Warlocks, Scholars and the Age of Steam
In the late 16th century, people were very superstitious. Any misfortune with no obvious cause, such as a sudden death or illness, an accident, crop failure or a disaster at sea, was often blamed on witchcraft and the work of the Devil. People genuinely believed that witches gained malevolent powers from Satan to heal or harm, and the Church took an active role in hunting down and prosecuting those suspected of being involved. Most of those accused were innocent of any wrongdoing. Many were women (usually poor and elderly) whose bad temper or slightly eccentric habits made them an object of fear and dislike among their neighbours. Documents show that in the year 1596 to 1597, in Aberdeen and the surrounding area, two men and 45 women were charged with witchcraft. This is more than double the total of witches convicted in the notorious Salem witch trials in the USA a hundred years later. The penalty for witchcraft was death.
In the late 1500’s, Sandy Hay was a blacksmith in Peterhead who had a keen sense of humour. He found fun in everything. Sadly for Sandy, his Minister was not amused when he spotted Sandy laughing in church one Sunday morning, instead of paying solemn and reverent attention to the service. “Why were you laughing so much in church, Sandy?” asked the cleric sternly. “Because I saw Old Nick sitting on the corner of the highest gallery, and noting down on parchment the names of all present who were sleeping during divine service; but that the drowsy part of the audience increased so fast upon him, that he found his parchment too small to contain all their names; on which he endeavoured to stretch it with his teeth; but, losing his hold, he knocked his head with an awful thump against the wall behind him."
Outraged at the suggestion that not only was Auld Nick (the Devil) in his church, his sermons were so boring the congregation couldn’t stay awake, the Minister took action. He had poor Sandy charged with Witchcraft. Fear of witches was very real. Sandy had admitted seeing the Devil in church and his fate was sealed. For one misplaced joke, he was tried, convicted as a Warlock, and met a grizzly end – burned at the stake on the burning green at Stoneyhillock.
The burning green lies under the present day Community Centre, which is now the focus of more wholesome and healthy social activities.
The Community Centre and the new Peterhead Academy are built on the site of Peterhead’s Railway Station, which opened in 1862. It had two platforms, and engine shed and a goods yard. There were usually three passenger trains a day between Peterhead and Aberdeen. Peterhead’s fish curers took advantage of the freight service to distribute their products around the world, and the railway held a pivotal role in the herring trade, on which much of the town’s wealth was founded. The railway was also used to export polished Peterhead granite, which was used in prestigious buildings across the world, including Southwark Bridge, Covent Garden and the Foreign Office in London, and the plinth for the statue of Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh. Two fountains of polished Peterhead granite originally placed in Trafalgar Square are now in parks Ottawa and Saskatchewan in Canada. More locally, a fine example of a Peterhead granite fountain can be seen across the road at the junction of Queen Street and Victoria Road. This used to stand in Broad Street, and was known locally as the Barclay Fountain, after George Barclay, one of the Feuars managers who had campaigned for it to be built.
Sadly, Peterhead’s railway line fell victim to Dr Beaching’s massacre of the rail network. Passenger services stopped in May 1965 and the station closed altogether in 1970. Four years later, oil was discovered in the North Sea. The line would have been invaluable to the emerging oil support industry, but it was too late. Peterhead’s railway had already passed into history.
Peterhead’s first school master, Alexander Reid, was appointed in 1567 on an annual salary of £2. His schoolroom was in the common loft of the Parish Church, where he taught reading, writing, counting, the Ten Commandments, and “the belief”. The first proper school opened in 1587 on what is now Charlotte Street, and was for boys only. Pupils paid a weekly fee of one penny, and had to bring a peat every day to help keep the school’s fire burning. School was open six days a week. On the Sabbath, pupils went to church and faced tough questions from the Minister on the Catechist. Wrong answers would earn the scholars a Monday morning appointment with the outraged schoolmaster and his tawse, a thick leather belt which he applied with force to the backsides of offenders as an incentive to learning. For pupils, misbehaviour, errors and substandard work could all be very painful.
Peterhead Academy was founded in June 1846. While the aim of the new school was “affording the means of a liberal education to all classes of the inhabitants”, it was still only for boys. Girls were schooled separately. The first Academy stood on the site now occupied by the Central School, and had three classrooms. It was replaced in 1891, with a new building on St Mary Street which cost £3,556. For the first time, girls could enter the Academy and it became one of the first Higher Grade Schools instituted by the Scottish Education Department. In 1922, fire tore through the whole back wing of the building, destroying classrooms, workshops, laboratories and the gymnasium. Over £30,000 was spent in rebuilding, with work completed by Easter 1924. Further disaster followed in July 1940, when the Luftwaffe paid one of their many visits to the town and demolished the north wing and part of the original building with bombs. Much to the disgust of pupils, this happened during the summer holidays. The Aberdeen County Air Raid Register recorded “Peterhead Academy 3 High Explosive Bombs dropped. School wrecked, damage to gas mains and also extensive superficial damage to houses. North end of east wing and north west end of west wing damaged. Windows broken in private properties”. Rebuilding work was not completed until several years after the war ended and for a long time afterwards the Headmaster complained that the roof still leaked from the bomb damage.
With a gross internal floor area of over 22,920 square metres, the current Peterhead Academy is Scotland’s largest school. The Academy’s motto is “Domus Super Petram Aedificata" (A House Built on a Rock). It accommodates around 1,300 pupils and is divided into 7 houses - Arbuthnot, Buchan, Craigewan, Grange, Marischal, Slains and Ravenscraig - with all the names associated with areas of the town.
Teaching methods have moved on since the first school was founded. The curriculum no longer revolves around the Ten Commandments, although reading, writing and counting will never go out of fashion, and the tawse passed into history in the early 1980’s when corporal punishment was abolished in Scottish schools. Today’s pupils receive a thorough education which will prepare them for life in the modern world. At the same time, they are carrying on a 450 year tradition of education in the town.