Peterhead (surveyed in 1868)


Peterhead sits on a headland, and extends round a rocky bay, on the Buchan coast, thirty-two miles north-east of Aberdeen. Its name is an abbreviation of 'St Peter's headland', and was taken from a church dedicated to St Peter that was built on the shores of the same bay in the twelfth or thirteenth century. This, and two castles, Ravenscraig and Inverugie, built next to the River Ugie a mile or two north of the church, were the earliest significant settlements in the area. Around 1380, Sir John de Keith, owner of Inverugie Castle, founded a fishing village called Keithinch on the most south-easterly point of the headland, and this eventually became known as 'fishertown of Peterhead'. The town was created a burgh of barony and given a charter allowing a harbour to be built in 1587, and in 1593 was elevated to royal burgh status, despite having a population of less than 100. Peterhead prospered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, establishing trading links with Holland and gaining a reputation as a leading exporter of cured fish. The size and depth of the original harbour limited Peterhead's potential as a fishing port, however, and in 1773-5 the new South Harbour was constructed, followed in 1818-22 by the North Harbour. A small textile industry enhanced the town's economy, but white fishing, herring fishing and whaling were the principal sources of Peterhead's prosperity in the early-nineteenth century, and by the 1850s Peterhead was Britain's premier whaling port. In 1831 the population of the burgh was measured at 5,512, and this figure is likely to have been greater by the time of survey.

Town Planning

Due to the piecemeal nature of its growth, and the geographical limitations of its setting, the centre of Peterhead appears less regular than the centres of many planned Scottish burghs. In Keithinch, the oldest part of the town (sheet XXIII.&.18), streetnames like Shiprow and Ship Street reflect the fact that this was originally purely a fishing village, while Castle Street was probably the route between the village and Inverugie Castle. The burghal centre of Peterhead, built west of Keithinch, and connected to it by a narrow isthmus, reflects the town's growth as a more significant trading centre in the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The main thoroughfare, Broad Street, leads towards the harbours, and is a wide, open area where markets could be held (sheet XXIII.7.17). Peterhead's town house is at the west end of Broad Street, while the parish church is a little further west. The streets to the immediate north-west of the centre are laid out in a more formal, gridiron pattern, suggesting this area of the town was built in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

Trade and Industry

The Statistical Account of 1845 and Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland (1857) both make the point that manufacturing in mid-nineteenth century Peterhead was very limited. The town contained a brewery, a brickworks, a dyeworks, a gas works, and a carding and spinning mill, and sea-kelp was gathered to be processed into manure and cattle-feed. The wool, weaving and thread-making industries had declined significantly by the time of the survey, and a distillery that had formerly been open in the town had closed. The major manufactures in the town were all concerned with the local fishing and whaling industries, including shipbuilding and rope-making. Peterhead's importance as a port, as well as its function as a market town for the surrounding farmland, ensured that it enjoyed healthy trade. The principal imports into Peterhead were timber, salt, flour, lime, wool, iron and groceries, and the principal exports from the town were fish, whale and seal meat, oil, pork, butter, cheese, eggs, grain, meal and granite. A market was held in the town every Friday, and fairs were held twice a year, in May and November.


The countryside around Peterhead was generally good mixed farmland, and the Statistical Account of 1845 records that over 90% of the parish was in cultivation, with a little additional land being given over to tree planting. Various improvements had been carried out in the years prior to the Statistical Account, including improving drainage, liming soil and properly enclosing and sheltering fields. The staple crops grown were bear, oats, potatoes and turnips. The cattle raised in the area were mainly polled Buchan cows, although Teeswater shorthorns had been introduced and were crossed with the Buchan breed. Small numbers of pigs and sheep were farmed, but the area was mainly cattle-farming country. The horses used in the area were also of a breed native to Buchan. The sea off the Peterhead coast was a far more important factor in the town's livelihood. The success of the whaling industry fluctuated greatly, with Peterhead crews catching as many as 268 whales in 1823, but only 23 by 1830. Nevertheless, the whaling fleet in Peterhead continued to grow, from 11 whaling boats in 1836 to 27 in 1855. Peterhead's herring fleet also expanded over this period, from 262 boats in 1836, to 842 in 1855. The other fish caught in large numbers in Peterhead waters were cod, ling, haddock and whiting. In addition to farming and fishing, the quarrying of granite was also an important industry in the hinterland of Peterhead, and large quarries existed at Stirlinghill, Salthousehead and Blackhill.

Religious Life

The parish church that stood in Peterhead at the time of the survey (sheet XXIII.7.16) had been built in 1808, and could hold a congregation of almost 2,000. A second Church of Scotland church was opened in the parish in 1834. Other denominations represented in mid-nineteenth century Peterhead included Episcopalians, Independents, Methodists and the United Associate Congregation.


When the 1845 Statistical Account was written, Peterhead's parish school was still taught in a room in the town house, as it had been for more than forty years previously, but the existing parish schoolmaster had applied to have a new schoolhouse erected. It is not clear from the Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland (1857) whether a purpose-built school had yet been opened. Other schools in the town in the 1850s included 'a town school, a Lancasterian school, two ladies' schools, and eight ordinary private schools' (Wilson 1857).


Peterhead's town house was built on three floors, the ground floor holding shops, the first containing the parish school, and the second divided into offices concerned with civic business. In the mid-nineteenth century, the town contained branches of the Commercial Bank, Union Bank, City of Glasgow Bank, Aberdeen Town and County Bank and North of Scotland Bank. The merchants and tradesmen of the town each had their own society.

Culture and Society

In the 1850s Peterhead was quite well-served with cultural and social amenities. A public subscription library was founded in 1808, and another smaller public library, Peterhead Mechanics' Library, opened in 1836. The town also boasted a public reading room and a news room. The Peterhead Association for Science, Literature and the Arts, which had its own museum, was founded in 1835 and gave occasional lectures. Other societies included a gardeners' society, a farmers' society, a masonic lodge and 'a variety of philanthropic and religious institutions' (Wilson, 1857). Peterhead also had a public billiard-room, and a suite of hot and cold public baths.