Peterhead unlocked: How political firebrand John Maclean’s health was ruined by savage conditions of Scotland’s ‘gulag’

ARTICLE by socialist revolutionary written from inside Scotland’s toughest jail reveals how the wardens pushed prisoners to breaking point.

Sunday Mail
John Maclean at Peterhead prison

PETERHEAD jail has, from time to time, been called “Scotland’s gulag”.
Its distance from the Central Belt inspired the nickname. And the connotations of a faraway jail where political prisoners and agitators could be exiled were fitting when one of the most famous of the Red Clydesiders was sent there for campaigning against World War I.
John Maclean did not lack guts in the fight, proclaiming: “I have been enlisted in the socialist army for 15 years. God damn all other armies.”
At one stage, the firebrand was held in Edinburgh Castle as a “prisoner of war”.
But when Maclean was sent to Peterhead in 1918, he found himself surrounded by common criminals rather than political agitators and intellectuals.
An article he wrote in Peterhead lays bare conditions in the jail.
Jailed dissidents like Maclean often went on hunger strike as a means of protest. He was force-fed in jail and there is no doubt his health suffered.
Maclean was just 44 when he died in 1923 and, even now, he remains a revered figure in British left-wing politics.
His legacy spawned many books, poems and songs.
Maclean’s own story of his experiences “up north” – as the Glasgow cons say – is fascinating.
He contrasted life in a Glasgow “local” prison, Duke Street, with the daily “scientific torture” of what he rather oddly described as “a convict prison”.
He told how convicts had their hair cropped once a fortnight. A thick knitted cap was provided and it “kept the head quite warm”.
Hygiene standards were different in those days. Maclean described how prisoners’ underwear was kept “clean and sanitary” – by being washed once a fortnight.
He had a regular cell – about 4ft wide, 8ft long and 7ft high. In 1918, two cells were knocked together for English prisoners brought north, although why they got special privileges is unclear.
Maclean described how the glass in his cell was twisted so badly that little light entered the tiny space and you could not see out.
He believed, perhaps with a touch of paranoia, that the idea was to make prisoners brood and fret.
Maclean highlighted the Sunday misery of fellow prisoners who could not even read to help pass the time on the day of rest.

Newsline Prisoners from Peterhead Prison at work in Stirlinghill Quarry. 1959
Prisoners from Peterhead at work in Stirlinghill Quarry.

He said the regime was deliberately oppressive and designed to push inmates beyond breaking point.
Maclean wrote: “Of course, anything can be made a crime and by nagging and threatening to bring men before the governor, the warders are able to make their charges’ lives unbearable.
“The purpose is to break up the men’s nervous system and veritable wrecks are made of many.”
The heating system in the jail was primitive and inadequate and prisoners were not allowed, by decree of the
governor, to wrap their blankets round themselves when they weren’t in bed.
In an article, first published in Red Dawn in 1919, Maclean describes the harsh daily routine.
He wrote: “At 5am, a bell rings and every prisoner must get up, make his bed and wash.
“About 5.30am, the orderlies serve out a big pot of porridge containing half a pound of meal and three-
quarters of a pint of skimmed milk.
“At 7am, the cell doors are opened and all make for the yard, each to his own group or ‘party’, where he is searched.
“Then, each party proceeds to work, formerly in the granite quarry but latterly in the Admiralty yard. At 11.30, all are in the yard again ready to be searched before proceeding to the cells for dinner, which used to consist of a pint of broth, 7oz of beef, 6oz of bread with variations as to potatoes, cheese etc.
“Out all must turn again at 1pm to return at 5.30pm, when a supper of 14oz of dry bread and a pint of coffee was served out.
“The prisoner has from then till 8.30pm to read or amuse himself as best he can.”
Maclean died young and Peterhead played a role. Physically, his health was wrecked by the savage conditions in jail.
Books, however, saved his mental health and Maclean left a considerable legacy of socialist thinking.
One thing is for sure – John Maclean was certainly not the run-of-the-mill Peterhead con.

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