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Blade 18

Crime and Punishment, and the Curious Case of the Ship’s

In the early years of the town, Peterhead got by without any kind of lock-up. The townspeople appear to have been too law abiding to need such a facility. However, a Tolbooth was facility that every other self-respecting town had, and the Earl Marischal was determined that Peterhead would not be left out. The first Tolbooth was erected sometime around 1616, but there is no record of its location. It lasted until 1645, when plague arrived and devastated the population. Early victims were brought to the Tolbooth, where they died. As terror grew, the building was set on fire in an attempt to cleanse the town of infection. The fear of plague was so great, nobody dared to check inside to make sure no living soul was left before the fire was laid. Given the full horror of plague symptoms, it might even be argued that a quick death in the flames was preferable to the hours of suffering a plague victim would endure.

It isn’t clear when the second Tolbooth was built. Between 1651 and 1660, the Earl Marischal was detained in the Tower of London as Oliver Cromwell’s government did not approve of his support for the exiled King Charles II. His estates suffered neglect during this time, and no real development took place. The new Tolbooth stood close to Threadneedle Street. It was a two storey building with a circular tower at one end. In 1759, the Feuars paid for improvements, and nearly thirty years later it was demolished and replaced with the Town House, which stands at the top of Broad Street.

The Town Jail was built on Prince Street in 1842 and contained 6 cells. The Master of the Merchant Company didn’t think it would be much of a deterrent because the cells were infinitely more comfortable than the inhabitants’ houses! The jail was finally closed in 1874 and was subsequently used as a dwelling house, most notably by the Pearl King, Alexander Birnie. It remains a private family home.

On the corner of Queen Street and King Street stands Clifton House. Built as a family home for whaler Captain John Gray, the Clifton is now a hotel. John Gray was the grandson of Captain Alexander Geary, Peterhead’s first Whaling Captain. His father and both his brothers followed the same trade. John was captain of the sailing brig “Hope” which sailed to Greenland every year in search of whales. On one trip, his ship’s Doctor was a young Edinburgh medic called Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle wrote warmly of his memories of Captain Gray, and relished the experience of serving in such a harsh environment. Being a little accident prone, the good Doctor kept falling overboard, which earned him the nick-name of the “Great Northern Diver”. He declined the offer of a second trip, but did put the experience to good effect in his later writing. Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, should consider himself luck that a trip on a whaler never featured in his many adventures.

Clifton House was also home to another famous son of Peterhead – the historian JT Findlay, author of “A History of Peterhead from prehistoric times to AD 1896”. This trail owes much to his work, and that of Robert Neish.