About Peterhead Prison Museum
Peterhead may not be the first town in Scotland you think of as a tourist destination. It is probably better known as one of the busiest fishing ports in Europe and home to one of the most notorious prisons in the country.
When the Victorian built HMP Peterhead finally closed in 2013 to be replaced by the modern facilities of HMP Grampian, it was a stroke of genius to turn the old jail into a museum and open up Scotland's own version of Alactraz to the public. An institution that put Peterhead on the map for all the wrong reasons is now becoming one of its biggest tourism assets.
Some might call it dark tourism but the history of Peterhead Prison is just as valid and relevant as any Scottish castle or stately home.
For most people that have never spent time in a jail, there is a natural curiosity to find out what goes on behind the barbed-wire fences and the steel barred windows. As a tourist attraction it has to be the most unique place I've visited in Scotland.
Like many people, the images of prison guard, Jackie Stuart, being taken hostage and paraded on the rooftop during an infamous riot in 1987, will always be etched in my mind. As I walked out the reception and entered the grounds, I was immediately confronted with the intimidating prison building and protest banners iconically associated with the riot.
Although it only opened last year, Peterhead Prison Museum has already gained hundreds of five star reviews and was highly recommended to me before my recent trip to Aberdeenshire, even my Airbnb host rated it as his top thing to do in the area meaning it quickly headed to the top of my must visit list.
I should say this was not my first visit to a prison as my previous career provided me glimpses inside other notorious Scottish jails including Barlinnie in Glasgow. I also toured Alcatraz when I was in San Francisco so I already had an idea of how grim the inside of Peterhead Prison might be. However, I wasn't prepared for how captivating and atmospheric the tour would be, thanks to a gripping audio narrative and some theatrical staging, the empty jail was brought to life. As I walked around I really felt like I was right there among the day to day commotion.
Peterhead Prison Tours
HMP Peterhead was originally opened in 1888 and at that time was Scotland's only convict prison, with the intention that inmates would be used as labour to help build Peterhead's harbour defences. Up until the point it closed in 2013, it had housed some of the hardest and most heinous criminals in the country including serial killers and notorious gangsters.
A tour around a place often referred to as "The Hate Factory" and "Scotland's Gulag" is never going to be a cheery one. However, it does provide a fascinating insight into over 100 years of crime and punishment in Scotland from Victorian times through to the 21st century.
The audio tour guides you around cells depicting various time periods of the prison's history and relates stories about some of the more notable incidents and prisoners. Much of the guide is narrated by the prison guards who share their own memories and this is what I enjoyed most. Real people telling real stories.
It's not just the cells that have been preserved, you can also explore places like the laundry room, shower block and solitary confinement area. You also learn more about various punishment techniques that were used over the years, some more harsh than others!
I found exploring behind the scenes fascinating, however it was some of the recalled incidents that really had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Prison guard Jackie Stuart relates his time as a hostage during the infamous October 1987 riot which started in Peterhead Prison's D-Hall and resulted in the inmates taking over the building. Some of the horrific things he endured over 5 days included being stabbed multiple times, having petrol put in his pockets and threatened to be set on fire, being deprived of food and water, beaten and paraded along the roof with a chair around his neck.
He had initially been taken hostage with another prison guard, Bill Florence, however he was released after a day due to his injuries.
The riot was ended when the SAS stormed the building, rescuing Jackie Stuart and taking control of the convicts. Amazingly Jackie only took 6 weeks off work and now aged 88 you might think that the last place he would want to spend his time is back at Peterhead Prison but you'd be wrong. Along with several other former guards, he now works in the museum, happily answering questions from visitors. When I was there it was certainly busy with people queuing up to talk to him, he's definitely a local legend!
Other areas that gave me the chills were the cells designed for suicidal prisoners and the suite that had been specially designed for a particularly manipulative inmate.
The whole complex has an eerie feeling and the tour doesn't hold back on how dark a place it could be for both prisoners and guards. I never thought I'd see the day I would be freely walking around the inside of one of Scotland's toughest prisons, let alone paying money for the pleasure! Peterhead Prison Museum is securing a reputation as a must visit Scottish attraction and that can only be a good thing for bringing some much needed tourism to the area.
It's a thought provoking place which brings something new to the chapters of Scottish history and personally I can't recommend it highly enough!
Useful tips for visiting Peterhead Prison Museum
Some local trivia
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