Postcard #1. Dungeons and Dragons

PRISONS OF WAR exhibition
Edinburgh Castle, October 2013

Like all good castles, Edinburgh Castle was also a prison, its vaults housing over 1000 prisoners most notably French prisoners during the Seven Years War.

Edinburgh Castle 1

A sensory re-enactment of prison life for French captives which features sights, sounds and smells (although clearly these have been toned down considerably to resemble a faint whiff of straw and manure similar to those piped in at The Canterbury Tales tour rather than the overpowering stench of stale sweat, urine, faeces and diseased rotting flesh that would have more likely pervaded the vaults). No doubt the hoards of American tourists usually visiting the castle were intended to provide an equivalent sense of overcrowding, claustrophobia and perpetual menace. It was raining when I visited and the tourists were mostly elsewhere making the exhibition seem more like a re-enactment of a 1990s backpacker hostel.

Edinburgh Castle 2
Timetables are quite important in prisons

Writing on Doors

An analysis of some of the more cryptic graffiti carved into prison doors.

Obviously carving into wood is easier than carving into stone but I wonder if there is a different logic at work in the messages and statements carved into doors to those carved into walls. Doors representing the possibility of the outside, walls symbolising imprisonment itself.

A selection of graffiti highlighted and then given a basic analysis:

Edinburgh Castle 5

Alternative economies

The complex issue of prison labour – both deemed necessary to the economy and a threat to it. This took the form of a series of hand carved items, made from bone and other materials easily obtained within the prison. A few such trinkets were on display in order that visitors could marvel in the intricate detail of such craftsmanship in a similar way to how contemporary prisoner artwork is viewed. At the same time, such constructive use of a prisoners time is balanced by the moralising tone of the display as it recounts how such work was eventually banned due to protests by local craftspeople that this was denying them their livelihood. Prison labour presented, as it continues to be, as a privilege not a right yet the same time, often providing the only means of survival within the carceral space.

More interestingly, perhaps, the same materials were also crafted into tools for producing forged coins and bank notes. The exhibition credits such forgeries with determining the look and make-up of today’s bank notes. After all, where there is resistance, there is power.

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