Very few prisons have gained such notoriety as Barlinnie has in its long and murky history. The Maze in Northern Ireland, Alcatraz in San Francisco, possibly the Bangkok Hilton and a few others have reached similar infamy. (Almost all of the others mentioned are now decommissioned.)

It’s reasons like this that causes the monolithic HMP Barlinnie, to stand out, towering way above them all.

Here are a few things you might not know about Big Bad “Bar L”.


1. It’s Really Old

One of the oldest functioning prisons in the world, Barlinnie first started welcoming its incarcerated guests in 1882. Meaning the longstanding Victorian building has been holding ne’r’do’wells for 132 years.

2. A Den for a Dragon

Ex Dragon’s Den, millionaire entrepreneur, Duncan Bannatyne, in his youth, once spent 10 days in “Bar L” for refusing to pay a £10 pound fine. It’s unclear whether, upon leaving, after his short stretch in custody uttered the phrase “I’m out” to the other prisoners.

3. Worldwide Headlines

5th of January to the 10th of January 1987, will be forever etched in the minds of people who watched the unbelievable events unfold on the roof of Barlinnie Prison. What seemed like a report of several unconnected incidents quickly mushroomed into the longest siege in Scottish Penal History. Remarkably five staff were taken hostage but eventually let go with little or no harm. The riot made worldwide news.

4. Pioneers

From 1973 until it closed in 1993 the prison had the “Special Unit” for the worst and most violent offenders in the prison. Although portrayed as a 5 star luxurious getaway, the prison simply treated the most dangerous criminals less like dogs and more like humans, offering them opportunities to draw, learn and attempt to rehabilitate themselves. It proved relatively successful as convicted murderer, Jimmy Boyle is now an internationally revered author, sculptor and artist.

5. Hang Them High

Not everyone went to Barlinnie to serve a prison sentence. Between the years of 1947 and 1960, 10 people were hanged. Including one of Scotland’s most notorious serial killers, Peter Manuel aka The Beast of Birkenshaw. For two years he terrorised the Scottish Central Belt killing 7 people, and strong suspicions of murdering two more.

6. The Great Escape

The first prisoner to successfully escape from Barlinnie was in 1985, more than 100 years after it opened its doors. Fohn Dobbie, escaped via laundry van three days into his 15 year sentence for violent robbery. He was captured five days later by armed police, his sentence was topped up by another five years.

7. Special Visitor

In 2002 one of the world’s most charismatic and revered leaders, ex South African President, Nelson Mandela, visited Barlinnie to speak to Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, otherwise known as the Lockerbie Bomber, and to help secure his release for wrongful imprisonment.

8. Gaddafi Cafe

Whilst Megrahi was locked up he was provided with extra amenities, and a purpose built cell that other inmates dubbed Gaddafi’s Cafe, in it there was a personal cooker, toilet, shower and TV. It was also situated in the area where the previously mentioned special unit previously occupied.

9. Strict Rules

It is alleged that inmates are under strict supervision and even have to sign razors in and out if they wish to shave.

10. Days are Numbered

It is thought that Barlinnie could be facing decommissioning by 2020, and better custom fit jails built nearby. Ex Governer of Barlinnie Derek McGill said in a 2012 Daily Record interview he had hopes that the infamous prison would follow Alcatraz’s lead and be developed into a fully fledged tourist attraction.

11. Infamous Inmates

Barlinnie has seen witnessed a few well known faces spend time inside the epic Victorian building. Tommy Sheridan, Duncan Ferguson, Paul Ferris, and Stephen Gough (The Naked Rambler) amongst others, have graced Bar L with their presence.