Says that he continually sees Jesus Christ, who is working in the garden with a wheelbarrow and which causes him great annoyance though it may eventually be for his good; very absent minded...Filthy in his habits and often wet at night. Kneeling down crying 'Blessed divinity'. Breaks glass nearly every day...bites himself severely upon hands & lips...frequently injuring himself seriously by hitting his head against walls & doors & thumping it on the floor. Once or twice tried to strangle himself...frequently assaulting those near him'.

Alexander's case notes conclude: 'Form of insanity: dementia'. About a fifth of Victorian admissions to the CLD were diagnosed with dementia (the largest category, half, were maniacs). Dementia meant something quite different from the age-related neuro-psychiatric disorder we presently associate with 'senile dementia': a deterioration of mental faculties to the point of impairing social functions. In the 19th century it could be any psychotic illnesses involving progressive deterioration. It included patients with cognitive difficulties, but also psychotic ones who were not behaviourally overactive enough to be described as manic.

In May 1887 Alexander was sent to Glasgow prison 'for disposal' (discharge).

Image of William Porter

William Porter

Admitted 1881. Housebreaking and Theft

'A tall, thin featured young man. Form of insanity: general paralysis of the insane.'

The largest single category of admissions to general asylums in Britain c.1900 (about a fifth of all men) was for organic rather than psychogenic illnesses: acute biomedical conditions with secondary psychiatric symptoms. William had a neuro-syphilitic disorder, known as general paresis or general paralysis of the insane (GPI). Manifested in personality changes, social disinhibition and indiscretion, motor difficulties, and cognitive impairment, this condition was degenerative - and usually terminal. Not until the 1940s did antibiotics provide effective means of dealing with the bacteria, which caused syphilis.

Expert opinion on William's state of mind was divided. The physician of the Barony Parochial Asylum at Lenzie, Dunbartonshire interviewed him in Barlinnie prison, Glasgow, and thought he was faking, because he looked 'cunning' and showed 'sharpness and clearness and intelligence' when questioned. Visual signs like facial structure and expression were traditionally important diagnostic tools for doctors. His stubbornness in the face of authority, obvious in his photograph, may have influenced that assessment.

The medical superintendent of Perth prison also talked at length to William in Barlinnie and came to the opposite conclusion. He accepted him into the Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD) as 'of unsound mind', based on his indistinct speech, unsteady walk, and persistently held delusions of wealth and grandeur - all, for him, symptoms of GPI. He also argued that cunning, determination, and intelligence were not inconsistent with insanity, and that, while the prisoner daubing the walls with his own excrement could be a ruse, eating it was a sign of genuine derangement. In short, 'This man is insane and not shamming.'

The Victorian criminal justice system, medical professionals, and general public were all alert to the possibility of the accused pretending to be insane. Of 222 CLD admissions 1846-70, nine were eventually classed as 'feigned'. Yet counterfeit madness was hard to sustain in a crowded and closely observed setting. Prisoner-patients did not have to work, but otherwise conditions were no better than in the General Prison or any other penitentiary. An inspection conducted in 1857 found cells with one to four beds 'generally very gloomy...The windows are strongly barred, and...are generally placed high in the wall, beyond the reach of the patients. The doors of the cells are of great strength, and lined with iron plates, or studded with large iron nails.'

In addition, incarcerations at Perth CLD were indeterminate and in practice usually much longer than the average for those convicted of the same offence, but not deemed insane. Thus William spent three months at Perth, compared with a sentence at Paisley Sheriff Court of just one month in Barlinnie for his minor offence. Some of the insane women who had killed their children lingered for decades in the CLD, when the average sentence for their sane counterparts in a general prison was two years. Capital punishment for the offence was possible in theory, but unknown in practice in Victorian Scotland.

Image of John Fothergill Wilson

John Fothergill Wilson

Admitted 1878. Arson

Aged 38 years when admitted, John is the oldest of the nine prisoner-patients, seven of whom were in their twenties. Two-fifths of all Victorian admissions were in that cohort, one quarter in their thirties; nearly a fifth were under twenty. John came from a good family, his father a Newcastle surgeon. The doctor at Perth in 1878 seems to have respected him, saying he could converse in an intelligent and educated fashion on many topics. In contrast, most of those committed to Perth Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD) had limited literacy; some had been excluded from school. But John also had a long history of insanity. A 'rolling stone', John had already abandoned an apprenticeship, a wife, and his post in the Royal Navy before he was committed to the Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Colney Hatch in December 1870. The captain of a merchant ship on which Wilson had served, said that for three months he had been 'very violent at times without provocation'. His father secured his release and cared for him until his death in 1874. John quickly spent his inheritance and went 'on the tramp', favouring the prosperous farming areas of south-east Scotland. He lived a hand-to-mouth existence, begging, trapping animals, and stealing.

John may have been violent, but his obsession was fire. In 1877, 1878, and 1883 he was tried for multiple counts of 'malicious mischief', specifically arson of hay stacks at several farms east of Edinburgh. Usually after being refused food, he lay in wait until dark, fired the stacks, and retreated to a safe distance to watch them burn - sometimes ten tons at a time. He then gave himself up to police so he could be fed and sheltered in gaol.

The admitting officer of the General Prison at Perth noted in 1877: 'He is a thin spare little man with a good face and head, but there is evidently a want about him.' Nobody thought anything more needed said. Voicing bluntly an axiom of Victorian society, the governor stated: 'All the criminal classes are more or less weak minded.' He did not mean intellectually disabled, but failing to conform to broad psychological and moral norms. John served a routine 12 month sentence and was released.

At his next appearance for wilful fire-raising before the High Court of Justiciary on 3 June 1878 he was found unfit for trial. 'He is insane. Believes he has a guardian angel: a woman who is always whispering in his ears to do something. He set fire to places, to commit rape etc. Has been previously in asylums. Hears other voices.' When eventually able to plead he was sent to Perth CLD, which recorded him as particularly deranged during 1879: 'More demented. Says he has a number of steel springs in his abdomen attached to the ribs, and which may be wound up at will. Believes that everyone can read his thoughts, as he was told so by a Hindu conjuror when resident abroad. Requested me to circumcise him to prevent him from masturbating. Very delusive.' The medical men classed John as a maniac, but in March 1882 he was certified sane and escorted to Haddington prison for liberation.

A Haddington doctor, who had assessed John in 1876/7, 1878, and 1882, described him in 1883 as 'quiet...Has no delusions or hallucinations', concluding: 'although not strong minded, he is not in any sense insane'. The same two prominent psychiatric specialists who certified him mad in 1878 also stated, before yet another trial for arson in February 1883, that he was quite sane. John did himself no favours. In his pre-trial statement, later retracted, he justified arson by farmers being insured and 'an occasional fire was an excellent advertisement for an insurance company'. Unsurprisingly, the court saw John as remorseless and spiteful: bad, not mad. Without the protection of insanity, he got a sentence of five years penal servitude in a general prison in the spring of 1883.

Image of Angus McPhee

Angus McPhee

Admitted 1857. Murder

Born on Christmas night 1832, Angus was 26 years old when admitted to Perth Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD) after bludgeoning to death his parents and an aunt 'in a maniacal paroxysm' at an isolated community on the island of Benbecula, leaving their bodies 'mangled and bloody'.

Speaking in Gaelic through a translator, Angus' elder brother said he worked as a labourer and had been in good mental and physical health until the spring of 1857, when the family had to shackle him, under the threat of removal to an asylum on the mainland, because of his violent behaviour. 'My father and mother were both averse to part with him and were opposed to his state being reported to the authorities.'

During his first three decades at the CLD Angus was more or less continuously deranged, experiencing sudden episodes of violent insanity. 'Liable to periods of exaltation & destructiveness with recurrent attacks of mania', when 'furiously maniacal' Angus was put in a strait jacket and anklets, when less so in handcuffs. In more placid periods he suffered from persistently held delusions. The prison surgeon noted that he was fixated with his genitals. 'Has an idea that his penis has been injured and is not right and suggested that it might be cut off with a chisel and then it would grow in again straight.' Reported in 1877 to be in love with one of the female attendants, Angus was a chronic masturbator who was given Potassium Bromide, a sedative and anticonvulsant, which also calmed sexual excitement. Its discoverer in the 1850s thought it would help epilepsy, then held to be caused by masturbation and closely linked to insanity.

Psychiatrists or 'alienists' of the mid- and late 19th century were obsessed by such signs of physical and mental degeneracy, which 'must index moral insanity'. Selfish and passionate, the 'habitual criminal' belonged to the 'inferior races of mankind'. With time and treatment, inmates at Perth CLD could begin to experience long periods of sanity, Angus included. In 1897 the prison physician noted he had been 'restless, delusional, and violent' for many years after admission, but had improved during the 1880s and for the last 4 years he had been docile, 'quiet and desponding'. 'With advancing age the maniacal attacks from which he suffered have ceased, so he is no longer a dangerous lunatic.' Psychiatric specialists agreed that conditional discharge into the community remained risky and unconditional release was out of the question, because he was too unpredictable.

Most photographs were taken on admission to Perth CLD, but Angus was done much later - the original prison admission document says he had blue eyes and dark hair. Perhaps it was in January 1900 when, nearly half a century and most of a lifetime after his crime, Angus was transferred to Inverness District Lunatic Asylum, as a pauper patient at the expense of his home parish. He died there the following month, aged 68. His stay at Perth CLD and that of all the other prisoner-patients was paid for by the Scottish Office.

Angus McPhee. Ranald Munro’s statement, 11 July 1857 (NRS, AD14/57/176). Voices: Richard Burns and Mia Colquhoun

Angus McPhee. Medical report by Dr John McNaughton, Perth General Prison, 11 October 1899 (NRS, HH18/96). Mia Colquhoun, Calum Philp, and Craig Smillie


‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’ was an exhibition created in 2019 by National Records of Scotland (NRS) and guest curator Professor Rab Houston of the University of St Andrews. The exhibition looked at the difficult lives of nine offenders admitted between 1857 and 1887 before, during, and after their crime and lapse into ‘insanity’. Informed by Professor Houston’s project ‘Promoting mental health through the lessons of history’, records from the archives of NRS were displayed and contextualised to highlight the treatment of prisoner-patients in a society very different from today. The hope is that examining how these individuals were treated in the past will allow us to reflect on the same issues now, and approach those suffering from mental disorders with better understanding and greater compassion.

Alongside the information available on this site, a portable version of this exhibition has been created for wider use. Consisting of ten travelling boards, this version of the exhibition is free to download for educational purposes. The artwork was created for printing on A2 paper size, but can also be printed using A3, or A4 paper.

If you would like to use this artwork for commercial purposes please contact

Public Talks

“Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland” by Professor Rab Houston, School of History, University of St Andrews

A talk delivered in National Records of Scotland, New Register House, Edinburgh on 7 August 2019 in connection with the Fringe Festival exhibition ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’. Guest curator Professor Rab Houston explains the records used in this exhibition, and the development of the criminal justice system’s attempts to deal with those who had committed serious offences, but were found to be insane and thus not responsible for their actions.

“Prisoners or Patients?” by Professor Rab Houston, School of History, University of St Andrews

A follow-up talk that expands on the one given on 7 August 2019 to complement the Fringe Festival exhibition ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’. Professor Rab Houston explains the inspiration for the exhibition and his work on the project ‘Promoting mental health through the lessons of history’.


1. Why was this resource produced?

This website was created as part of the 2019 exhibition ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’. A partnership exhibition between National Records of Scotland (NRS) and guest curator Professor Rab Houston of the University of St Andrews, a display of records from NRS archives was put on show in General Register House, Matheson Dome, Edinburgh in August 2019. This website was first published and on display in the exhibition where it provided further information about the prisoner-patients featured, as well as some who we were unable to include in the display.

2. Are the records photographed and featured on this site accessible in person?

This site showcases a small selection of the records relating to the named prisoner-patients. The full record is accessible via the Historical Search Room in General Register House. For further information please see 'Visit Us' on the NRS website.

3. There are words used here to describe those with mental health disorders which are no longer appropriate. Why have these not been updated?

The exhibition, and this resource, examines the treatment of criminal lunatics in the Victorian era and uses vocabulary that is present in this historical context. This resource does not attempt to correct the language of the past, that features words no longer medically accurate or socially acceptable. Instead it examines how those suffering from mental health issues were treated and recorded in the 19th century. As such there are several references to historical medical terms including lunatic, mad, imbecile and insane, as well as descriptions of violent crime.

4. Who are the voice actors in the audio recordings?

These audio recordings were created with the help of the Acting for Stage & Screen course at Queen Margaret University, and their lecturer Marion Scott. All the recordings include voice credits for the individual students involved.

5. Where can I find more information about National Records of Scotland the archives they hold?

NRS website holds a wealth of information including Research Guides on the range of records held in the archives. See Research Guides for further information.