Alexander MacKinnon, housebreaking and theft. Admitted to the Criminal Lunatic Department at Perth aged 18.

A new free exhibition by National Records of Scotland (NRS) reveals the hidden histories of prisoner-patients of the Victorian era.

Opening 1 August, Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland uses never before displayed records and photographs to reveal tragic stories of crime, treatment, recovery and release.

Guest curator Professor Rab Houston of the University of St Andrews has selected an array images and objects from the trials of people accused of murder and other serious crimes at the High Court of Justiciary and the Criminal Lunatic Department in Perth – including photographs, personal notes and petitions of prisoner-patients, a prison register, crime scene map, court papers and medical reports. 

Eliza Sinclair or Clafton
Elizabeth (Eliza) Sinclair or Clafton of Ayrshire, murder – admitted 1871.

Prisoners or Patients provides an insight into historic penal policies and the infancy of psychiatry, revealing the stories of people – occasionally dangerous, often vulnerable but always severely disturbed – who experienced mental health problems and impairments in the most extreme circumstances. 

The exhibition examines how those labelled at the time as criminal lunatics and afflicted by mental health issues were treated and recorded in the Victorian era. As such, it uses the medical and social terminology and references the practices of that time.

Paul Lowe, Chief Executive, NRS said: “Professor Houston and NRS archivists have brought together a collection of fascinating items that tell a compelling story about people furthest from public sympathy with great dignity and humanity.

“It shows how historical and cultural treasures within the archives of National Records of Scotland can bring the past to life.”

Elizabeth Gilchrist or Brown
Elizabeth Gilchrist or Brown of Stow, Midlothian, murder. Admitted 1868.


Guest curator Rab Houston said: “By looking at the worst (and the best) of humanity in a very different context from today, this exhibition helps us understand more clearly and talk more openly about mental health issues in modern society.

“Exploring the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary situations allows us to see where we have been and points to where we might go.”

Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland

1 August – 30 August 2019,
Admission free, 10 am – 4.30 pm
Matheson Dome
General Register House
2 Princes Street

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.