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Decades on Jackie relives ordeal as prison hostage

Jackie Stuart
Jackie Stuart

It was an incident which featured a place known as “Scotland’s Gulag”, the abduction of a hostage, an impassioned debate at Westminster, and the intervention of the SAS.

Peterhead prison officer Jackie Stuart was already 57 by the time of the siege at the notorious jail which commanded global headlines 30 years ago this month.

And yet, although he was stabbed several times during his ordeal, which dragged on for five days, he never allowed it to affect his life.

Indeed, six weeks after it happened, he had returned to work.

And even now, at 87, the north-east father-of-six still acts as a guide for visitors at Peterhead Prison Museum.

It has changed beyond all recognition from the grim citadel which formerly housed Scotland’s most notorious criminals.

But while there had been outbreaks of lawlessness at other Scottish jails in the months leading up to the explosion of violence at Peterhead, nothing could have prepared Mr Stuart and his fellow staff members for the riot which erupted on September 28 in D-Wing.

As he recalled to the Press and Journal: “A colleague had placed an inmate on a minor report in the morning, but in the evening, when they [the prisoners] were out for leisure, the inmate tried to stab the officer who was involved.

“I went to his aid, but after wrestling him to the floor, I noticed the whole hall had become involved in the incident and events just spiralled from there. My attitude to life is that if something happens, it happens, and you have to make the most of the situation. I always look on the positive side of things, and that kept me going throughout the next few days.

“But, because one of the group of inmates could best be described as erratic, there were times when I was unsure how events would unfold. My focus throughout it was to try and keep everybody calm and not inflame the situation.”

Mr Stuart’s sangfroid was hardly shared by his work associates after he had been taken hostage.

Peterhead Prison was commonly known as the “Hate Factory” and the ringleaders in the riot included such characters as Sammy “the Bear” Ralston, Douglas Mathewson and Malcolm Leggat, who were regarded as desperate characters.

After seizing Mr Stuart, they moved to an area in the roof space of the prison and created a variety of barricades and booby traps, using such items as burning bedding and soiled sheets to ensure nobody could get near them.

As news spread of the crisis, the BBC screened footage of Mr Stuart being hauled on to the rooftop, where a hooded prisoner swung a weapon at his head.

As September turned into October, the story had commanded the international spotlight and prime minister Margaret Thatcher decided the status quo could not continue.

It was at that point the prison authorities liaised with senior politicians and the SAS’s involvement was sanctioned.

But as one officer, who requested anonymity, told the Press and Journal: “It was very controversial, and not everybody agreed with it. Sending in UK special forces to handle a domestic criminal incident was way different from the normal way these affairs were handled. But, of course, it was all about saving Jackie’s life and that had to take precedence.”

Back on the roof, Mr Stuart was at the mercy of his captors for days on end.

He explained, in down-to-earth fashion: “I was stabbed three times throughout the ordeal, twice in the arms and once in the side, but, to be honest, I didn’t really feel that much. They even hit me with a chair leg and put it round my throat at one point. Some people may think it would have been horrific. It was an experience I will certainly never forget.”

But, as his fate hung in the balance, developments were moving swiftly elsewhere.

At the start of October, about 20 men from the SAS’s on-call anti-terrorism team were flown from RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire in a Hercules aircraft to Aberdeen, before being driven under police escort to Peterhead Prison, where they prepared for their rapid response.

As Mr Glennie recalled: “We had just taken up duty early in the morning [at 5am] and were sitting in the cell when it all kicked off. There were several explosions and flashes and there was smoke everywhere and, within a few minutes, the prisoners were being marched down the stairs, one by one, to the ground floor by the SAS soldiers.

“We had been sitting on the front line, but the rescue plan was unknown to us. The good news was that Jackie was safe. The SAS had obviously looked at plans of the prison well in advance and worked out the best way to get Jackie out. The whole operation was done precisely and without any fuss. I was there and I had a job working out how it all happened, as did the other members of my team.”

Mr Stuart was also in the dark. As he said: “This was possibly the worst part, because I had no idea they would be coming in, and when the stun grenades and tear gas were thrown in, it took me by total surprise, as it did the inmates.

“But I was then removed from the scene by an SAS officer and ran back along the roof to a rope, which then led me to a ladder, which took me to another SAS officer and to safety.”

Even now, in his ninth decade, Mr Stuart still seems bewildered at the speed with which the siege was brought to an end. Others might be equally surprised at how swiftly he himself recovered from his brutal treatment.

This was in the days before there was any real recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder and he received little more than a physical check for cuts and bruises, prior to returning to normal prison duties in November, 1987.

His response perhaps summed up why he seemed so unperturbed. As he commented: “Well, it was part of my job, I just got on with things.”

The perpetrators of the riot were struck with lengthy extensions to their existing punishments.

But there was no admission by the government that they had called in the SAS until more than five years later in 1993. Secrecy still surrounds aspects of the operation.

Indeed, even the SAS’s official account concluded: “In a short time, the prison authorities came in, reclaimed the building, and took charge of the inmates, while the SAS melted into the shadows.” Peterhead Prison closed in 2013 to be replaced by HMP Grampian.

It doesn’t seem surprising to discover Mr Stuart back in his old haunt after the prison museum opened in 2016.

As he remarked: “Being involved since day one of the museum project has been enjoyable and it is great to see what a huge success the whole development has been.

“Meeting such lovely visitors is a huge difference to my former life inside these walls. It is terrific that somebody has done this at the prison, because it was just lying empty for a while.”

That feeling was reciprocated by Alex Geddes, co-ordinator at the new visitor attraction. He said: “Working with Jackie has been a great honour and his presence in the halls has seen terrific feedback.

“His pragmatic approach to the incident, plus his general service over the years, speaks volumes in relation to his character and in a very positive way he is certainly “old school” in his work ethic and dedication to the service.”

Other people might have wanted to get away from the building after suffering such an ordeal.

Jackie Stuart escaped once from Peterhead. He clearly has no wish to break out again.