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Saving Lives – Protection from Pirates and the Rage of

A Spanish galleon “St Michael”, was driven ashore and wrecked at Keith Inch in 1588. Five bronze cannon were salvaged, mounted on a battery erected in the bay at the South East corner of Keith Inch and used to defend the harbour and its shipping. This became known as the Muckle Battery (the big battery). In 1666, with the country at war with Holland and her allies, an enemy Danish ship of war became stranded off the coast. The Earl Marischal ordered that her cannon be confiscated. Two bronze and six iron cannon were delivered to Peterhead and added to the battery at Keith Inch.

During the war with France from 1689 to 1697, the cannon were fired to see off French Privateers who attacked the town. Privateers were privately owned ships which were given a Government licence to attack foreign vessels in time of war – in short, officially approved pirates. Coastal shipping was fair game and even in port boats were not safe. Peterhead’s cannon remained in use until 1717, when King George 1st ordered their removal to the Tower of London. George was naturally reluctant to leave heavy weapons in the hands of people known to have Jacobite sympathies, and despite the new Government-friendly town council imposed after the ill-fated 1715 Jacobite rebellion, his suspicions over Peterhead’s population were probably justified. The new Bailies were not popular, and many Peterhead residents remained loyal to the exiled Earl Marischal and the Stuart cause.

Attempts were made to have the cannon returned in 1740. Townspeople witnessed a document in which some of the older residents attested that the guns belonged to the town. Despite the real danger of attack from foreign enemies, the Government ignored their petition. However, a second request in 1778 did result in eight new cannon being provided. They were set up on the north side of Keith Inch and became known as the Meikle Battery (the little battery). Several months after the new guns arrived, the military authorities thoughtfully remembered to provide gunpowder so that they could actually be used.

Soon after, a notorious American privateer called Daniel Fall attacked the port. The Meikle Battery responded with a salvo that hit the mainmast of Fall’s ship, forcing him to retreat. Fall had earlier attacked Aberdeen, and made off with two ships from the harbour there. After his warm welcome from Peterhead, he headed south to Yarmouth and easier targets. The original Meikle Battery was dismantled in 1817 in the wake of Waterloo and long-awaited peace in Europe.

The cannon here today is a replica of a captured Russian cannon, one of two provided by the government in 1861 for the newly re-formed Peterhead Artillery Volunteers to use for training. These cannon were presumably a souvenir of the Crimean War and were initially mounted for practice at the reinstated Meikle Battery. In 1881, a new battery was established at Gadle Braes. The new artillery base had two buildings. One housed the two cannon, and the other a machine gun. This battery was dismantled and closed in 1909, and one of the cannon was moved to stand in front of Field Marshal Keith’s statue on Broad Street. Unfortunately, both original cannon were lost to the war effort in 1940 to meet the urgent demand for scrap metal.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is a charity which provides a 24-hour lifeboat search and rescue service around the UK and Ireland. They have been saving lives at sea since 1824, although it was not until 1865 that the first station in Peterhead opened on the east side of the North Harbour. Peterhead’s first lifeboat was a 33 foot wooden boat named the “Peoples’ Journal”. She was propelled by 10 oars and cost £283 12s 9d to build, using money donated by the people of Dundee. Serving until 1893, the “People’s Journal” was launched 46 times and saved 91 lives. This was the first of many boats which would be crewed with great courage by local volunteers. Their heroism cannot be understated, and some even gave their own lives while trying to rescue their fellow mariners. Over twenty awards for gallantry have been presented to the Peterhead station, including one Gold medal and 11 Silver medals. The RNLI’s Gold medal is the Lifeboat Service’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

A new slipway and second station were opened in the South harbour in 1911, which remained in use until 1998 when a new purpose-built berth was created on the present site.

In 1939, the seventh lifeboat to be stationed in the town was launched. She was the “Julia Park Barry of Glasgow”. Over the next thirty years, she would be launched 162 times and save 496 lives. Two incidents in particular stand out. In October 1940, the lifeboat crew were called out in severe weather conditions to assist the crew of the SS Lisbon, which had run aground at Rattray Head. While they attended that incident, another ship, SS Simonburn also hit the rocks at Rattray. Sea conditions were so bad the lifeboat could not get into the harbour at Peterhead, and she had to make two trips to Fraserburgh to evacuate both crews. From here, she was called out almost immediately to the SS Baron Minto, aground at Strathbeg Bay. A fourth call came in and the Julia Park Barry was soon heading back to Rattray Head to rescue her fourth casualty of the day, the SS Alcora. She finally returned to port at 4pm in the afternoon, after nine hours at sea and saving over 90 people.

It was in 1942 that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution awarded their first Gold medal in 104 years to Peterhead Coxswain John B McLean, a Silver medal to Mechanic David Wiseman and Bronze medals to six other lifeboat men. Over a seventy five hour period in atrocious sea conditions, they rescued 76 people from three ships. Facing winds of up to 105 miles per hour, with the temperature ten degrees below freezing and in blinding snow, the Julia Park Barry was launched four times. The seas were so heavy that a part of the breakwater was washed away.

The first call came in early in the morning on 23rd January. A steamer had been involved in a collision. The lifeboat led that ship and two others back to Peterhead and they anchored in the bay. For the next twelve hours the lifeboat remained on standby until around midnight when distress signals indicated further trouble.

Visibility was poor, but they finally found a ship on its side on rocks on the west side of the bay. With great courage, they drew alongside and rescued the exhausted crew. Returning to port at 3 am, the lifeboat crew managed to get some rest, although some stayed on watch. In the early hours of the Sunday morning, the two remaining ships were torn from their anchors and forced aground, where one was breaking up. Rescue attempts by the Coastguard’s Lifesaving Rocket Apparatus team failed so Julia Park Barry was launched again. Another daring rescue, with the Coxswain fighting to keep the lifeboat close enough to the wreck to allow her crew to jump aboard and be carried to safety in Peterhead. Back in port, the lifeboat remained on standby until 8.30am, when the fourth and final launch took place to bring the crew of the remaining steamer ashore. Julia Park Barry’s crew had been continuously on duty for 27 hours, with hardly any food and no rest. They had spent 10 hours at sea over the last three days and nights. For much of the time, they were soaked to the skin in bitterly cold weather, but 76 lives were saved.

The current station building opened in 1999, and is base to “The Misses Robertson of Kintail”, the first Tamar class lifeboat in Scotland. Whilst technology has led to massive improvements in boat design and safety over the last 150 years, her crew face the same dangerous waters and natural hazards as their predecessors, and show the same courage and determination as they risk their lives to safeguard fellow seafarers. The RNLI is a charity, which depends on donations to continue its vital work. For more information, visit