In 2019 National Records of Scotland (NRS) partnered with Professor Rab Houston of the University of St Andrews, to explore the records of those people committed to the Criminal Lunatic Department in Perth, and produced the Fringe Festival exhibition ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’. This exhibition focused on the records amassed in the prosecution and treatment of those classed as ‘prisoner-patients’, examining details of the crimes through the prisoner-patients’ own words, and the notes of doctors and prison officials as they attempted to help these men and women.

A mini-site created for the exhibition has now been expanded and published online. Through this site you can examine: the profiles for a selection of ‘prisoner-patients’; view records relating to their trials, treatment and, on occasion, release; listen to audio excerpts of prison officials’ notes, doctors’ examinations and criminal declarations; as well as download a portable version of the exhibition for educational purposes.

'Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland' exhibition site, front page. National Records of Scotland
‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’ exhibition site, front page. National Records of Scotland

How do we know what the prisoner-patients had done and why?

NRS holds a wealth of records relating to crime and criminals . Crown lawyers conducted investigations called ‘precognitions’ (generally found under the archive reference AD, records of the Lord Advocate’s Department) prior to trial, amassing evidence from anyone who knew of the offence and the accused. Records of the High Court of Justiciary (archive reference beginning JC), Scotland’s supreme criminal court, can include a copy of the indictment, which sets out charges against the accused, depositions, confessions and other information on the accused and the crime. NRS holds the prison records from the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) and earlier bodies which had responsibility for prisons, including the Prison Commissions for Scotland and the Scottish Office Home and Health Department. The main records are the prison registers (HH21) which generally note particulars of the trial and sentence for each inmate, as well as personal details such as place of birth, occupation, age, height and religion. A small number of these registers contain photographs of prisoners – this is where the majority of portraits for the prisoners-patients featured on the mini-site are located.

Photograph of Margaret Hunter taken from the Criminal Lunatic Department Case Book (Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, HH21/48/1 page 281)
Photograph of Margaret Hunter taken from the Criminal Lunatic Department Case Book (Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, HH21/48/1 page 281)

Beside these records, newspapers often relayed 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.

By examining the rich and varied history of the prisoner-patients, this site aims to raise awareness of mental disorders inside and outside of 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.

Jocelyn Grant


National Records of Scotland

Further Reading and Resources

If you, or somebody you know, would like mental health advice or support please see this list of available resources.

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