Scotland’s Gulag Peterheid Jail takes no prisoners

Scotland’s toughest jail – Peterhead or Peterheid as it is rightly known with emphasis on the heid more than Peter has its roots in the Blue Toon’s huge whaling and fishing industries which made the town into the largest fish market in Europe.

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When, in the 1880s, the Admiralty proposed a need for a harbour of refuge in the north of Scotland Peterhead bay, stuck out into the North Sea (German Ocean), and a thriving port to boot with stone quarries nearby came top of the list as the obvious choice. One potential setback was that the industrious and wealthy folk of Peterhead had no desire to do any backbreaking quarrying themselves so the question was posed where might they find a reservoir of labour in no position to turn down what amounted to very hard labour?

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We’ll build a prison, some bright spark suggested. And build a prison they did. Scotland’s hardest jail which housed the country’s biggest criminals, thugs and heidbangers was also conveniently distant from the foci of political agitation and so came to house Sinn Feiners, socialists, communists and anarchists in the earlier twentieth century. Peterhead, Scotland’s Gulag claimed those who regarded anywhere north of Perth as close to the Arctic Circle.

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In 1889 Peterhead Prison opened in the Blue Toon and construction of the new harbour began, along with roads and a railway running between the prison, the local quarries and harbour. Seven days a week convicts were wakened around 5am, given breakfast then transported, still shackled, on their own dedicated trains. They sat in windowless compartments, around 100 at a time, for the short journey to the main quarry at Stirling Hill, along with equipment, sledgehammers and such used to smash stone. Granite, sand and gravel were transported in the opposite direction – to the harbour where other men were employed in building the new safe harbour. The Peterhead Prison railway became Britain’s first state owned passenger railway.

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Wagon from one of Peterhead prison’s railway stock

This project was unique and an immense undertaking which accounts for the seventy years it took to complete the north breakwater. By that time Peterhead jail was a fixture in the town. That original prison, or part of it, exists today as a museum – and what a fascinating place it is. There is still an active prison in the town, housing women as well as men; a modern facility with single en-suite accommodation, video-links home and gym featuring a glass wall facing the sea.   DSC02668

The old jail is well worth a visit. The buildings that have been turned into a museum retain something of the atmosphere of a prison without the stench not least because of a very good narrative provided via headphones.
Immediately striking is the size of old cells: 7 feet X 5 feet and 9 feet high – tiny spaces with a small window of reinforced opaque glass. A curious exception was made after the Great War when some English convicts were sent north for another construction venture, this time an aerodrome, and their cells were two knocked into one. Perhaps their conditions had to match English prison regulations but that’s just my speculation.

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As places within Scotland’s prisons grew scarce prisoners had to budge up and Peterhead suffered from overcrowding which must have made it difficult for inmates and warders trying to supervise out-of-cell activities such as washing and slopping out; the earliest prisoners would have been kept in manacles most of the time.
There was never a shortage of men to fill Peterhead’s cells; its initial intake arrived from Glasgow by special train called the Black Maria in 1889. The men, often violent and dangerous, soon found they were in for years of hard labour and regulars on the quarry trains, under the constant eyes of armed guards – for the men had to be unshackled to work and there was a great chance many would attempt to escape.

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The jail’s warders were at first armed with cutlasses and swords and later redundant rifles after the Great War. Prisoners were forbidden from getting any closer than an arm and cutlass distance from a warder or risk being slashed.

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Special cell to house vulnerable prisoners painted in soft colours with safety a priority

Cell doors all had ventilation flaps which must have done little to help the circulation of air in the stifling atmosphere crowded men who rarely washed.

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D-Hall

Cells were simply furnished and what was there had to be screwed down so not to become potential weapons. The first cells were lit by wee gas lights which were protected from inmates interfering with them and in early years beds were narrow hammocks.

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Doing porridge at Peterhead obviously included porridge for breakfast as well as traditional Scotch broth, a lot of bread, tatties and herring in season. We all know that when we are hungry, bored or stressed our thoughts often focus hugely on food and with so it was at Peterhead where protests often centred on what was on the menu.

Red Clydesider John MacLean described his time at Peterhead – prisoners were awakened each morning when the 5am bell was rung. They made their beds and washed then took their breakfast which consisted of a substantial bowl of porridge made from half a pound of meal and three quarters pint of skimmed milk. They were then let out of their cells and searched before boarding the quarry train or to the harbour for its construction. Back to the prison then at 11.30am for dinner of broth, beef and tatties, maybe cheese, bread and marg. After more hard labour they returned to jail at 5.30 for supper of nearly a pound hunk of loaf and pint of coffee. Lights out was at 8.30pm.

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Being incarcerated in Peterhead must have been horrific and there are always vulnerable people who slip into situations that lead to imprisonment – people who shouldn’t be jailed but treated but there are others who are just plain bad (I’m not a psychoanalyst you’ll have noticed.) For the early prisoners carrying out hard labour in the granite quarry life must have been truly horrendous. Because they could move around in the open air they were tightly guarded by armed warders. At least one prisoner was shot attempting to escape from the quarry. The work itself was backbreaking and carried on seven days a week. For some that was enough to destroy their health.

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A gang feud ends in violence

I mentioned prisoners working in the quarry were unshackled from necessity but normally prisoners were kept in chain in their cells until the 1930s. You’d have thought there was little opportunity for prisoners to cause problems for the warders but certainly they did with punishments meted out including the car o’ nine tails. Prisoners were secured to a frame and the lash applied to their backs. DSC02672

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Prisoners were secured to this frame to receive whipping from the cat o’ nine tails

Peterhead prison had became Scotland’s main convict jail because of its remoteness from its main catchment, Glasgow. The notorious gangster T. C. Campbell complained it was responsible for ruining his family life as it took such a long time to drive from Glasgow to Peterhead in the days before there was a motorway even to Aberdeen. I should point out there is still no motorway to Aberdeen from the south OR the north. Motorways in Scotland stop at Perth but that doesn’t stop criminals continuing to come north to deal drugs or commit robberies.

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Isolation cell, soundproofed and dark to deprive a prisoner on punishment of all sensory stimulus. The bed is a concrete slab.

The well-equipped laundry which existed towards the latter years of the prison provided a service very different from those early years when underwear was changed once a fortnight. Prisoners’ uniforms differed over the years but heavy moleskin featured a fair amount throughout.

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Dirty protests in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s

Peterhead had a number of small exercise yards all with locked doors – obviously and one of those yards was made into an aviary by Peterhead’s equivalent of the Birdman of Alcatraz. Patiently day after day he surreptitiously snipped through its chain link fence until he was able to squeeze through, climb out and up and make his way across roofs, over the perimeter wall and away under cover of darkness but he injured himself in the process and was soon recaptured.

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Another story told at the museum is of a prisoner who missed the train back from the quarry and was found making his way back to the prison along its railway line but anyone thinking of escapes from Peterheid will immediately recall Johnny Ramensky.
Ramensky was a Scottish career criminal specialised in safe-blowing and became a long-term resident of prisons. Gentle Ramensky, as he was known, spent most of his life in prison – forty out of sixty-seven years. He made five escape attempts from Peterheid, none too successful but full marks for invention and determination. A book about him is on sale at the prison.

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All kinds of drugs find their way into prison

Ramensky’s skills were put to use for the war effort during WWII when he became a Royal Fusilier -in January 1943 (straight out of Peterhead.) He was transferred to the Commandos to teach them how to handle explosives.
He was also dropped by parachute behind enemy lines to carry out sabotage operations including blowing up German command safes holding military documents. Having a Lithuanian background he was also employed as a translator during the repatriation of Lithuathians from Germany.

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Another famous episode in the life of Peterhead jail was the D-Hall riot and siege in September 1987 when prison officer Jackie Stuart was beaten up and taken prisoner by inmates, tied him with ropes and forced onto the prison roof. This was a tense time for all concerned and after 5 days Thatcher sent in the SAS to end it.

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I urge you to get yourself along to Peterhead Prison aka Admiralty Gateway and experience life behind bars, if you haven’t already, for it is a different world in there.

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3 Comments to “Scotland’s Gulag Peterheid Jail takes no prisoners”

  1. Visited the Jail Museum today Sunday 32rd April 2017. We enjoyed the visit enormously and gave us an insite of what it would have been like to serve time in such a place.
    It felt very cold in places and the cell sizes would have been very cramped 3 to a cell.
    Not having any privacy to use the toilet would have taken a bit of getting used to.
    We could feel the presence of the prisoners in the atmosphere of the place. I would expect it to be very noisy place with cell doors being opened & closed & with the prisoners going about their daily life.
    If ever there was a way to keep you on the Straight & Narrow it’s this place !

  2. Really interesting, been waiting for your write up since I heard you had been there. Will definately pay a visit when next up. We can swap tales on my knowledge of Walton prison in Liverpool where I taught evening class for a while.

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