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Peterhead

(The Bloo Toon)

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2016.

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Peterhead, a parliamentary burgh, a head-port, and the chief town in the Buchan district of Aberdeenshire, occupying a peninsula in the NE of the parish just described. It is one of the terminal stations (the other being Fraserburgh) on the Formartine and Buchan section of the Great North of Scotland railway system, and is by rail 44¼ miles NNE of Aberdeen, but by road only 32. The peninsula which shares with Buchan Ness the distinction of being the most easterly land in Scotland, is about 7 furlongs from E to W and 6 furlongs from N to S, and the portion occupied by the town about 6½ by 5 furlongs. Up to the latter part of the 16th century the only portion of the town existing was the fishing village of Keith-Inch, which stands on the extremity of the peninsula, and is separated from the rest of the place by the harbour, the isthmus that at one time formed the connection having been pierced in the course of harbour improvements. Immediately W of the harbours and along the N shore of Peterhead Bay is Peterhead proper, which passes farther W still into the suburbs of Ronheads (N) and Kirkton (W), and the parliamentary boundary also includes the village of Buchanhaven on the NW. The principal street in Keith-Inch extends from NE to SW, and is called Castle Street. The principal streets in the rest of the town are Broad Street and Marischal Street, running westward from the harbour and at right angles to it; and Long-gate Street crossing these from NNW to SSE; but there are many other well-edificed thoroughfares. The appearance of the buildings is somewhat peculiar, the houses being built of the granite found in the neighbourhood, pick or axe dressed and close-jointed.

Somewhat isolated by its position the town has but little history. Prior to the Reformation the land on which the town stands, together with a considerable extent of adjoining country, belonged to the abbey of Deer, but in 1560 it was granted by Queen Mary to Robert Keith, son of the fourth Earl Marischal, and passed to the Earl's nephew and successor, George, by whom in 1593 the modern Peterhead was founded, the village being created a burgh of barony. At this time the inhabitants of Keith-Inch are estimated to have numbered only 56, and the feuars to whom the town's charter was granted were only 14, most of them seemingly fishermen. Some of the older houses still remain. During the troublous times in the first half of the 17th century the people, as was necessary, took the same side as the Keiths, and indeed in 1642 the place was highly favoured as being the scene of a supernatural hint of troubles to come, for' About the 5th of November, in ane seamanis house of Peterheid there was hard, upone the night, beating of drums, uther tymes sounding of trumpetis, playing on pifferis, and ringing of bellis, to the astoneishment of the heireris. Trubles follouit., In 1715 the people again followed the Marischal fortunes, and the Chevalier St George, after finding himself unable to land at Montrose, thought Peterhead a fit place for his purpose and came ashore here, but did not make himself- known; and 'he and his five companions having lodged ane night in the habit of sea-officers at Peterhead and another at Newburgh, a house of the Earl Marischal, on the twenty-fourth [of December] they passed incognito through Aberdeen with two baggage horses, and at night came to Fetteresso, the principal seat of the Earl of Marischal.' In 1720, with the other forfeited estates of the Earl Marischal, the town was sold to the York Buildings Company, on whose break-up six years afterwards it was purchased for £3000 by the governors of the Edinburgh Merchant Maiden Hospital, who are still the superiors. At one time Peterhead had some repute as a watering-place, with both baths and mineral wells, but the reputation is now considerably gone. The mineral waters of Peterhead were reckoned about 1680 as one of the six notable things in Buchan; and previously, in 1636, Andrew More, professor of physic in King's College, Aberdeen, had written in their favour. The most famous of the wells is the Wine-well, on the S of the town, where the water is very strongly impregnated with carbonic acid, muriate of iron, muriate of lime, and muriate of soda. There are two very good baths. A vivid description of Peterhead at the beginning of the present century is given in John Skelton's Crookit Meg: A Story of the Year One (Lond. 1880).

Public Buildings, etc.—The town-hall, at the W end of Broad Street, was built in 1788, and has a spire 125 feet high; the chief public hall was founded with masonic honours and in presence of a deputation from the governors of the Merchant Maiden Hospital, in 1872; and there is also a music hall. The courthouse, a handsome building in Queen Street, was built in 1869-70, at a cost of £2600, from designs by Messrs Peddie & Kinnear. In the centre of Broad Street is the Market Cross, which was erected after the town was made a parliamentary burgh by the Reform Bill of 1832. It is a granite pillar, Tuscan in style, and surmounted by the arms of the Earls Marischal. A monument to Field-Marshal Keith, younger brother of the Earl, who was forfeited in 1715, and who afterwards rose to eminence in the Prussian army under Frederick the Great, was erected in 1869, the statue being presented by the King of Prussia. It is a copy in bronze of that erected to the memory of the Marshal in Prussia. On the pedestal, which is 8 feet high, is the inscription: 'Field-Marshal Keith, born at Inverugie, 1696; killed at the battle of Hochkirchen, 14th October 1758. The gift of William I., King of Prussia, to the town of Peterhead, August 1868. Probus vixit, fortis obiit.' A cemetery, laid out in 1868-69, contains a Runic cross of polished granite, 14 feet high. The parish church, at the W end of the Kirktown, was built in 1803, and has a tower, lantern, and spire rising to a height of 118 feet. It contains 1800 sittings; whilst the East quoad sacra church (1834) contains 700. St Peter's Free church, in St Peter Street, was built soon after the Disruption, and is a substantial building with Tudor features containing 1146 sittings. There is also another Free church-South Church-erected in 1872. The U.P. church in Charlotte Street, built in 1858 and First Pointed in style, contains 500 sittings. It superseded a former church erected in 1800. The Congregational church (1870) is a plain building with 450 sittings. The Methodist church, in Queen Street (1857), superseded an old church, and has about 200 sittings. The Episcopal church (St Peter) in Merchant Street, built in 1814 and containing 800 sittings, is a 'Churchwarden Gothic' building, with a nave and an apsidal sanctuary. The organ was erected in 1867. The Roman Catholic church (St Mary), in St Peter Street, is a good Early Pointed edifice of 1851, containing 200 sittings. In 1883 the following were the eight schools under the burgh school board, the first six of them public, with accommodation, average attendance, and Government grants:-Academy (469, 273, £250, 14s.), Buchanhaven (175, 101, £85, 0s. 6d.), North (468, 267, £210, 6s.), Female (406, 209, £204, 5s. 6d.), Infant (196, 155, £122, 5s. 6d.), Prince Street (291, 0, £0), Free Church female (453, 421, £368, 7s. 6d.), and Episcopalian (161, 110, £75, 16s.). Of these the Academy was founded on 15 June l846, 'for affording the means of a liberal education to all classes of the inhabitants.'

Harbour and Trade, etc.—The port of Peterhead, with its two harbours, is one of the most valuable on the E coast of Scotland, the peninsula at the extremity of which it is situated being often the first land reached by vessels arriving from the northern parts of continental Europe, or when overtaken by storm in the North Sea. Its claims for foremost consideration in the question of the erection of a great harbour of refuge on the E coast of Scotland, are being, at present, actively pressed on the Government; and in 1883 a memorial, signed by 7882 'shipowners, shipmasters, mariners, fishermen, and others connected with, and frequenting the east coast of Scotland,' was presented to the Treasury in support of these claims. The signatures were obtained all along the Scottish coast and from many parts of the English coast, even as far S as London, 131 of those who signed being members of Lloyds. The chief points urged are, '1st, its position with regard to the two great natural harbours of the Forth and Cromarty; 2d, its position on a part of the coast where ships and boats are placed in circumstances of the greatest danger; 3d, its position as regards the great fishing industry of Scotland; 4th, its position as a place of easy access and departure in any wind; and lastly, its position as regards extent, depth of water, the kind and quality of the anchorage ground to be enclosed, and its proximity to an abundant supply of material for its construction. In these aspects, 'the petition continues, 'the South Bay of Peterhead is the best, if not the only site for a National Harbour of Refuge on the East Coast of Scotland. It is situated midway between the Firth of Forth and Cromarty. The coast on either side of it is of an exposed and dangerous character; it is the centre of the great fishing industry on the East Coast; it is an easy point of access and departure, being the most prominent headland on the coast; it is so formed by nature as to afford all the physical advantages of ample space, depth of water, and anchorage of the best description; and it is in the vicinity of extensive granite quarries from which inexhaustible supplies of material can be obtained for the construction of the works.' Petitions to the same effect were also presented by 30 insurance associations, shipping companies, etc., as well as by the Harbour Trustees, who pointed out that for 200 years all the nautical authorities were agreed that Peterhead had exceptional advantages as a site for a harbour of refuge; that a Royal Commission following a Select Committee's report in 1857 had recommended a grant of £100,000 in aid of a local contribution of £200,000, but that the locality was too poor to raise such a sum, and that the port was connected with Norway by a submarine telegraph cable. In June 1884 the report was issued of the sub-committee appointed to investigate the question of the most suitable place for a harbour of refuge on the east coast of Scotland, to be constructed by convicts; and in it the sub-commissioners declare that they 'have no hesitation in recommending that the harbour should be at Peterhead.' From its natural advantages the harbour early attracted attention, and it is said that some of the engineers of Cromwell's army on visiting the place expressed great disappointment that they had not done so before fixing on Inverness as the site of their great northern fort, as they considered the situation of Peterhead very much better. But, however that may be, it is certain that the first parliament of Charles II. passed an Act 'for a contribution for repairing the harbours of Peterhead;' and later, we find one Henry Middleton, in Clerkhill, very dilligent in harbour matters, and the port receiving in consequence the name of Port Henry. In 1805 there is an act of Scottish parliament authorising voluntary contributions from all the churches of the three Lothians, and bewest the Forth for farther repairs, and in 1729, and again in 1739, the Convention of Royal Burghs authorised a contribution from all royal burghs for the same purpose. All these early harbours seem to have been to the N of those that now exist, but in 1773 the present South harbour was commenced after designs by Smeaton, and it was deepened and otherwise improved in 1807 under an Act of parliament that was then obtained. The North Harbour was begun in 1818, after designs by Telford, and was improved in 1821, 1837, and 1855. From the nature of the place vessels in both harbours were often windbound for considerable periods, and the loss arising from this was so great, that in 1850 a canal was formed through the isthmus between the harbours, so that vessels could be warped from the one to the other. It is spanned by a cast-iron swing bridge erected at a cost of £8000. In 1872-73, and 1875-76, fresh acts of parliament, authorising further improvements, were obtained and new works carried out, and a middle harbour formed. There are now three basins hewn out of solid rock and covering an area of 21½ acres, and the total expenditure for harbour purposes has been in all nearly £300, 000, of which the sum of £200,000 has been expended since 1859. The depth of the basins varies from 12 to 18 feet at spring tides, but at medium low water is only 5 to 7½ feet. Off the North Harbour are two graving docks. The present amount of debt is £109, 603, but the revenue has risen from £100 in 1800, and £4000 in 1849, to £8260 in 1883. About half the revenue is derived from fishing-boats and half from general trade. The management is vested in the preses of the governors of the Merchant Maiden Hospital in Edinburgh, the provost of Peterhead, and 13 elected trustees. Prior to 1715, and again during the Peninsular war, the harbour was protected by small forts at the entrance, but these have vanished.

Peterhead was made a head port in 1838, its limits extending southward to the mouth of the Ythan, and westward to the Powk Burn. It includes the sub-ports or creeks of Boddam, Fraserburgh, Pittullie, and Rosehearty. The number of vessels belonging to the port with their tonnage has been, at various dates, as follows:—

Year. Vessels. Tonnage.
1795 28 Over 3,000
1837 82 11,022
1861 80 13,687
1875 70 9,916
1884 51 7,243

Of these, in 1875, 5 vessels of 1388 tons, and in 1884 6 of 1274 tons, were steamers. Of the ships owned in the port 6 sailing ships (of from 130 to 430 tons) and 3 steamers (295, 307, and 412 tons)are engaged in the Greenland seal and whale fishing, a trade that has been carried on since 1788, when the first whaler was fitted out. Though it has been more vigorously prosecuted from Peterhead than from any other British port the trade has had great fluctuations. From 1788 till 1803 only 1 ship went to the north every year; from 1804 to 1814 there were from 2 to 7 every year; from 1814 to 1830 the number was from 8 to 16, and by 1857 this had risen to 32. Since then, however, it has again declined, till in 1884 there were only 9 vessels. The following table shows the tonnage of vessels that entered from and to foreign and colonial ports and coastwise, with cargoes and ballast, at various dates:—

Entered. Cleared.
Year. British. Foreign. Total. British. Foreign. Total.
1866 42,504 3,894 46,398 34,783 380 35,163
1867 30,767 4,964 35,731 27,501 5,059 32,560
1874 67,344 11,808 79,152 70,454 10,815 81,269
1883 58,497 29,342 87,839 56,859 29,459 86,318

Of the total, 864 vessels of 87,839 tons, that entered in 1883, 186 of 27,432 tons were in ballast, and 670 of 61,681 tons were coasters; whilst the total, 840 of 86,318 tons, of those that cleared, included 388 ships in ballast of 34,398 tons and 580 coasters of 48,952 tons. The principal exports are agricultural produce, herring, and other fish, oil, and granite; and the principal imports are timber, lime, coal, wool, salt, flour, iron, and soft goods. The amount of customs in 1861 was £2039, in 1872 £1724, in 1881 £1944, and in 1882 £1452.

Peterhead is also the centre of one of the twenty-six herring fishery districts into which Scotland is divided, and embraces all the villages lying between Buchanhaven and Newburgh, both inclusive. To the district there belonged, in 1882, 338 first-class boats, 211 second-class boats, and 176 third-class boats, employing 1692 fisher men and boys, and of these to Peterhead itself there belonged 118 first-class, 38 second-class, and 55 third-class boats, with 440 resident fisher men and boys. In the same year the total number of persons employed in connection with the herring fishery in the district was 7253, the value of the boats employed was £48,298, of the nets £59,150, and of the lines £10, 088. The number of boats actually fishing in the district, most of them from Peterhead itself, whither they are drawn by the possibility of getting in and out of the harbour at low water, was 822, and the number of barrels of herring caught by them 185,704, 156,026½ of which were exported to the Continent, mostly to Libau, Königsberg, Danzig, Stettin, and Hamburg. The total number of cod, ling, and hake cured within the district in 1882 was 44,597. During the herring fishing season the population of the town is increased by from 3000 to 4000 individuals connected with this industry.

The manufacture of linen was once carried on, but is now extinct. A woollen manufactory was started in the Kirktown in the early part of the present century, and produced excellent superfine cloth. After languishing and disappearing for a time altogether, it was revived in 1854 by a company by whom the manufacture of woollens of different sorts is still vigorously prosecuted. The other industries, besides those mentioned in connection with the parish, are saw-mills, a foundry, boat building yards, a rope-work, granite polishing, and brewing.

Municipality, etc.—Under the superiority of the Governors of the Merchant Maiden Hospital the community acquired a separate government in 1774, and after the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832, and the subsequent Act of 1833, when the burgh became parliamentary, a keen dispute long existed whether the remaining portion of the moss-lands, commonage, and pasturage originally granted to the community by the Earl Marischal, fell to be managed by the baron-bailie and a committee of the feuars, or by the new magistrates; and the community of feuars still attends to certain matters. Municipal affairs are managed by a provost, 3 bailies, a treasurer, and 7 councillors. The council acts also as the police commission, and the police force is united with that of the county. Water is brought in pipes from a copious spring 2½ miles distant, and gas is supplied by a joint-stock company formed in 1833, and with their works in Long-gate Street. The town has a head post office with money order, savings' bank, insurance, and telegraph departments, branches of the Commercial, North of Scotland, Town and County, and Union banks, a branch of the National Security Savings' Bank, agencies of 21 insurance companies, consulates for Denmark, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden, and Russia, and several hotels. The newspapers are the Independent East Aberdeenshire Observer (1862), published every Tuesday and Friday, and the Liberal Peterhead Sentinel (1856), published every Wednesday. Among the miscellaneous institutions may be noticed two masonic lodges, the Peterhead Association for Science, Literature, and Arts (1835), with a museum, the nucleus of the collection in which was bequeathed by the late Mr Adam Arbuthnot; a reading society (l808), and a Mechanics' Institute (1836), both of them with libraries; a merchants' society (1712), a trades' society (1728), a weavers' society (1778), a mutual improvement association, a golf club, an Eastern Club, and the usual religious and philanthropic associations. A weekly market is held -on Friday, and there are fairs on the Fridays before 26 May and before 22 Nov. A sheriff court is held every Friday for the parishes of Peterhead, Cruden, Slains, Old Deer, New Deer, Rathen, Longside, Crimond, Strichen, Fraserburgh, Lonmay, Tyrie, Aberdour, Pitsligo, St Fergus, and Logie-Buchan. Justice of peace courts are held as required.

Peterhead unites with Elgin, Banff, Cullen, Inverurie, and Kintore in returning a member to serve in parliament, and it is also the returning burgh for East Aberdeenshire. Parliamentary constituency (1884) 1028, municipal constituency 1477, including 154 females. Valuation (1874) £25,138, (1884) £38, 264, of which £585 was for the railway. Pop. (1801) 3264, (1831) 5112, (1841) 5158, (1851) 7298, (1861) 7541, (1871) 8621, (1881) 10, 922, of whom 5131 were males and 5791 females. Houses, inhabited 1418, uninhabited 59, building 29. Of the total population l33 men and 107 women were connected with the civil and military services or with professions, 35 men and 569 women were employed as domestic servants, 545 men and 14 women were engaged in commerce, 336 men and 77 women were connected with agriculture and fishing, 1898 men and 403 women were connected with industrial handicrafts or were dealers in manufactured substances, and there were 2125 boys and 2142 girls at or under school age. See Peter Buchan's Annals of Peterhead from its Foundation to the Present Time (Peterhead, 1819).

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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