Kenny Mcaskill

Scotland’s pe­nal his­tory is wrapped up in HMP Peter­head

The Scots Magazine - - Meet Your Writers - By KENNY MA­CASKILL

The for­mer Scot­tish Jus­tice Min­is­ter and MSP is an ex­pert on the Scot­tish di­as­pora and co-au­thor of the book Global Scots – Voices From Afar, which he wrote with friend and for­mer First Min­is­ter Henry Mcleish. This month, Kenny fo­cuses on the in­fa­mous Peter­head Pri­son, look­ing at those who worked there and those who served their time.

UP on the cold north-east shoul­der of Scotland, once stood Her Majesty’s Pri­son Peter­head – a ci­tadel in­spir­ing awe among many and fore­bod­ing among some. Through its gates passed many of Scotland’s most hard­ened crim­i­nals, as well as some of its fore­most Pri­son Gov­er­nors.

Closed in 2013 it’s been re­placed by the new HMP Grampian, sited just up the road, and all that re­mains is a mu­seum and the naval bell that once adorned it. It was a for­bid­ding place when I vis­ited it as Jus­tice Sec­re­tary and re­call­ing it still brings a slight shud­der.

How­ever, HMP Peter­head tells a tale not just of Scotland’s past pe­nal pol­icy but also holds the sto­ries of many of its most fa­mous pris­on­ers. Os­car Slater, vic­tim of a great mis­car­riage of jus­tice be­fore the First World War, John Mclean, revo­lu­tion­ary and anti-war ac­tivist, and Johnny Re­men­sky, safe-breaker freed to as­sist the Se­cond World War ef­fort – all spent con­sid­er­able pe­ri­ods of time in­car­cer­ated there.

More re­cently, it be­come in­fa­mous for a riot in 1988 that saw pri­son of­fi­cers held hostage and mil­i­tary spe­cial forces re­quired to free them.

It’s un­sur­pris­ing in many ways that it should have in­spired such awe within the pri­son ser­vice and such fear among pris­on­ers them­selves, as it was Scotland’s first con­vict pri­son.

It re­tained that aura through­out its ex­is­tence with in­mates be­ing the most se­ri­ous in the land.

Con­vict pris­ons came about in the se­cond half of the 19th cen­tury when trans­porta­tion to the colonies ceased. Up un­til then less se­ri­ous crim­i­nals were despatched to lo­cal in­sti­tu­tions of which Scotland had many, up to 170 at one time. Not sim­ply pris­ons in the ma­jor ur­ban cen­tres but even smaller towns the length and breadth of the land like Green­law, Camp­bell­town, Al­loa and Dornoch all had their own jails.

Many towns can ev­i­dence that through street names still stand­ing to­day, even if the pri­son has long since shut or been de­mol­ished.

More se­ri­ous crimes were dealt with if not by the death penalty, then by trans­porta­tion for seven or 15 years. Ini­tially that was to Amer­ica but in 1782 fol­low­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence that op­tion ceased. Ac­cord­ingly, Botany Bay in New South Wales be­came the des­ti­na­tion for pri­son hulks that sailed across the oceans car­ry­ing their mis­er­able hu­man cargo. How­ever, fledg­ling Aus­tralia also tired of be­ing a repos­i­tory for British crim­i­nals. An­other des­ti­na­tion

was needed and there­fore con­vict pris­ons opened in Eng­land for those who would pre­vi­ously have been despatched – most fa­mously per­haps Dart­moor, but there were many oth­ers in­clud­ing Chatham, Rochester, and Parkhurst. Though pris­on­ers avoided the dan­gers of the high seas and the ban­ish­ment to a for­eign soil, they were far from hol­i­day camps. Work was ex­pected from the pris­on­ers, hard and ar­du­ous labour from build­ing the in­sti­tu­tion to a daily grind there­after.

Fewer than 8000 Scots were ever trans­ported to Aus­tralia, though more had gone to Amer­ica be­fore, but as time passed and num­bers from north of the bor­der rose in the new con­vict pris­ons, so did a clam­our for a sim­i­lar Scot­tish in­sti­tu­tion. Not through al­tru­ism or a de­sire to lessen the bur­den on the English pri­son ser­vice, rather that Scotland was miss­ing out on its own free con­vict labour. The op­por­tu­nity to har­ness the unpaid work of over 600 Scot­tish pris­on­ers pro­vided mo­ti­va­tion for some politi­cians.

Hence, a com­mis­sion was es­tab­lished to de­cide what to do and where to place an in­sti­tu­tion. The “blue toon” of Peter­head was not the im­me­di­ate choice as wide con­sid­er­a­tion was given to op­tions, though a pref­er­ence was had for a North Sea port. In due course it nar­rowed down to ei­ther there or Mon­trose, and the Aberdeen­shire town fi­nally won.

In the mid-1880s, con­struc­tion com­menced with work ini­tially done by paid labour­ers but pretty soon there­after by the first batch of con­victs to ar­rive. Their task when it opened was to build the break­wa­ter which would be­come the har­bour, along with the rest of the in­tim­i­dat­ing in­sti­tu­tion to hold them. Num­bers were at first just over 100 but soon rose to the nor­mal ca­pac­ity of 350, with a peak of 450 reached in 1911.

Gran­ite for the port and pri­son was hewn from a quarry at nearby Bod­dam, and a small rail­way line was even con­structed to take the pris­on­ers to and from their place of toil. That part of the coun­try can be a cold and bit­ter place in win­ter and con­di­tions for con­victs 


was a for­bid­ding place when I vis­ited as Jus­tice Sec­re­tary

were aus­tere and se­vere be­yond the cli­mate to be faced and also in the con­di­tions to be en­dured.

With its ad­mi­ralty her­itage warders ini­tially wore cut­lasses, re­sult­ing in an early rule that con­victs couldn’t ap­proach a warder closer than a cut­lass length. How­ever, as cut­lasses were dis­pensed with, warders rode the trains and pa­trolled the quarry armed with ri­fles. That con­tin­ued with­out ma­jor in­ci­dent up un­til 1933 when an of­fi­cer dis­charged a gun ac­ci­dently, even wound­ing him­self, so the prac­tice ceased. To be­gin with warders were re­cruited from the mil­i­tary but in due course work­ing in the pri­son be­came a main­stay for the town. Sev­eral gen­er­a­tions could serve as of­fi­cers, as well as gov­er­nors, where a fa­ther and son ap­point­ment was achieved over the years.

While other com­mu­ni­ties railed against in­sti­tu­tions be­ing opened, Peter­head cam­paigned against theirs be­ing closed and it was a fac­tor in HMP Grampian be­ing sited there. That new in­sti­tu­tion is still a sad place as all pris­ons are but a vast im­prove­ment on its pre­de­ces­sor and cer­tainly bet­ter than be­ing bound for Botany Bay. Next month for­mer Jus­tice Min­is­ter Kenny Ma­caskill re­mem­bers Le­an­der Starr Jame­son – the in­fa­mous Scots colo­nial­ist who in­spired Rud­yard Ki­pling’s If

War­dens used to pa­trol with ri­fles

Ri­ots in the late 1980s

Trains to the quarry in 1950

In­side the pri­son in 2002

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