The National Archives of Scotland Home
A-Z Help Site search
You are in: NAS> About us> News and features>Saughton Prison records
Saturday 1 October 2016

Feature: NAS gets behind bars

It isn't every day that staff from the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) end up in prison, but the discovery of historical records at Edinburgh's Saughton Prison meant that one member of Government Records Branch staff recently spent some time 'on the inside'!

The records which were investigated have now been transferred to the NAS, and can be consulted in our Historical Search Rooms. They cover the period from the opening of the prison to more recent years and include registers of prisoners from 1922, registers of punishments, which give details of offences committed by prisoners while serving their sentences (including attempted escapes), and Governor's Journals, which note important daily events. Full details of all of these records can be seen on our online public access catalogue.

Interior of Saughton Prison, Edinburgh
© Scottish Prison Service

The discovery means that the NAS now holds records from all of Edinburgh's main historical prisons - the old Tolbooth, the Calton Jail, and HMP Edinburgh, Saughton. Our records of prisoners in Edinburgh start from 1657 with the Tolbooth Warding and Liberation Books, and now continue (with some gaps) into the late twentieth century. Registers of prisoners are a rich source for family or social historians and other researchers as they supply details about people, many of whom leave little or no trace in other official records. For more information about prison records, see our research guide on Crime and Criminals.

Edinburgh (Saughton) Prison register, 1939-1944, NAS ref. HH21/71/5
Edinburgh (Saughton) Prison register, 1939-1944

The 'new' prison at Saughton was built to replace the outdated accommodation at the Calton Jail, now long since demolished. Construction began in 1914, and owing to labour shortages during the First World War much of the building work was carried out by the prisoners themselves. From as early as 1916 many prisoners lived and worked on-site at Saughton from Monday to Saturday, only returning to the Calton Jail at the weekend. By 1925 all prisoners had been transferred from Calton, which was officially closed the following year. The new prison was seen as a great improvement, and one local newspaper commented favourably on its relatively rural setting, with prisoners able to work in the fields and gardens.

Architectural elevation and section of Edinburgh County Prison, 1840, NAS ref. RHP21441
Architectural elevation and section of Edinburgh County Prison, 1840

Since it opened, Saughton prison has seen many thousands of inmates pass through its doors, including many famous and infamous characters. One of the more unusual prisoners to have lodged there was a young Eduardo Paolozzi, who in later life became one of Scotland's most famous artists and gained the title of Her Majesty's Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland. Evidence of Paolozzi's spell in Saughton is revealed in the prison register for the early years of World War Two when he and many other Italians were interned there.

Paolozzi was just 16, and worked as an assistant in his father's confectionery shop in Leith, when Italy declared war against Britain on 10th June 1940. That night most Italian men in Britain, including Paolozzi, were rounded up by the police and detained under emergency powers which permitted the internment of anyone of 'hostile origin'. Many internees were held in camps on the Isle of Man, or shipped to Canada and Australia. Over time, they were gradually released once the authorities were certain that they were not a risk, though some were held for years. The register shows that Paolozzi spent three months in Saughton, before being released and returning to Leith. Tragically, while he was in prison, his father, grandfather and uncle, who had also been detained, were among the 446 Italians who drowned when the ship carrying them to Canada, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat. After the War, Paolozzi's international reputation and influence as an artist and sculptor grew rapidly. Amongst other official honours, he received a knighthood in 1989, before dying in 2005 aged 81.

Entry for Eduardo Paolozzi in Edinburgh (Saughton) Prison register, 1940, NAS ref. HH21/71/5
Entry for Eduardo Paolozzi in Edinburgh (Saughton) Prison register, 1940

Another unusual wartime resident was the notable academic and Scottish National Party (SNP) member Douglas Cuthbert Colquhoun Young. The SNP opposed conscription, unless implemented by a Scottish government, and Young was twice imprisoned at Saughton because he refused either to register for military service or as a conscientious objector. He served a nine month sentence between July 1942 and March 1943, and a further two months in 1944, apparently spending as much time as possible reading Greek in his cell. Brief details of his incarceration are recorded in the prison registers, but a much fuller picture of his prison experience can be found in the series of individual prisoners' case files (HH16) which have survived for notable prisoners. Young's two case files (HH16/253/1-2) show that he was concerned that he be permitted to continue working while in prison - for instance, requesting that he be allowed extra electric light and a typewriter. He also believed that prisoners were not receiving their allotted rations, for example complaining about the duffs (steamed or boiled flour puddings) which 'have their raisins few and far between & are soggy & unpalatable'. After the War, Young resumed his academic career and finally became professor of Greek at the University of North Carolina. When he died, in 1973, he was also well known as a translator and promoter of Scottish poetry.

Privacy statement | Terms of use | Using our site | Contact us | Complaints procedure | Copyright | Back to top
Page last updated: Wednesday 16 January 2008

The National Archives of Scotland, H.M. General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3YY; tel +44 (0) 131 535 1314; email: