I wasn’t sure about visiting the relatively new Peterhead Prison Museum with children. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to visit. The place used to give me the heebie-jeebies. It only shut its doors to inmates in 2013 and held many of the UK’s most notorious criminals. The glorification of crime or revelling in gruesome deeds doesn’t appeal to me and I didn’t know what approach the museum would take.
We were warmly welcomed at the entrance of the museum and noticed that lots of other families were also visiting. The reception guard explained that an ex-prison warden was volunteering that day, a Mr Jackie Stuart. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill prison guard, if there is such a thing, but the hostage who was held during the Peterhead prison riot of 1987, stabbed and paraded on the rooftop before being abruptly rescued by the SAS when they stormed the building and took back the jail. It would be an unexpected opportunity to speak directly to this man.
We soon got our head-sets which our tots, aged 3 and 1, were too small for, both in terms of content and practicality. We entered through the iconic metres high prison gates, under the CCTV cameras, past tiny exercise yards which began to make me feel claustrophobic, and into D wing. From a youngster’s point of view, following the yellow arrows on the tarmac to D-wing and then exploring this vast prison wing provided great excitement. As I listened to the head-set the kids chased each other the length of the wing, played endlessly with the billiard table and shouted ‘Poo, Poo, Poo’ at the cell which demonstrated a dirty protest. It was all going over their heads. They kept warm by charging about, I was meanwhile frozen, this jail has a chill which is atmospheric but I can’t imagine how anyone spent years locked inside here.
For older children, and from my point of view, I was impressed by the museum’s approach. The focus (via the headsets) was the history of the jail, told through the words of the prison guards who worked here. The crimes and the criminals were not the focus. We learnt that the prison was originally situated in Peterhead in 1888 because a cheap labour force was required to build the local harbour; prisoners weren’t just cheap they were pretty much free and hard labour was a regular sentence. The interiors of the cells are furnished as they would have been at different points in history. Visitors see the laundrette, showers, doctor’s room, kitchen and slopping out area (the prison never did have fully functioning toilets) and you start to piece together a life here. The antagonism between the guards and the prisoners is explained and the atmosphere sounds fraught and toxic. It wasn’t known as the ‘Hate Factory’ for nothing.
Then we happened upon Jackie Stuart, a gentleman of over 80 years old. He answered questions about his hostage experience with humour and willingness. I can’t begin to understand how the guards, or the prisoners, coped in this notorious jail but it was fascinating to talk with him.
The most challenging areas, for more perceptive children than my toddlers, would be a cell that was the site of a murder (with red paint on the walls to signify the bloodshed), the Silent Cell where prisoners spent time in solitary isolation and a punishment room from the early days of the jail where prisoners were tied to a tripod and whipped with a cat-o-nine-tails or birch rods. We saw lots of families at the prison, and it’s hardly big news that horrible histories are hugely appealing to children. It’s up to each parent to explain the tougher aspects of life in their own way, to their own children.
Personally I think this museum is a fascinating addition to the north east of Scotland’s tourist offering. It’s a site of national interest which taps into social history, crime and punishment, architecture, Scottish history and political history. I would have found it riveting as a child but I’ve always liked my history. It might not be a predictable day out with children but they’ll certainly learn something.
THE LOWDOWN – We drove from Aberdeen to Peterhead which is about an hour north. The museum was very buggy friendly overall but one reader did recommend bringing a baby carrier for very small children if you wish to visit the upstairs section of the jail. I’d strongly recommend wrapping up warm as the museum is cold. When we visited in January 2017 a cafe was under construction.
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