"Peterhead: The Inside Story of Scotland's Toughest Prison" by Robert Jeffrey was never going to be an enjoyable read, but it is a fascinating one. This superbly researched book is published just as the prison whose story it tells enters the final weeks of its life. It is due to close in December 2013, to be replaced by a newly built prison, HMP Grampian, on a nearby site in March 2014. The old prison will then be demolished.
As you read Robert Jeffrey's account of the story of Peterhead Prison since its opening in 1888, you could almost be forgiven for thinking that it's a shame that some part of the old building can't be preserved to allow visitors an insight into what has at different times been referred to as "The Hate Factory" and "Scotland's Gulag". After all, if it has been possible to turn Inveraray Jail into a visitor attraction, why not part of Peterhead Prison? Because, as Robert Jeffrey shows, the story that the prison has to tell has a resonance that extends far beyond this particular corner of northern Aberdeenshire.
Peterhead Prison was built in the 1880s to house the convict labour the authorities wanted to use to build a "Harbour of Refuge", in effect huge jetties extending out into Peterhead Bay to provide shelter to ships caught by storms off north east Scotland. The project was intended to take 25 years, but in the event the harbour defences were only completed in the late 1950s. The prison was located on the headland at the southern end of the bay, and Robert Jeffrey tells us how it was linked by a purpose built railway to the quarry in which prisoners extracted the rock used in the construction, and to the harbour itself. The nature of the work done by the prisoners presented special problems of security, and we read how discipline was maintained, and escape deterred, by the swords and rifles carried by the warders and the use of corporal punishment.
The book looks at many of aspects of life at Peterhead. Some of the prison's most notorious inmates over the years have their stories told, including Johnny Ramenski, "The Great Escaper". There are also chapters looking at political prisoners, and at those held here who later turned out to be innocent. The difficult years of 1986 and 1987 are also covered in detail. This was a period which saw a series of riots, including the effective take-over of the prison by its inmates in 1986; and a hostage-taking incident in 1987 that was brought to an end by the intervention of the SAS. This is a story that needed telling before the building itself is reduced to rubble: and Robert Jeffrey tells it very well indeed.