Scotland’s penal history is wrapped up in HMP Peterhead
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Closed in 2013 it’s been replaced by the new HMP Grampian, sited just up the road, and all that remains is a museum and the naval bell that once adorned it.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