The Peterhead Harbour Railway
Rocks, Rogues, Rails and Refuge
The Peterhead Harbour of Refuge Works exhibit is in preparation. This included a
unique and historic railway which ran from Peterhead harbour and prison up to Stirlinghill Quarry.
of the wagons used to carry prisoners has been donated to us. It needs
restoration and a new underframe. We have a specialist contractor working on the
wagon and the Scottish Railway Preservation Society has provided the underframe.
Funds are being raised and an initial target of £30,000 has attracted some large
donations and sponsorship. We have a long way to go and every small donation
will be matched by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
We hope to create a comprehensive display to commemorate this fascinating aspect
of local history—the first passenger carrying state-run railway in
Britain—forerunner of British Railways (not)?!?
The stone from Stirlinghill was used to build a prison to contain the convicts
of Scotland (many of them the most dangerous of criminals) and to build a
barrier against the might of the North Sea. Convicts using hammers crushed red
granite at the quarry. This was mixed with concrete and great blocks were cast
in workshops beside the prison. Civilian workmen then completed the job.
who were given Hard Labour prison terms in Scotland in the 1800’s had to be sent
to England to serve their sentences because Scotland had no hard labour
projects. On 30th September 1864 convicts escaped from a special railway carriage
at Crewe on the way to an English prison. Scotland
needed its own convict prison and in 1884 the Peterhead project was started.
Both the granite and the convicts were carried between quarry and harbour and
prison on a unique railway. There were five convict wagons and a guards van. Four
steam engines were used and lots of wagons for the stone. It was a standard
gauge system like the main railways.
deep water Harbour of Refuge was created by building massive breakwaters across
Peterhead Bay. Even large ships can find deep water shelter from storms in the
North Sea (called the German Sea when the project started). Huge Titan Cranes
set each concrete and stone block in place as the breakwater slowly grew. It was
completed in 1956 and the quarry closed. In the picture you can see the crane
with a row of wagons on the south breakwater. More wagons wait for a smaller
crane to load a steam barge with stone from the quarry to make foundations for
the breakwater. A railway engine is standing on the quay.
Looking at the breakwaters today, they seem unremarkable, but in reality they
are an amazing achievement. Only a few feet on these harbour walls are visible
at high tide, but at the harbour mouth the water is more than 10 fathoms deep.
That is 60+ft or five double decker buses. And they are three quarters of a mile
long. It is estimated that about half a million tons of granite was used.
Every block placed, and foundation poured, had to be supervised by divers.
Each diver relied on a team to back him up. His life depended on them. The
suddenness of stormy weather hampered the progress. Divers could only operate
from May to September. Two world wars also occurred. From 1889 to the last main
block laid on 27th September 1956 and completion of the round towers in 1959/60
was a full 70 years' work - and 100 since the project was first mooted.
When the project was proposed, most ships were at the mercy of the wind and
waves. By the time it was finished wind had given way to steam and steam to
diesel. Powered ships did not need a harbour of refuge. Even during the two
world wars the harbour was little used.
The 1970's oil crisis changed everything. Finally the harbour earned its keep
and justified its massive cost. Total Oil built a tanker jetty to take Natural
Gas Liquids from the St Fergus plant. When this finished, tankers used it to
supply fuel to Peterhead Power Station. Offshore supply boat bases were built at
the root of both north and south breakwaters making Peterhead a significant oil
industry base at a time when other industries were failing.