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The Doric Columns


The Route of the Canal
Waterloo Basin
- Aberdeen Docks and tidal lock, Virginia Street Bridge, Fish Street Bridge, Constitution Street Bridge, King Street Bridge, Nelson Street Bridge, Mounthooly Lock, Canal Road Bridge, Kittybrewster, Stoneywood, Dyce Basin, Kinaldie, Dalweirie, Kintore Wharf, Port Elphinstone Basin.

The highest level was at Stoneywood, where is reached 168 feet above low water mark. The principal works constructed upon it were 17 locks, 5 aqueduct bridges, 56 accommodation bridges and 20 culverts.  The canal was closed in the passing of the Act in 1854 authorising the Great North of Scotland Railway Company to proceed with their undertaking.


In 1793, the formation of a navigable canal for barges, to connect the Harbour of Aberdeen with the River Don at Inverurie, was projected, and in 1796 an Act of Parliament was obtained, by which the projectors were empowered to raise by the sale of shares £20,000 for this purpose. Of this sum only £17,700 was raised, and it was found necessary to apply for another act, which was obtained in 1801, empowering the proprietors to raise £20,000 additional by the creation of new shares. Only £10,000 of this was obtained, but not long after other £10,000 was raised by! mortgage, and the canal was opened in 1807.

Its length is a little more than 18 miles, its average breadth is about 25 feet at the surface of the water, and the depth is 3 feet 9 inches. It has 17 locks, one of which is 10 feet in height, 15 are 8 feet each, and one is 3 feet. The line chosen for it is not, in the opinion of some, the most advantageous that might have been obtained, as it throws the greater number of the locks to the lower end, within 3 or 4 miles of Aberdeen, in consequence of which the delay and expense of short carriages are rendered considerably greater than they would have been otherwise, and the inducement to the transport, for example, of stones from the large granite quarries in the neighbourhood of the town, is much lessened. Nevertheless, the trade on it has not been inconsiderable, though hitherto not sufficient to pay off the mortgage debt, and therefore, as yet, altogether unproductive to the holders of either the new or the original shares.

The tow path was on the right hand canal bank, when travelling in the direction of Port Elphinstone. On the left were wharves for mooring the boats.  It was not until 1834 with the building of a tidal lock that the canal was connected to Aberdeen Harbour.   Previously goods from the harbour were transferred by road to the canal.  In 1832, the holders of the mortgage, being sensible of the great advantage which would accrue to the trade of the canal from its being connected by a tide-lock with the harbour, agreed to forego their dividends for a time, in order to permit this to be effected, and the tide-lock, whose height is 6 feet, was accordingly executed in 1834, at an expense of about £1500.  By this means, the canal barges can be loaded and discharged at the ship's side, and can enter the canal readily at half-tide; by which, the intercourse on it has been greatly facilitated and the trade consequently increased. The dues charged on articles conveyed by the canal are from ½d. to 1½d. per ton per mile, according to the nature of the goods.

The following tables show the quantities of the principal articles transported by the canal for the last seven years:—


The increase in the quantity of grain is to be in part ascribed to the introduction of covered barges, by which the cargo is effectually protected from rain on its passage.

A Fly or Passage Boat was, at an early period, established on the canal, and for some years it was carried on with considerable success; but the establishment of numerous coaches on the adjoining Turnpike Road, presenting the advantage of quicker travelling, though at a higher rate, had the effect of diminishing the profits of the fly-boat very materially. With the view of obtaining a renewal of the encouragement formerly given to it, an iron boat was lately procured, and the rate of going was increased from about 4 to 8/9 miles an hour. The experiment cannot be, by any means, said to have failed, but the effect has not hitherto been so favourable as might have been anticipated.

Canal Barge being pulled along the Aberdeenshire Canal, Aberdeen, 1810 - This drawing shows a barge being pulled by 2 horses with one rider along the Aberdeenshire Canal.  The twin spires of St Machar's Cathedral are clear in the background.

This undertaking was projected in 1795 by proprietors and others interested in the Garioch, for the purpose of conveying to Aberdeen Harbour the agricultural produce of the district, timber, slates from the hill of Roudlaud, etc., and carrying back shop goods, coals, and lime. Latterly, also large quantities of bone manure and guano were carried. Passengers were conveyed from Port Elphinstone to the neighbourhood of Kittybrewster, within 2 miles of Aberdeen. An Act of Parliament was obtained in 1796 for carrying out the work and for raising a capital of £20,000 in £50 shares. From various causes the whole amount was not raised, and in 1801 another Act was obtained enabling the company to raise another £20,000. In 1809 a 3rd Act was obtained to raise money for completing the work to the best advantage of the company, and in all the canal cost £44,000. The undertaking involved no engineering difficulty. The Canal was 18 miles long, 17 feet wide, and 3ft deep, though the width was afterwards increased to 23 feet and the depth to nearly 4 feet. There were no tunnels, deep cuttings, or high embankments ; but there were 56 bridges over it and 5 culverts for burns under it, which caused great expense. The most expensive part of the work was the locks for raising barges and boats from the lower end of the Canal at the Harbour of Aberdeen to the level of the Don below Inverurie. Of these there were 17 in number, each 60 feet long, and they had a lift of about 9 feet. The 2 at Stoneywood were each 16 feet deep. The Canal began at the Don just below the bridge near Inverurie, but the working terminus was at Port Elphinstone, a mile from Inverurie. The origin and growth of Port Elphinstone were entirely due to the Canal Here commercial companies had stores within which barges could be taken, and they were expeditiously loaded with grain led down in shutes from lofts above. The Canal kept to the West side of the Don, at a gradually increasing height above the river, because there were few locks till Aberdeen was approached, whereas the river was constantly falling ; but though the distance from the river varied with the contour of the land, the Canal was never far from the river, and it was within a mile of the Don at Woodside. It passed along the west side of Kintore, winding in and out of little valleys to save cuttings and embankments. Its bed may be seen here and there between Kintore and Dyce, because it was too crooked for the railway to follow it closely.

Map Showing Route of Canal

A little below Kintore on the west side of the railway may be seen a red- tiled house, with a pavilion roof, one of the few belonging to the canal still to be seen. At Greenbank, near Stoneywood, there were 2 locks.  North of Bankfoot the canal was between the turnpike and the railway.  It crossed the Bucksburn by an aqueduct a little to the west of the Railway.  At Haudagain there was another lock. This comical name is a good example of the change a Gaelic name may undergo in passing into English. The original form had been "Achadh a' Gabhainn," meaning a place where there was a fold. There are other names in Aberdeenshire with the same meaning and nearer the original form. From Haudagain, for some distance onward, the Canal kept close to the line of the turnpike road. A hundred years ago what is now the town of Woodside had hardly begun its existence. There was a solitary place called Woodside, west of Deer Road and near the riverside. East of Deer Road and near the river there was another solitary place called Printfield; and east of Don Street there was a 3rd place called Upper Cotton. It had nothing to do with cotton or its manufacture, for it was a corruption of a Gaelic word " cuitan " meaning small fold. In the course of 50 years there had sprung up along Great Northern Road 3 villages:- Woodside, west of Deer Road, also called Barron Street; Printfield, east of Deer Road, also called Hadden Street; and Cotton, east of Don Street, also called Wellington Street. These 3 streets are now collectively called Great Northern Road, and the 3 separate places now collectively bear the name of Woodside. At Barron Street the Canal was near the road ; at Hadden Street it was at the north end of the gardens, and its track was unoccupied with buildings for a considerable time, though it is not so now; at Wellington Street and on to Kittybrewster the Canal kept quite close to the road. At Fullerton Road, often called the Brae Road, there was the Boat-House, still standing, but originally it had a red-tiled pavilion roof. Passengers were not carried further than this house, which is 2 miles from the Harbour, as may be seen by a milestone bearing the figure 2 at the edge of Great Northern Road. It had been allowed to remain when the other Canal milestones were removed, because it had been supposed to be a road mile-stone. As the Canal charges were by the mile it was necessary to show distances along the whole line of the canal. No 1 milestone was above Mounthooly Bridge. No 8 is shown on the 6-inch Ordnance Survey Map, east of the Railway. At the Boat-House there were usually numerous on-lookers, and amongst them often one or more of Aberdeen's Dickensian "Odd-fellows," whose likenesses may be seen near the entrance to the Reference Department of the Public Library, willing to play the fiddle, sing, or dance for coppers from the passengers.

The passenger boats did not come below the Boat-House because between it and the entrance to the Railway Station there were several locks, which caused delay to the passage of barges. Entering the station gate there may be seen, on the east side of the railway, part of the wall of an approach to a bridge over the Canal on the former road to Old Aberdeen. From this point down to the harbour the goods line of the railway keeps to the bed of the Canal. There were several locks on the part of the Canal bordering on Elmbank Terrace, and near the bridge there is in a nursery a small red-tiled house which was a cabin for the lockman who opened and closed the locks when barges passed up and down. At Mounthooly there was a wharf which was the chief town station on the canal. Here were delivered and taken on goods from and to country merchants. After 1830 Messrs Barry, Henry, and Company crushed bones for manure, which were shipped here. Below Mounthooly there was another lock, and on the upper side of the bridge at Nelson Street there was, on the east side, a place where the barges could be repaired. Below Nelson Street there was a wide part where 2 barges could pass one another, and between Nelson Street and King Street there were 2 locks, the lower very near to King Street. From King Street downwards there were grassy slopes on both sides, which were let to householders for bleaching greens; and for the convenience of women who washed clothes on the margin of the canal there were small wooden platforms, where they could dip pails easily.

The sight of women doing their washing often gave rise to ribald gatherings of lecherous men as a Spectator Sport.  Tucking their skirts in their bloomers and dancing on the sheets before Brassieres could contain their figures must have been quite an attraction.

The "Aberdeen Journal" takes notice of cases of green-stripping, or theft of clothes left by washers to bleach on the greens near the canal. This was attributed to drunken "limmers," who spent their last penny on drink at night, and rising next day with an unquenchable thirst were impelled, "improba fauce," to go out prowling for something to steal and pawn, and as the greens were outside the town they were visited. To protect the bleaching clothes girls were sometimes left in charge, but if the watcher were too small the thieves had little scruple in stripping her too.  At the beginning of last century water was scarce in Aberdeen, and great annual family blanket washings were often carried out at the canal side. On such occasions it was customary for two young women to tramp the blankets in a large tub. They stood side to side facing different ways, and having kilted their petticoats they joined hands behind their backs and went round and round in the tub. This was done in most cases away from roads, and the women were not molested; but some women washing on the canal bank where it was crossed by King Street were for a time annoyed by lads who sat on the parapet of the bridge, with their feet dangling above the water, and chatted and laughed at the washers. One day while this was going on at the dinner hour, a young man - admirer and probably at the instigation of the girls - came along and shoved the middle-most off the parapet into the water and ran off. The others hurried down to get their companion out, and meanwhile the girls' friend got safely away.

There was little fall for some distance below King Street. At Park Street the canal passed below a bridge called the Thieves' Brig, but this was not the original bridge of this name, which was also on Park Street but an eighth of a mile farther south, where it crossed the Powcreek Burn. This burn was passed under the canal by a culvert. A little above Constitution Street there was another lock, and there was another at Fish Street below "The Bowl Road," now Albion Street. The last was a little above Virginia Street. The canal terminated in a rectangular basin near Waterloo Quay, a little to the east of the bend where Regent Quay begins. When the basin was excavated, anchors and other relics of ships were found. This spot had been the estuary of the Powcreek Burn, the original boat harbour of Aberdeen - Hence Pow Craw or Pocra Quay). The summit level of the canal was 168 above low water mark, which would be 16 or 17 feet below the Ordnance Survey datum level, ordinary mean sea level. The overflow of the canal was to the Harbour, and it was regulated by a lock, which did not at first give a passage for barges to the harbour, but in the early thirties a sea lock was made which allowed barges to load alongside vessels anywhere in the harbour and enter the basin at high tide. The harbour had not at that date been converted into a wet dock.

The canal was opened on May 31, I800. The Committee of Management assembled in the morning at the basin at Port-Elphinstone, attended by the Provost, Magistrates, and the minister of Inverurie and other inhabitants. The company embarked on board one of the barges called "The Countess of Kintore," handsomely decorated and fitted up for the occasion by Captains Bruce and Freniau, the commanders of the two fiy-boats. The barge proceeded to Kintore, where they were joined by several parties of ladies, who were highly pleased with the novelty of the navigation through the locks, while several thousands of the inhabitants crowding on the banks and bridges added much to the interest of the scene. A gun fixed to the bow of the barge was fired occasionally to announce its approach. The company and occasional visitors partook of refreshments on board the barge, and the voyage, which lasted seven hours and a half, terminated at the basin near the Quay without the slightest interruption. The band of the Stirlingshire Militia, then stationed in Aberdeen, met the barge several miles from Aberdeen, and played many favourite tunes during the remainder of the voyage. The committee afterwards dined together at the New Inn, and after dinner drank success to the undertaking.

The traffic on the canal was conducted by two iron boats, made in Aberdeen, for passengers, and by long, low, wooden barges covered with movable hatches for goods. The passenger boats started from both ends, morning and afternoon, in summer, but they made only one journey each way in winter, and it had to be suspended in frosty weather. They were drawn by 2 or 3 horses going tandem with a boy riding on the 1st horse. The boats belonged to the canal company, but they were farmed out to a Tacksman. The company had barges of their own which they hired out to traders, who contracted with farmers and others to draw these when required. The commercial companies built their own barges and employed their own horses to draw them. At some of the bridges the road and the canal were nearly at the same level, and the driver unhooked the chain by which the barge was drawn, and it passed through below the bridge of itself. The driver was ready to hook on the chain as it came out, and little time was lost. When the canal was below the level of the road the horse passed under the bridge on a narrow path at the side, usually covered with a foot of water. At King Street the horse passed under the bridge, Goods barges took 10 to 14 hours from Port-Elphinstone to the Harbour. Passenger boats made the journey to the Boat-House in 12 hours. Horses were changed at Dalwearie near Kintore, and at Dyce. The canal was not a money-making business, but it was of great service to the farmers of the Garioch, and indirectly it benefited the proprietors, the promoters of the enterprise, the canal was doing an increasing business when the Great North of Scotland Railway Company's Act passed Parliament in 1845, when it was for their mutual advantage that the canal should be transferred to the railway company to facilitate the construction of the railway and to avoid competition. It was sold in 1845 to the railway company for £36,000, and after Whitsunday, 1846, it was managed for behalf of the Railway, though the company could not raise the money to pay for it till 1853, The first turf was cut for the railway at Westhall, Dyce, in 1852, the Inverurie to Huntly section being first made to let the canal remain in use till its bed was needed for the railway. In strict form of law the Railway company should not have got possession of the canal till the price was paid ; but a great amount of legal conveyancing had to be done because the railway company had to get a discharge from every shareholder and mortgagee of the canal, and the business had not been got through when the contractor for the railway reached Kintore with his work and required the canal bed. Instead of waiting till the lawyers had finished their work he solved the Gordian Knot of the difficulty by cutting a gap in the bank of the canal and letting out the water. The railway was finished as far as Kittybrewster, September 19, 1854 ; and next year it was opened to Waterloo Quay, and the canal, where not under the Railway track, soon became grass-grown and forgotten.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013