Written by Daniel Sharp
Edinburgh Castle stands on high, overlooking Scotland’s capital. It is an impressive sight – it may be small, yet it is also beautiful, especially when lit up at night, and provides a scene that many photographers love to snap. It is a famous tourist spot, its deep history drawing in visitors from all over the world. Some of the historical facts are widely known. It was where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future James VI and I of Scotland and England, and it houses the famous Stone of Destiny, which was an important feature in Scottish royal coronations for centuries.
However, if one considers it for a second, the Castle is also intimidating. On top of that indomitable rock it sits, glaring down on the city below. One can imagine being led there by soldiers, and being imprisoned in its dank vaults. This was an experience faced by many over the course of history – the Castle was used as a military base and prison for enemies captured in war for many years. Here, I want to look at a particular period in the Castle’s rich history as a place of imprisonment: that of the Napoleonic era, explored wonderfully by Ian MacDougall in All Men Are Brethren: Prisoners of War in Scotland, 1803-1814 (2008). This is, unfortunately, one of the very few books on the subject for those, like myself, whose interest is piqued by this aspect of the Castle’s history.
In the eighteenth century, the Castle was used as a prison for the many wars fought by Britain, and indeed was used in the French Revolutionary Wars, immediately preceding the Napoleonic conflagration. When a brief peace was agreed between Britain and France in 1802, ending the conflict which began in 1793 between the two nations, the prisoners in the Castle were repatriated. In 1803 however, the Napoleonic Wars broke out, and space for prisoners of war had to be found again.
Until 1810, there was only one depot for such prisoners in Scotland, when ‘new arrangements’ (as an Admiralty letter in 1810 put it) had to be made, owing to increased quantities of prisoners requiring detention. Between 1810 and 1814 there were to be several new sites of imprisonment, including Edinburgh Castle. The Castle was initially used only as an overnight temporary holding area for prisoners being transferred to the main depots, or as a place of punishment, where prisoners who had misbehaved badly were sent for confinement. It initially was not used as a prison. This was to change however in March 1811, when an escape crisis at the Esk Mills depot led to its closure, and 450 of its prisoners were transferred for permanent internment in the Castle.
Alas, this was not to last for very long. On 12 April 1811, approximately 50 prisoners escaped, using rope to climb down the Castle Rock through a hole they had cut in the parapet wall. It was the largest mass escape of Napoleonic War prisoners in Britain, and some made it as far as Polmont, Falkirk. In the end, all were recaptured. However, at the end of April, there was another escape.
The Castle’s aura of indomitability was somewhat undermined. Malcolm Wright – the Transport Board’s liaison – was replaced, (although he would later be reinstated). More escapes on 14 July – Bastille Day – spelled the end of the Castle’s use as a permanent prison. In August, most of the prisoners were transferred to the Greenlaw depot in Glencorse, and the Castle once more became a place of punishment for unruly prisoners.
By December, the Castle’s status as a prison had very much ceased to exist. After yet another escape on the night of the 18-19 December (in which one prisoner, Jean Baptiste Zoutin, was not recaptured) it was barely used. By the time of Napoleon’s first defeat in 1814, there were no prisoners held there, although cannonade was fired in celebration of the victory. After the Battle of Waterloo (1815), no prisoners of war were interned in Scotland at all.
So much for the brief, (if chequered), history of the Castle as a prison; what of the lives of the prisoners, whether temporarily or permanently detained there? For a start, the prisoners were a multinational group. The majority of the people detained in Scotland were French, but, in testament to the vast geographical range of the Wars, prisoners from areas such as Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and places even further afield, such as the Americas, were kept in the Castle.
Although there were female prisoners in Scotland, none were kept in the Castle. However, there was some diversity in the Castle’s prison population. At least two black privateer seamen, Jacob Smatt and Abraham Daniel Levie, were confined there. In 1813, Levie volunteered to join the British Navy and was released from the Castle.
There are a number of interesting episodes of prison life from Edinburgh Castle. A 20-year old lieutenant was killed in what was possibly a duel with another prisoner in 1811, and there is a slight possibility that one prisoner (bigamously) married a Scotswoman whilst imprisoned! The prisoners passed time in various ways, one of which was crafting products to be sold at markets, which were erected in the Castle for the public to peruse. Boredom remained a danger, however.
The Castle was rumoured to be a potential place of exile for Napoleon, following his final defeat in 1815. However, the Castle was actually not used again as a prison for captured enemies, although it was considered to be used as such during the Second World War. It remained a military base, and was the headquarter of Scottish Command until 1955. Now, of course, it is solely a tourist spot.
This has been a brief survey of the history of Napoleonic prisoners in Edinburgh Castle, and I heartily recommend turning to MacDougall’s book for more. It is important to remember all aspects of the past, including the less glorious ones. In this spirit, I shall quote the words of Lieutenant Marote, who passed Edinburgh Castle on the way to imprisonment elsewhere:
“The sight of Edinburgh Castle, which rose above us and crowned the central hill frightened us. We knew that many Frenchmen had already been shut up there, and we were fearful that we would also be imprisoned within those thick black walls…”
Bibliographic note: All information and quotations about these prisoners of war mentioned in the essay are sourced from Ian MacDougall’s All Men Are Brethren.