It's been known by many names The Bar-L, Bar Hell, Glasgow's Alcatraz, the Big Hoose, or simply HMP Barlinnie. Listen to the newest episode of our crime podcast about the "iconic penal institution". 



Over the past 140 years, hundreds of thousands of offenders from shoplifters to serial killers have been incarcerated within its walls.

Previous occupants of this famous imposing Victorian landmark include political activist Tommy Sheridan, ex-Rangers striker Duncan Ferguson, former world boxing champion Scott Harrison and Dragons' Den star Duncan Bannatyne.

Scotland's biggest jail situated in the Riddrie area of the city hasn't changed much since Queen Victoria was on the throne.

The prison houses men who are awaiting trial on charges as serious as murder and convicted inmates who are serving less than four years. 

A reputation as tough as San Francisco's notorious former Alcatraz prison, it has never been far from controversy and notoriety.

Barlinnie's most high-profile prisoner was the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi. 

It's most infamous was serial killer Peter Manuel, from the village of Birkenshaw in Lanarkshire, executed 64 years ago for the murders of seven people.

Notorious gangland figures Arthur Thompson, Paul Ferris, and Walter Norval, have all spent time behind the jail's intimidating blackened sandstone facade.

After years of neglect, it is expected to finally close its doors in 2026, once a new £300 million replacement is completed.

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Barlinnie was designed by Major General Thomas Bernard Collinson, architect and engineer to the Scottish Prison Department, and it was built in the then rural area of Riddrie.

It was hailed as a revolution in prisoner rehabilitation when it was opened in 1882.

Inmates were given their own cells for the first time and offered classes in baking, blacksmithing and shoemaking.

However, in May, 2020, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben said the jail was "no longer fit for purpose" after discovering rats in the grounds and cells which had been condemned 25 years ago.

Just as shocking was the 1,489 inmates she found incarcerated, almost 50 percent more than Barlinnie was designed to hold.

In 2017 it featured in a grim documentary by former EastEnders star Ross Kemp, who having spent a week inside one of its cells, said: "It's a tough place. It's a violent place. People have been killed in there."

One of the first inmates in the shiny new jail 138 years ago was 11-year-old schoolboy James Donaghy.

Another early prisoner was petty thief Adam Sloan who at 7ft 7in is Barlinnie's tallest ever prisoner.

The jail's first celebrity inmate was Charging Thunder, a Native American and star of legendary Buffalo Bill's popular Wild West Show.

Thunder was given 30 days in 1891 after attacking the show's manager for selling valuable artifacts to the Kelvingrove Museum.

Former Dragons' Den star Duncan Bannatyne was given ten days in the 1970s for failure to pay a £10 court fine.

Duncan Ferguson, who went on to play for Everton and Newcastle, served 44 days of a three-month sentence for headbutting a Raith Rovers player in 1994.

In 2011, ex-Scottish Socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan was sent to the Barlinnie to serve a three-year term for perjury.

Former world featherweight boxing champion Scott Harrison was the prison's most recent high-profile resident.

He was released in June 2018 having completed a four-year term imposed in Spain for attacking three men in Malaga.

The first person to make a successful escape from Barlinnie was armed robber John Dobbie who fled in a prison laundry van in 1985 only to be recaptured five days later.

However, in its 140 year history Barlinnie has never had a female prisoner.

Author and former Herald & Times group managing editor Bob Jeffrey wrote a best seller on Barlinnie eleven years ago.

He says the jail should be turned into a museum and believes it could become a money-spinning tourist attraction like Alcatraz.

Bob added: "I've been to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay and it attracts 1.4million visitors a year.

"There is no reason why Barlinnie couldn't be just as successful.

"People would love to see the cells where all the famous prisoners were kept as they can at Alcatraz.

"In many ways, Barlinnie is just as famous as Edinburgh Castle with the same fascinating history.

"You could also use former prisoners too show visitors round as they do at Alcatraz."

A total of 10 hangings took place at HMP Barlinnie between 1947 and 1960, 

Before then executions were carried out at nearby Duke Street Prison before the abolition of capital punishment in 1969.

John Lyon, 21, was the first to die in Barlinnie on February 8, 1946, for a gang related killing, while 39-year-old Patrick Carraher, was hanged four weeks later after being found guilty of brutally murdering a young soldier.

The famous executioners of the time, Thomas Pierrepoint, his son Albert Pierrepoint and Harry Allen all travelled from England to carry them out.

Each of the ten condemned men had been convicted of murder. All the executions took place at 8am. 

As was the custom, the remains of all executed prisoners became the property of the state and were therefore buried in unmarked graves within the walls of the prison.  

Family and friends were unable ever to visit the plots or pay their respects.

In 1997 the old execution chamber in D Hall was dismantled as part of renovation work.

The remains of all the executed prisoners were exhumed for the first time then reburied elsewhere on the grounds. 

They will be exhumed and reinterred for a second time before the jail is finally demolished.

The last man hanged at Barlinnie was 19-year-old first offender Anthony Miller, who died on December 22, 1960 for killing a gay man in a robbery, despite a 30,000-name petition appealing for clemency.

On the day off his execution two grim-faced prison officers entered the sparsely furnished cell where he had spent his last night.

They led the terrified teenager to a room next door where leather straps were quickly tied to his body.

There Britain’s' then Chief Executioner Harry Allen covered Miller's head with a black cloth bag and placed a noose around his neck.

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A trapdoor beneath his feet was opened with a lever and the youth fell to his death.

Tony Miller's final last plaintive words to Yorkshireman Allen were reputedly - 'Please, mister!' - before he was left dangling at the end of a rope.

Outside the prison at the time were some police officers, a handful of pressmen waiting for the official announcement and some curious passers-by.

A month earlier, in November 1960, Miller had been convicted of the murder of a gay man in Queens Park in the city's south side.

His lawyer Len Murray had only practiced for three years but Miller was already his second capital murder client.

Mr Murray retired in 2003 after a glittering career as a criminal lawyer spanning six decades.

He told the Glasgow Times: "The Miller case took up four months of my life from the day I received a phone call from his father asking me to represent his son.

"On the day of his execution death, I was in my office in West Campbell Street as I didn't want to be at home.

"It may sound daft, but I was sitting there praying for that boy.

"Emotionally Tony Miller's case taxed me more than any other in a 50-year legal career.

"I never took a capital murder case after that."

Miller's execution three days before Christmas marked the beginning of the end for capital punishment.

Peter Manuel was executed on July 11, 1958, the second last person to be hanged there.

His death brought to an end a two-year killing spree that had horrified Scotland.

Manuel was said to be responsible for as many as nine murders between 1956 and 1958, which left people of all ages, particularly young women, in fear of their lives.

At his trial at the High Court in Glasgow in May 1958, he was convicted of seven killings – the Watt family, in Burnside near Glasgow; the Smart family, in Uddingston, Lanarkshire, and Mount Vernon teenager Isabelle Cooke.

After a last supper of fish, chips, tomatoes and tea, Manuel, then 31, swigged brandy and stepped up to the noose. 

Turning to the hangman, he was said to have quipped: 'Turn up the radio and I'll go quietly.' 

They did and he met his end to the strains of the song Tea For Two.

Frank McKue served as a death watch officer, whose role was to sit with the condemned prisoner at all times. 

They would share cups of tea, play games of draughts and talk about everything apart from the upcoming execution.

A lifelong advocate of capital punishment, Mr McKue, who died in 2008, said:"To sit with a guy who is going to be hanged in the morning is quite an experience. 

"You're saying cheerio to someone who you know won't ever be coming back. That sort of thing didn't bother me, though - I never lost any sleep over it."

In 1972 Barlinnie found a more humane way of dealing with Scotland's hard men by opening its controversial Special Unit.

For the first time prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes, listen to music in their cells, and have open visiting.

Attempts were made to rehabilitate and humanise them through art, literature, and drama until the unit closed in 1994.

It's most famous and successful member was murderer turned sculptor and novelist Jimmy Boyle.

Boyle, who was jailed for life in 1967 for murdering William 'Babs' Rooney, had previously attacked prison officers and staged dirty protests at various jails across Scotland.

His subsequent rehabilitation – from violent gangster to cultured artist – aroused controversy at the time and even to this day.

Boyle discovered a talent for sculpture and designed the largest concrete sculpture in Europe called “Gulliver” for the Craigmillar Festival Society in 1976. 

In 1977 he published his autobiography, A Sense of Freedom, while behind bars which was turned into a movie starring David Hayman as the killer turned artist.

It became a bestseller and told of his life of crime, murder conviction, and eventual rehabilitation in the Special Unit.

In 1980 while still in prison, he married public school educated psychiatrist Sarah Trevelyan who had visited him in the Special Unit after reading his book.

Her father John Trevelyan was secretary of the British Board of Film Censors, a pillar of the British establishment.

Since his release in 1982 he has become a successful commercial artist and property developer and now lives in Morocco.

Despite the success of the unit tensions rose in Barlinnie in the late 1980s over claims of brutality by prison officers, overcrowding, and poor food.

On Sunday, January 6, 1987, fifty prisoners from "B" hall staged a riot in which large sections of the jail were destroyed or set on fire and three prison officers taken hostage.

In shocking scenes shown across the world one prison officer warder was paraded on the prison roof with a knife held to his throat, screaming: "They are going to kill me." 

One enduring image was of two rioters standing on chimney pots with their arms outstretched in a crucifix pose.

 Outside, one protester's wife turned up with a baby in a pushchair and shouted: "Please come down. Ronnie, I love you. You are going to get hell. Think of the weans." He shouted back: "Don't worry about me. Worry about the weans." 

When negotiators ended Scotland's longest prison siege after five days, people wondered at the fact no one had died or been seriously hurt.

The riot led to a more relaxed regime with prisoners eventually allowed TV's in their cells and access to telephones.

Even the notorious practice of slopping out, which caused much resentment, was eventually banned.

Glaswegian Charles Campbell worked for 15 years as a prison officer at Barlinnie before retiring on ill health in 2004.

Charles, now 63, had previously served for ten years in the Queens Own Highlanders in trouble spots like Northern Ireland and the Falklands.

One thing that the army didn't prepare him for was the overpowering smell that pervaded Barlinnie at the time, particularly during slopping out.

Charles said:" Even though I've been retired now for 16 years I can still feel and taste that smell.

"Every morning at 6.15am you had 300 men standing with plastic containers of urine and excrement from the night before.

"It was degrading for both them and the staff and the stink was unimaginable.

"Even when I left in 2004 most of the prison was still slopping out as very few of the cells had flushing toilets.

"Any time I brought visitors to Barlinnie the first thing they would always notice was the smell left by the slopping out."

Charles says that many of the prisoners would wrap their excrement in toilet paper and then throw it out of their cell window into the exercise yard - called bombs.

Teams of prisoners then had to be sent out each day to clear the mess up.

In 2001 Barlinnie was back on the world's stage with the arrival by helicopter of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, convicted of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, which killed 270 people.

Megrahi was provided with a £1.5million purpose-built cell, dubbed Gaddafi's Café situated in the former specula unit.

It has a private toilet and shower, a TV, kitchen facilities for the Libyan to cook his own halal meals.

There was also an exercise area and a room where Megrahi coud be visited by human rights officials to make sure he was being treated fairly. 

The cost at the time of keeping him in solitary confinement was thought to be around £100,000 a year. 

That compared to the £18,000 annual cost for a regular prisoner at Barlinnie.

In 2002 Megrahi was visited by Nelson Mandela who called for a fresh review of his conviction and for him to serve his sentence in a Libyan prison.

Mandela himself spent 18 of his 27 years in jail on Robben Island after being locked up by the South Africa's apartheid government. 

What he thought of the conditions at Barlinnie compared to Robben Island is not known.

However, he did describe Megrahi's imprisonment in Barlinnie as psychological persecution 

Megrahi was later moved to Greenock prison in 2005, before being sent home to Libya in 2009 on compassionate grounds with terminal cancer.

Today Barlinnie is the largest prison in Scotland, holding well over 1,000 prisoners although it has a design capacity of 987.

There is also a hospital unit with accommodation for 18 prisoners

However, Barlinnie like many of its inmates is living on borrowed time.

In 2019, it was announced that the hail was about to close as it was no longer considered fit for purpose.

Averaging 8,000 new inmates a year it was taking far more prisoners than it was originally designed for. 

Permission was granted by Glasgow City Council in 2000 for a brand-new prison for 1200 inmates near the famous Provan Gas Works in neighbouring Blackhill.

It will hold up to 1,500 of the country's most dangerous criminals and will be far removed from the current Victorian jail.

There will be ensuite rooms, football pitches, tree lined paths, a cycle track and classes in astronomy. 

Though twice the size of Barlinnie, it will hold a similar number of inmates. 

Mr Jeffrey concluded: "The people who built Barlinnie were early pioneers of penal reform and better conditions for prisoners.

"The prison is a vital part of Glasgow, and it would be sad to see it demolished.

"Even in the new prison there should be some form of museum to preserve the remarkable history of this iconic penal institution."