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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.
One 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.



Criminals 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.


A 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.


Last modified: 07/13/23