ONE of the city’s iconic buildings, now the High Court of Glasgow, is a place full of grim memories.

The Justiciary Buildings were erected at the foot of Saltmarket around 1810 to 1814, to accommodate the city's courthouse, jail and municipal offices. Previously, for the last 200 years, these had been housed in the Tolbooth and town hall on Trongate.

William Stark, architect of Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum on High Street and Glasgow Lunatic Asylum, won the competition to design the city’s new offices. He based his design on the Parthenon in Greece.

Glasgow Times: Justiciary Buildings in 1821Justiciary Buildings in 1821 (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

To save money on the original plans, its great dome was sacrificed. However, the principal front, with its imposing elevation on the east side of the building, remained.  The City Archives hold the competition drawings, including for William’s Stark’s original design.

With its six fluted columns on the colossal steps, a screen of columns behind and the massive frieze covering the columns, it presented an admirable example of Grecian Doric, exhibiting nearly the proportions of the Parthenon.

In 1812, the doors were opened to the council chambers and the court offices. It took two further years for the prison at Jail Square, as it was known, to be opened. This was a year after the death of its architect Stark.

The new jail included 122 ‘apartments’ for prisoners, one half being for debtors, and the other for criminals. This included cells for prisoners condemned to death. The premises also included a chapel for 200 persons.

Glasgow Times: The High Court buildings in 1909The High Court buildings in 1909 (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

Thirty-five prisoners were transferred from the old jail. Prisoner numbers rose within a few years and on one day there were one hundred and fifty-eight prisoners, fifty-eight of whom were debtors.

The new justiciary and municipal buildings served their purpose well, but for only twenty years. The city had grown to such an extent the municipal functions had to be transferred to new premises.

This led in 1836 to the separation of the municipal and judicial administration of the city. The newly appointed courthouse commissioners took charge of the courts.

It was the commissioners who were responsible for providing appropriate accommodation for the council and for the Sheriff and Justice of Peace Courts.

From 1844 the council occupied new premises in the newly constructed County Buildings in Wilson Street while the premises in Saltmarket were reserved for the justiciary courts and the jail, which were altered in 1845.

The Cross or Tolbooth steeple had been the place for public hangings from  1788 until 1813.  In 1814 the first hanging took place at the front of the Justiciary Building, the last in 1841.

The open area in front of the building was used as the site of public executions.  The scaffold was often erected between the Grecian columns on Jail Square. This gave rise to the old Glasgow warning ‘you'll die facing the monument’ as prisoners were hanged facing the Nelson Monument on Glasgow Green.

Glasgow Times: South Prison inner courtyardSouth Prison inner courtyard (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

Sixty-four executions took place at the judiciary buildings. About ten of these were murderers, with many others hanged for robbery, assault and robbery, housebreaking, and theft.  One was James Wilson, a weaver, who was hanged and beheaded for high treason.

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Three or four of these were women, one of whom was hanged for assault and robbery. The other two were hanged for murder.

The bodies of executed convicts were returned to the building and buried in its central courtyard, under flagstones bearing only the initials and the date of execution of each man or woman.

Around 1910 the interior was comprehensively redesigned to contain solely court rooms. Fortunately, the very fine elevation to Glasgow Green was preserved.

The old prison, with its terrible history, and the courtyard where the bodies of executed prisoners were buried, was removed. What remains still existed were exhumed and re-interred in one of Glasgow’s cemeteries.

The next time you are passing the grand justiciary building, perhaps give a thought to some of the terrible events which took place there….