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Harbour History from 1797

The oldest part of the harbour is the North Pier which was built (in 1775-81) by John Smeaton, extended (in 1810-16) by Thomas Telford, and extended again (in 1874-7). The inner South Breakwater was completed in 1816 (by Telford) and superseded by a longer one, built of concrete, in 1870-3 The 1st dock was the Victoria Dock which was built in 1840-8; the Albert Basin which was the fish dock, followed in 1869-70. The mouth of the River Dee is also Quayed and had a small dock opening off it.  Perhaps the most interesting features, since the demolition of the hydraulic Regent Bridge in 1974, are the control tower an unusual 5-storey octagonal building from which are operated signal balls; the slotted post signals which control the entrance to Victoria Dock; the 2-storey harbour workshops on Matthew's Quay; the 18-bay, 2-storey, snecked-rubble warehouse on Regent's Quay with its 8 covered hoists, 4 roof cranes and bowed ends, built c. 1900 and two riveted light-towers in Torry built 1842.

John Rennie

John Rennie Proposals
The original Harbour Act of 1773 was followed by 2 subsidiary Acts in 1795 and 1797. The former was merely a continuation of the previous Act, but the latter gave additional powers. Before applying for it the magistrates consulted John Rennie, who planned the London Docks and drained the great marshy district on the Ouse in England. He recommended bringing into the harbour below Shore Brae a branch channel from the Dee which entered lower down; but he proposed to put a breastwork upon it so that the river water would have some fall in entering the harbour and help to scour out mud. The salmon fishers caught their fish at low tide, and they objected to anything tending to hinder the rapid fall of the river, so this scheme had to be left out of the new Act. 

The North Pier had been founded on the natural bed of the sea, cleared perhaps of some sand. It had done its work so well that the navigation channel had been scoured out 2 feet below the foundation of the Pier, and a footing of loose stones had been laid down to protect it.  These, Rennie said, should be removed, substituting 2 rows of piles, 1 close to the Pier and the other 10 feet off. He said the clay between the rows should be excavated and dressed stones should be put in instead on end.  The upper part of the Harbour had been cleaned out by digging out the mud and putting it on lighters at low water and Boating them down the harbour at high water.  The original Quay had been founded on the muddy bottom of the harbour, and the foundation was now laid bare. He proposed to bring forward the quay 10 or 12 feet and found a new wall 6 feet deeper.  The Waterloo Quay - not so called then, however - he said should be put back all the way down to the shipbuilding yards.  Lastly, the proposal to have a wet dock should not be attempted in the Harbour because the bottom was pure fine sand full of water, and a foundation for a lock would be expensive; therefore, he proposed to form a wet dock at Futtie, 7 acres in extent, with the surface of the water above the level of the Quay. The Canal Act had been passed, and he proposed to fill the dock with water from the Canal. The entrance was to be at the bar, which began at the head of the navigation channel. It does not appear that much of Rennie's advice was followed at the time. His wet dock was too far from the town, and it was feared that it would leak, being on a sandy bottom at a higher elevation than the water in the harbour.

Improvements inside the harbour were recommended in later years by several leading engineers, the names of Rennie, Telford, Walker, Gibb and Stevenson all appearing in the record, as well as that of James Abernethy who was appointed resident engineer in 1840. Rennie was consulted in 1797, and, although his recommendation were not carried out, it is important to remember that they included the formation of a wet dock. Telford made a report in 1802, and a Bill based on it was passed in 1810 which authorised an extension to Smeaton's North Pier, the construction of a wet dock and spillway, and the diversion of the River's current. By 1829 all these works had been carried out apart from the wet dock, of which only the quay-walls had been completed; the length of the North Pier, no doubt in its extended form, is given as 2000 ft (610m) at this date. Other major works of this period were the South Breakwater of 1812-15, stretching 800 ft (244m) from the South shore at a point outside the entrance and reaching to within 250 ft (76m) of the end of the North Pier; and wharfage along the whole length of Waterloo and Regent Quays.

To attempt to describe in detail the whole process of the harbour's development in the 1st half of the 19th century would not be a rewarding exercise, partly for the danger of obscuring the wood through over-attention to the trees.  Reference, however, may usefully be made to a general account of what was done between 1840 and 1846 as given in evidence to the Tidal Harbours Commission by James Abernethy, the Resident Engineer; this shows that, in the course of these years, the harbour as a whole had been widened and deepened, some sand-banks at the entrance had been dredged away, part of Abercromby's Jetty had been found to be unserviceable and removed, and likewise old warping-posts and cairns of stones which caused obstruction in the fairway.  At the same time, 330 yds (301m) of new wharfage had been built and effective leading lights set up at the harbour entrance. The depth of water at the entrance was now 19 ft (5.8m) and the width between pier-heads 380 ft (116m); that between Pocra Jetty and the point of the 'inch' opposite it was 350 ft (107 m). Navigation at this point was difficult, especially for long steamers, as it was necessary to make a turn of almost 90 degrees.

Thomas Telford 1757 - 1834
Born in Westerkirk, Scotland. He was a stonemason, architect and civil engineer and a noted road, bridge and canal builder

Thomas Telford was born the son of a shepherd 6 miles west of Langholm in the Scottish Borders. At the age of 14 he became an apprentice stonemason in Edinburgh. In 1782 Telford moved to London to work on Somerset House and in 1784 he was managing the construction works at Portsmouth Dockyard. In 1788, he was appointed Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire.  He returned to Scotland in 1790 to survey Harbours and Piers on behalf of the British Fisheries Society, for whom he had designed Ullapool in 1788, but by 1793 he was back in Shropshire, building the Ellsmere Canal.  Telford's works can be seen all over Europe: they include a canal in the English midlands, canal tunnels in the north country, the Gota Canal in Sweden; St. Katherine Docks in London and roads that opened up the Scottish Highlands. If any Scot made a difference to countless generations, it surely was Thomas Telford. His work in improving highways and bridges, canals and road made much of the Industrial Revolution possible.

Telford's Recommendations.
In 1802 Thomas Telford was consulted, and he recommended the conversion of the whole harbour -  that is the long, narrow, winding channel extending from Poynernook to Pocra Jetty - into a wet dock, in 2 divisions, separated by a gate which would be usually open, but which could be shut at spring tides to allow the lower division to scour out the Lower Basin and the Navigation Channel. In 1805 Mr Jessop was called to inspect and report, which he did, but nothing followed.  In 1809 the Town Council again applied to Telford, and he gave in a report and proposals with an estimate, and the Magistrates resolved to apply to Parliament next year. In April, 1810, Telford gave in a more complete scheme, the chief features of which were:- Extension of the North Pier 300 feet, and of the South Pier 300 feet; a lower wet dock 2350 feet in length, about 22 acres, and an upper, 1550 feet, about 11 acres; 3 graving docks,  each for 2 large ships; altering the course of the Dee; embanking the Inches, and raising the whole above high water; and excluding the Dee from the Harbour.  His plan was shown in London to Mr Jessop, and approved by him.  In spite of opposition from Shipowners and Shipmasters, who dreaded increased expense, the Bill became an Act. The Provost, Mr James Hadden of Persley, got a dinner, at which Alexander Bannerman (MP for Aberdeen), one of the opponents of the Bill, was present somewhat reluctantly. The dinner bill, he said afterwards was £2 19s 6d per head, and he did not recover from the effects of the dinner for 3 months!

Telfords Plan of the above proposals showing 3 Graving Docks and the Upper and Lower Wet Docks with raised Inches

Mr Telford
thought that the most important of the works to be done was the extension of the North Pier. He recommended the appointment of Mr John Gibb as Resident Engineer, residing in Aberdeen, and he was engaged by the magistrates. In 1811 the North Pier was extended 300 feet, and when work could not be carried on at the pier the workmen were employed in building a wharf wall at Waterloo Quay. This extension of the North Pier gave an increase of depth of 3 feet, and so well satisfied was everybody that a farther extension was resolved upon: and in 1812 an addition of 450 feet was made, which was extended to 865 feet next year, and completed with a circular head of dressed granite blocks dovetailed together. The whole length of the pier was now 2000 feet, the length of the original head being lost.  The 2nd addition had given 3 feet more water, and the 14 feet had before 1810 became 20 feet.   The pier had been founded on sand, and in 1813 in a severe storm the sand was washed out at the sides of the head, leaving them unsupported, but the head stuck together for a few days.  At length a breach was made between the head and the pier, and the head fell. It was rebuilt with a better foundation, but it fell again in 1815, and was rebuilt with a long slope into the sea and shorter slopes at the sides. This stood well for several years, but the North Pier head cost £6655 between 1827 and 1831.

It had been proposed to make a breakwater, not connected with the land at either end, to cover the points of the North and South Piers, but in 1812 at the instigation of Mr Gibb it was commenced by extending it from the south shore in the same direction as it had been originally planned.  It was finished in 1815, and it extended 800 feet from the south shore, reaching within 250 feet of the North Pier. The cost of the work was £14,000.  This had not been contemplated in the estimate, but the erection of this breakwater rendered the extension of the South Pier unnecessary, which was a great saving, all that was done to the South Pier being replacing with dressed granite the original wooden head, destroyed before 1809. The breakwater was constructed of stones quarried at Greyhope Bay, and conveyed by a railway. The stones were tumbled into the sea without dressing or building, the only care taken being
to put the larger blocks to the outside. This breakwater was thought unnecessary and in the way of ships entering the harbour after the last extension of the North Pier and the erection of the present South Breakwater. It was, therefore, removed, all but 100 yards at the shore end.  Telford seems to have kept most in view the scouring of the navigation channel by the River, and was unwilling to give up the South Pier; but Gibb, looking more to the safety and comfortable quarters of ships in the Harbour, favoured the breakwater as providing a broad space where waves could expand within the Pier Heads. In this he was supported by Robert Stevenson, the light-house engineer, who said that if he had been consulted by the Harbour Trustees he would have advised them to abandon the South Pier and construct the breakwater, because when a wave was confined between 2 Piers it would continue to undulate to the very top of the Harbour. Mr Alexander Bannerman, an amateur engineer who opposed Telford because he would not adopt his proposals, regarded it as a proof of his ineffable folly that he had allowed the breakwater to take the place of the South Pier.

The Harbour, then being naturally only the channel of the Denburn though the tide flowed and ebbed in it, was very narrow, not exceeding 50 yards in width at the Quay head and 100 yards at Point Law. It did not, therefore, require a great expenditure of labour to make some improvement upon it. At first this was done by spade work and lighters; but after the navigation channel had been deepened by a steam dredger which was procured after 1810 it was used in the harbour, and so efficient did it prove that in a short time the foundations of the piers were out of the water at low tide, and they were constantly falling and needing rebuilding. This mending and patching up continued till 1827, when new wharf walls began to be made at Trinity; but they were built 30 or 40 feet in front of the old quay to have a broad road between the houses and the water.  The walls were founded on piles, which afterwards enabled the harbour to be dredged to a considerable depth without endangering the walls. The walls were next extended downwards to Commerce Street and upwards to Poynernook.

For a long time when any improvement had to be made in the Harbour, or when the entrance had to be cleared, the Magistrates called on the citizens to turn out and do the work themselves. By the Acts of 1773, 1795, 1797, the management was left with the Town Council, to whom the harbour belonged. But when the Act of 1810 was first proposed the political party calling themselves Radical Reformers insisted on 2/3rds of the Managers being men chosen by the citizens, which the Town Council were not at that time. The Magistrates would not agree to this, but proposed the appointment under the Act of 7 Auditors, with power of controlling to some extent the actions of the Magistrates.  In spite of the opposition of the Radicals, the Town Council's Bill passed into law.   In another Act, passed in 1813 to amend the former Act, the same controlling body was retained. In 1828 the Magistrates wished to have a new Act for the improvement of the Harbour. Again the Radicals demanded that the citizens, who would have to pay the dues on goods imported and exported, and the shipping dues, should have the Management of the Harbour. The Magistrates were anxious to conciliate them and agreed to admit men outside the Town Council to a large extent; but the Radicals would not be satisfied with less than a majority and successfully opposed the passing of the Bill.

In 1829 a new Act of Parliament was obtained repealing and consolidating all former Acts. The new Act was to endure for 21 years, but it was enacted that everything to be done under it should be completed within 5 years, except that the course of the River might be altered after the expiry of the 5 years, if deemed necessary. The Management was committed to 9 members of the Town Council, 5 Burgesses of Guild, and 1 member of the Incorporated Trades. The objects of the Act were to cleanse, deepen, and scour the Harbour; to exclude from it the polluted Denburn and Millburn; to make a spillwater channel on the south side of the Dee to hasten its fall after high tide, and thereafter to close up channels from the Dee entering the harbour at high tide.  Power was given to raise £200,000 to carry out the works sanctioned by the Act and to pay a debt of £113,000, consisting of £30,000 taken over in 1810 from previous Acts, and £83,000 additional incurred under the Act of 1810.  Under the powers of this Act were completed the quay extending 1900 yards from the lower end of Waterloo Quay to Poynernook, which was not near the modern Poynernook Road, but to the north of the line of Marywell Street, on the south side of the Denburn when it turned east.  Its site is outside the south end of the Joint Station arched building.  Regent Bridge was also erected, a stone and iron structure 200 feet long resting on 2 end piers and 2 in the water. It gave access to the south side of the harbour, where Provost Blaikie's Quay, a wooden wharf for lime ships, was constructed.  Enormous quantities of lime were used as manure at this time, and the Quay for the Lime Vessels was 1200 to 1300 feet long, opposite the angle where Waterloo and Regent Quays meet.

In February, 1831, during a severe frost, the Pot above the Craiglug was frozen over. A thaw came on the 16th and melted the snow on the hills, causing a great flood in the river, which burst the ice barrier and swept it before it. The Inch Dyke (about the north-west corner of Albert Basin) resisted the ice, but both above and below it the river swept over the Inches into the Harbour.  A great deal of water and ice entered the Harbour by the Back Burn at Poynernook, meeting with some obstruction at the wooden bridge at Shore Brae.  So great was the force of the current that 3 vessels pulled out their mooring posts and were swept along till they were stopped by 2 large Steamships which had broken loose and had grounded, entirely blocking up the harbour. The old dredger lying farther down was carried out to sea and must have sunk as it was never seen again.  In the Upper Harbour the current ran strongly between ships and the pier, and though the foundation was deeply piled, with a platform for the wall, it sunk 6 feet, and 150 feet had to be taken down and rebuilt.  In the end of 1831 the Raik Dyke was removed from the head of the channel which branched off from the River and flowed past Torry on the south side of Point Law.  This hastened the fall of the River after flood tide, and let the Raik fishers begin work sooner.  Then the embanking of the Inches on the south side was completed, and the Back Burn connecting the River and the Harbour at high water at Poynernook was closed up.  The interior of the harbour was greatly improved by dredging out the silt and mud which had accumulated in it.  Market Street was not formed till 1842; but west of the line of it Trinity Quay had been extended in a double curve lo Poynernook, the first concave curve facing the south-east and the second the north-west. This part of the harbour allowed ships with coals to approach the then Gasworks, the site of which was in the open space on the east of the Joint Station. The extreme upper end accommodated the Clayhills Brick Works, giving access to ships bringing coals for the kilns and to barges and lighters taking away bricks and drain pipes. The Clayhills were high steep banks of alluvial clay on the site of Wellington Road, between Portland Street and Affleck Street. The clay banks were so high that sandmartins built nests in them.

Much excavation had to be made in the inner part of the Upper Harbour alongside the Quay, and in 1832 a large oak tree was found within 150 yards of the Trades Hospital, which was near the bottom of Exchange Street. It was within a few inches of the surface and some people remembered seeing part of a branch of it projecting above the ground in the edge of the Trinity Inche. When taken out it was found to be 20ft 2in. in circumference, and the trunk was 6ft 6in. in length from the root to the first branch, which was 23ft 6in. long, and 13ft 10in in circumference. Part of another limb was 6ft 7in. in circumference and 3ft long. The tree was lying horizontally from south-east to north-west. It was not much decayed, and did not seem to have lain very long where it was found. There were anciently many oak trees in the Forest of Birse, and as that parish is liable to heavy rains, causing floods in the Feugh when the wind is in the South-east in autumn, the tree may have come from Birse. A South-east wind would have prevented it from going out to sea and would have blown it into the north-west corner of the estuary of the Dee. There were anciently many oaks in some parts of Aberdeenshire; but the oak rarely produces ripe acorns in the north of Scotland, and most likely they had been grown from acorns imported from England. The introduction of the oak into Scotland may be ascribed either to Margaret, wife of Malcolm Canmore, an English lady, or to David I., her youngest son, who had been much in England before he became King. The oak tree was set up near the then Inches (now Commercial Road/Quay) at the far end of Regents Road in 1836, where it stood till it was found to be somewhat in the way. It suffered from a fire in an adjoining Timber Yard and was removed to the Duthie Park (Inset).

Permanently berthed in Aberdeen Harbour was HMS Clyde a Naval Training Ship. HMS Clyde was a man o' war with 14 guns and 1081 tons. The ship was for a long time moored in the Upper Dock where it served as a training ship. Connected to the quay by a floating gangway, the ship was open to visitors on Sunday mornings. After being shifted to Albert Quay it was towed away to be scrapped.

The Lower Jetty
at the south end of Pocra Quay was removed in 1832. Apparently no useful purpose was served by its removal, but the stones forming it were good and were utilised in building part of Waterloo Quay. The greatest improvement effected on the Harbour under the Act of 1829 was the excavation of Victoria Dock (though it did not bear that name till afterwards) and the making up of the Inches.  Before 1829 the Harbour near the head of Waterloo Quay was only 60 yards wide, and its south side was where the north edge of the dock is. Under the Act of 1829 the dock was excavated, the quay was completed in 1804, and the old harbour was filled up. From Market Street to Church Street the whole of the old harbour is now covered by the Quays. Below Church Street the area of the old harbour was in the space now covered by the east end of the dock and the tidal harbour. These works cost £122,200, and as the working powers of the Act expired in 1834 there was neither time nor money to do anything at the entrance of the harbour or to attempt the formation of a wet dock.

Mr James Walker's Proposals.
In 1837, when there were still thirteen years of the Act to run, there being a clamant demand for the immediate completion of the harbour by the formation of a wet dock, the Harbour Trustees resolved to have the harbour surveyed and examined by an engineer of eminence and experience. Mr James Walker, civil engineer, London, was selected to examine and report upon the subject of a wet dock. He came to Aberdeen in January, 1838, and after examining plans, sections, and reports in the possession of the Trustees, and hearing the opinions and wishes of all concerned he gave in a plan and report in April of the same year. He recommended the formation of a dock in the harbour by a lock at Lime Street, with a gate at Regent Bridge forming an inner dock above it. About 160 yards of the upper end of the harbour was to be cut off and filled up; but the remainder was to be widened, and new quays were to be formed on the south and east sides; the tidal harbour was to be greatly extended by prolonging Provost Blaikie's Quay to the eastward ; the river was to be diverted southward; and a new spill water channel was to be formed on the south side of the river to prevent opposition from the salmon fishers. A bill was brought into Parliament in 1839 to carry out Mr Walker's proposals ; but it unexpectedly met with opposition from shopkeepers on account of the increasing shore dues proposed to be levied on their goods, from the shipping companies, and from Messrs Hogarth, Reid, and Pirie, who proposed a Dock in the river with a new channel for it. The bill, moreover, was opposed in Committee by the City member of Parliament, who had agreed to introduce it and had promised to give his best aid and assistance in carrying it through Parliament. The decision of the Committee was unanimously against the bill, and it was lost, mainly apparently on the ground that due time had not been given to the inhabitants to consider it maturely. Nothing was done for three years.

Harbour Plan 1838

THE ACT OF 1843 — Mr James Abernethy's Proposals.
Notwithstanding the rejection of the bill of 1839 there was still a great desire for a wet dock, and in 1842 Provost Thomas Blaikie called a public meeting of the citizens to obtain their sanction to a bill for the improvement of the harbour by the construction of a wet dock and the extension of the quays, and the removal of the nuisance caused by the infall of sewers into the harbour. A large meeting was held, at which a Committee was appointed to consider schemes and plans and to prepare a new Harbour Bill. Several schemes and plans were considered : — three by Mr James Walker, London; four by Mr Alexander Gibb, engineer, Aberdeen; one by Mr William Leslie, Aberdeen; and two by Mr James Abernethy, Resident Harbour Engineer, Aberdeen. The plan by Mr James Abernethy was adopted, which showed the upper part of the harbour converted into a wet dock by a lock at the end of York Place, by it ships could pass in and out of the dock at any state of the tide, and alongside of it there was another lock with a single gate by which ships of any length could easily pass in and out at high tide. The dock was to be divided into 2 parts by Regent Bridge and a pier extending southward from the bridge. The upper part was shown to be 550 feet wide, with its north and south sides parallel; and the south-west corner of Victoria Dock was to be extended till its South side came into line with the South side of the Upper Dock. Two jetties were proposed to give more berths for ships, 1 extending Southward into the Harbour at Sugarhouse Lane, and the other at Market Street. The west end of the Old Harbour was to be filled up, and the new Upper Dock was not to go beyond Stirling Street. The bill passed, and operations were begun at once, but the 1st Contractors failed after making some progress, and they abandoned the contract. The Aberdeen Railway Act was passed in 1844, and as the station was planned to be between the Market and Guild Street it was seen that the Railway Company would need the whole of the Upper Harbour west of the line of Market Street, so instead of the jetty a Quay was made. The other jetty, at Sugarhouse Lane, was also relinquished. The Upper Dock was widened out at its West end and narrowed at its East end; the pier extending south from Regent Bridge was abandoned; and the extension of the South-west corner of Victoria Dock was also given up, so that the South side of the 2 docks is not parallel to Regent Quay as was proposed in the plan sanctioned by Parliament. The plan adopted was probably cheaper than James Abernethy's, but not so shapely in appearance.

The resolution of the Aberdeen Railway Company to abandon the site on the north side of Guild Street, which they had at first selected for their station, for a larger and more commodious site on the south side required new Acts of Parliament, both for the Harbour Commissioners to sell part of their ground and for the railway company to buy it. The railway company wished to acquire not only the Inner Dock, but the part of the Inches west of Regent Bridge. The Harbour Commissioners, however, resolved to retain for themselves ground sufficient for the foundation of a quay in the line of Market Street and a row of houses on the west side of the quay, and also the whole of the ground lying east of the line of the new quay.

The dust of calcined limestone is injurious to the clothing and the persons of those on whom it lights, and ships freighted with lime were ordained to discharge their cargoes at a place apart from other ships. The part of the harbour assigned to them was what is now covered by the south end of Waterloo Railway Station, lying west of Church Street. When the Canal Company was formed in 1797 it was settled that the canal was to terminate beside the Lime Basin, and a lime shed was erected for storing lime discharged from ships, where it would be near the canal barges which conveyed it into the interior of the county. The Canal Basin was on the north-west of the Lime Basin, both lying between the ends of Commerce Street and Canal Terrace; but the south end of the terrace has been absorbed into the railway station. Both the Lime Basin and the Canal Basin were originally within the harbour area, being in the wide mouth of the Powcreek Burn; but though they were in close proximity to one another, there was no connection between them. The Lime Basin was merely a nook of the harbour, quite open to it on the west side. The Canal Basin was an excavation with a road between it and the harbour, made on material excavated from the basin. The water in the Canal Basin was fresh, and only its overflow entered the harbour. That it was originally part of the harbour is shown by Kennedy's " Annals," wherein there is mention of ships' anchors being found when it was excavated. The. south end of Waterloo Quay began to be formed in 1811, and when it was extended to its full length northward and joined to Regent Quay the Lime Basin was cut off and rendered useless for ships. For their use a wooden wharf was formed at Provost Blaikie's Quay, on the other side of the harbour, well towards the upper end, to be near Regent Bridge, so as to shorten the cartage of lime between the ships and the Canal. In 1834 the Canal was connected with the harbour by a sea lock, and in 1835 the old Lime Basin was filled up and afterwards built upon.

Kennedys Annals 1818

In 1844
the Great North of Scotland Railway Act was passed, and in view of this an agreement was entered into between the Canal Company and the Railway Company that after the passing of the Act the Canal should be worked for the Railway Company and transferred to them when its bed was required for the construction of the railway. It was given up in 1853, and the Canal Basin and the site of the old Lime Basin were required for the formation of Waterloo Railway Station. After the formation of the dock-gates in 1848 and the subsequent dredging of the Victoria Dock no new works requiring the borrowing of more money were undertaken for a long time; but the penalty for making a harbour in the mouth of a river had constantly to be paid in the shape of unceasing dredging of sand and gravel brought down by the Dee. This is deposited where the outflow of the river is met by the influx of the tide. When the current of the river is brought to rest the sand and gravel which roll along its bed sink to the bottom and form a firm, compact bed which can be removed only by dredging.


In 1867 the great increase of the harbour revenue induced the Commissioners to think of undertaking new works for the improvement of the harbour; and Messrs Hawkshaw and Abernethy, Consulting Engineers, were employed to report on the best means of improving the harbour. Following upon their report a bill was introduced into Parliament, which became an Act in 1868. This Act repealed and consolidated the Acts of 1843 and 1844. It vested the management of the harbour in a Commission composed of the Town Council and twelve elected members, with a duration of 55 years. In 1923 the harbour reverts to the Town Council. The Commissioners hold a statutory meeting on the first Monday of the year, and monthly meetings thereafter. The limits of Aberdeen Harbour include the mouths of the Don and Dee, and the intermediate sea coast. The purposes of the Act are defined to be : — the extension of the North Pier to the extent of 166 yards; a new pier or breakwater 420 yards south-east of the then existing breakwater, which had been erected under the superintendence of Telford ; the improvement and deepening of the navigation channel along its whole length from the pier heads to a point 50 yards west of the lower jetty; the removal of 50 yards of the north end of the South Breakwater; the removal of Telford's South Pier on the river side; the improvement, deepening, and widening of a navigation channel between the lower jetty and the dock-gates; the removal of 160 yards of the point of the Inches; the diversion of the Dee, beginning at Wellington Bridge and terminating 120 yards west of the lower jetty; the reclamation and filling up of the old bed of the river Dee; and the widening of Trinity Quay east of Market Street.

The Commission was empowered to borrow to the extent of £450,000, which covered the debt on the harbour at the commencement of the Act. Mr William Dyce Cay, the resident Harbour Engineer, was appointed to carry out the works sanctioned by the Act, which were to be begun early in 1869, and Messrs Hawkshaw and Abernethy were consulted as to the order in which they should be executed. In 1868 the revenue of the harbour was £2,500, the highest yet reached; and the debt amounted to £180,000, a third of which was for property purchased. £7332 was given to reduce the debt.

The first work undertaken was the erection of the New South Breakwater, which was begun in July, 1869. As long as the work could be carried on without going under water the foundation was prepared by blasting, and the pier was formed of liquid concrete in frames; but when the work had to be carried on in the sea a staging was formed by means of tall Oregon Spars which cost £55 each.

So long as the foundation of the pier was on rock, iron shoes to receive the lower ends of the spars were bolted to the rock. The spars were set up vertically and fastened together by horizontal and diagonal bars. At the top of the spars, at; !0 feet above the sea, a staging was erected with rails for waggons to convey blocks of concrete to be lowered into position.

Photograph of the detailed drawing of the layout of the blockyard in Greyhope Road at the South Breakwater base, drawing title reads 'Harbour Engineers Office, Aberdeen, 15th June 1937, Hugh R Barr, Engineer', drawing shows the running track on the South Breakwater for the Titan Crane and the running track in the blockyard for the static Goliath Crane which was used in the fabrication of the concrete blocks, detail on the drawing reads '25 ton Goliath Crane', small railway linking the area where the blocks cast to delivery point to the Titan Crane, 10 ton Derrick Crane at the base of the breakwater by the Titan Crane used in the assembly of the Titan Crane.


Titan Crane on South Breakwater 1938, South Breakwater light, foreshore to the west of the South Breakwater, steam trawler and Aberdeen Harbour's steam suction hopper dredger 'Annie W Lewis' making for the harbour entrance from sea, South Breakwater lighthouse clearly still marked with Torry Battery gunnery targets chequered on top, several workmen on the pier by the Titan Crane rails.

When deep water was reached, huge bags of concrete in a semi-liquid state were dropped into their proper places by means of a vessel having in its bottom hinged platforms which could be let down when four rods projecting upwards from the vessel came under other four projecting downwards from the staging. The upper part of the breakwater was formed of blocks of concrete mixed at Greyhope and conveyed on rails to the staging.

When the new breakwater had made some progress the stones of the old breakwater and the South Pier were used as "hearting." A railway was laid along the edge of the sea to the Bay of Nigg, where sand and gravel and loose stones were got to help to form the breakwater. Sand was also got from a quarry on the hill of Balnagask. The Work was carried on during summer only, and everything movable was removed during winter. The breakwater extends 1050 feet from high-water mark, and 700 feet from low- water mark of ordinary spring tides. It cost £78,000, an unusually large proportion of which went for preliminary expenses and works and purposes other than the cost of the materials used in construction and the wages of workmen employed at the breakwater. When the breakwater was finished the spars of the staging were sawn off at the level of the top of the pier. Though they were of the finest quality of wood that could be obtained - such spars could not be obtained now - they did not last long, and only the upper parts remained sound. Large holes were bored in the spars with augers, and liquid cement was poured in to take the place of the decayed wood.  

In 1870 the widening of Trinity Quay was ordered.  This was a much-needed improvement, as the roadway between the houses and the water was very narrow. The cost of the whole work was £4900, the greater part of which went for paving and other purposes than the building of the quay wall.


The diversion of the River Dee was effected under a contract which amounted to nearly £60,000. Borings made in the channel formed for the river yielded fresh water, but it rose and fell in harmony with the rise and fall of the tide. The whole area of the estuary of the Dee, and also the bed of the river for a good way up, had been at one time a bed of fine laminated clay resting upon sand. Water from the river enters below the upper edge of the clay, and passing through the sand comes out at the lower edge of the clay, where the Navigation Channel begins. As the tide rises the under current of water is stopped and rises in bores, but it runs away again when the tide falls. About 200 yards below Craiglug Bridge, where there was anciently a ferry, dressed sandstone blocks were found. They could hardly have been the remains of a bridge over the river, but they might have been in a pier projecting into the river, at which passengers and horses embarked and disembarked. Farther down beams of oak were found, still connected together. These might have formed part of a wooden bridge, formed with planks resting on piles driven into the river bed. Such a bridge would easily have been constructed — one in Switzerland is carried across a broad lake — but it would have been in danger from ice and snow coming down the river.  This might have been the bridge for the upholding of which John Crab made a bequest. The diversion of the river cost £37,000, and as the salmon fishers were tenacious of their rights and obstructed the operations of the Commissioners an Act of Parliament was obtained in 1871, empowering the Commissioners to purchase the 'fishings' at a price to be fixed by arbiters. £38,000 was paid for the fishings in the sea within the new breakwater and for those in the river up to the Chain Bridge at Craiglug.  The material excavated from the new channel for the river was employed in filling up the old channel, and by it and the dredgings from the Victoria Dock a large extent of ground was reclaimed. Some material was obtained also from the point of the Inches, which was removed lo facilitate the entrance of large ships into the dock.

The Navigation Channel was cleared of all obstructions by the removal of the greater part of the old breakwater and the South Pier, only the end of it being left. Both these works had cost, much money and had been regarded as great improvements when they were made. In dredging the Navigation Channel, cairns built up around posts were found and removed, and the channel was widened out to 300 feet. The posts had been used in warping ships into the harbour against the wind.

No new works in connection with the outer entrance to the harbour were contemplated by this Act; but the channel had been so much deepened that the platform at the base of the head of the old North Pier had become a source of danger to ships entering the harbour, and it had to be removed. At the same time something had to be done to secure the foundation of the old part of the North Pier. By much dredging the channel had been lowered below the base of the pier, and it was in danger of being undermined by the rush of waves inward along the south face of the wall. Large blocks of stones had been laid down at the foot of the wall to protect it. These were now removed, and a row of piles was driven into the hard clay at some distance from the wall. Then an excavation was made between the piling and the wall, and this was filled with concrete.  But the chief works carried out by the money borrowed under the Act were done within the harbour. Mr William Smith, the resident Harbour engineer, proposed to remove Regent Bridge to the end of Commerce Street; to continue Provost Jamieson's Quay eastward to join Provost Blaikie's Quay; to project a jetty 650 feet into the Upper Dock from Market Quay; and to lay a double line of railway along the quays. Some of. these recommendations, however, were not carried out. Trinity Quay was narrow, and its foundation was only 7 feet above the sill of the dock gate. Smith proposed to found a new wall 50 feet from the old quay, making it 120 feet wide, and to found it 20 feet deeper than the old wall. Another great undertaking was the filling up of the old bed of the Dee. It would have been desirable to utilise for this purpose the whole of the dredgings from the docks and the navigation channel, but this would have greatly hindered the work of dredging, and most of the excavated matter was carried out to sea and dropped in deep water. The enormous quantity of 22,000 tons of refuse had to be removed every year from the town, and it was arranged to deposit a considerable part of this in the old bed of the Dee. By September, 1880, the whole of the old bed of the river, west of Market Street, had been filled up and laid out in streets or roads, and the part east of Market Street was formed into a tidal harbour, called Albert Basin. The name Commercial Road was given to the new road formed along the northern bank of this basin, where the Fish Market was. It was also resolved to form a quay, to be called Provost Jamieson's Quay, along the south side of the Upper Dock. The cost was estimated at £11,000 but it ultimately amounted to £15,000.

The herring fishing began at Aberdeen in 1836 at the instillation of the fishermen of the Cove and Portlethen. Some provision for accommodating herring boats had been made at Point Law, and it was proposed to do more for the promotion of this industry when there was more money at the command of the Harbour Board.

Under the powers conferred by the Act of 1899 the Old Regent Bridge was removed and a new and wider bridge has taken its place, which is opened and closed by electric power. It was completed in 1905. Part of Point Law has been removed and a wharf has been erected on the north side of the channel of the Dee, on the south side of the point. Much dredging has been done between the dock gates and the pier heads. The sills of the two gates are 22 Feet and 26 feet, respectively, below high water, and the depth between the pier heads is now 29 feet. Sand and gravel and some shells, called Solen siliqua, are driven in during storms to a distance of 300 yards from the entrance, and they form a bar, which has to be removed by dredging.

Before the harbour improvements began in 1773, and even for many years after, the whole estuary of the Dee was covered at high water. This required such a volume of water that, as soon as the tide began to rise, the current of the river was arrested and the sea began to flow in, which ordinarily caused a scour in the harbour mouth when it flowed out. This state of matters has been completely changed by the deepening and widening of the navigation channel and the formation of the wet dock and the embankment of the Inches. There is less influx of sea water at the bottom, and there is a steady flow outward of the warm, light river-water at the surface at all states of the tide. When the tide begins to rise, sea-water gently comes along the bottom of the channel without arresting the outward flow of the River till Point Law is reached, where the depth of the River rapidly diminishes. Here the stream of sand and gravel incessantly rolling along the bed of the river is arrested and a bank is formed which must be removed by dredging, and there is now no scour in the navigation channel.

Foreseeing the necessity of enlarging the accommodation for shipping the Harbour Commissioners spent a large sum in the purchase of land on the south side of the Dee for the formation of new docks. The dimensions of ships are increasing, and they wish to deepen the entrance channel and some parts of the harbour to 30 feet. This requires more money and new powers, and they obtained a Provisional Order, titled the Aberdeen Harbour Order, 1907, authorising them to borrow £300,000 additional for the execution of new works, comprehending : — securing the foundations of the North Pier; improvement of the Upper Dock by deepening, reconstructing the quays, and extension southward ; widening Waterloo Quay and Provost Blaikie's Quay; removal of the Graving Dock; construction of floating docks ; wharves at Point Law and Albert Quay; wharves at the Fish Market; docking of the River Dee ; reconstruction of the harbour railways ; the purchase of locomotive engines; and the purchase of land. When deepening the Navigation Channel by dredging began the first obstacle met with was loose boulders which had been dropped by the Dee Glacier as it melted on entering the sea. These were lifted and removed, and dredging went on till another difficulty was encountered.  It was found that solid rock extends northward from the Torry side under the Channel. For a time it was possible to remove upstanding points and decayed parts of the rock by dredging, and a depth of 27 feet was obtained by this means; but the deeper the dredging was carried the further the rocky area was found to extend northward and eastward. It is at present known to extend 400 feet from east to west, and in some places nearly as far as to the North Pier. Beyond it rock is found at the depth of 100 feet under the beach.

Picture of the bucket dredger used to increase the depth of the Navigation Channel which the former appears to have a severe list and may have become a navigation hazard itself just off the piling near Point Law.  A service boat is moored alongside and a steam ship is approaching the harbour off Abercrombies Jetty and the Skate Nose Jetty

The increasing size of ships coming to Aberdeen has made it desirable to attain a depth of 30 feet in the entrance channel of the harbour, and this cannot be got by dredging. Hitherto the removal of submarine rock in harbours has been done by boring a row of holes, charging them with explosives, and firing them off simultaneously by electricity. At Aberdeen another method of breaking up solid rock has been adopted. A small ship has been furnished with an iron cylinder weighing 26 tons, with a steel pointed head. This is raised vertically and dropped on the rock several times in succession on the same place. In a short time the rock is broken up to the depth of 3 feet and then the ship is shifted to another place. The apparatus does its work efficiently and economically, and after a depth of 30 feet is obtained all over the Channel an effort may be made to reach 33 feet.

River Dee Dock

By the early 20th century, Aberdeen was Scotland's leading white fish port and with this came the need for expanded quayside facilities.

The River Dee Dock was built between 1909 and 1915 and was used to provide servicing for the fishing fleet. It is now the site for tankers to offload petroleum to the large tanks on shore.  This has recently been piled and filled in 2012 to provide more Quay space on the Torry side.

Working Docks

Wood and Davidson's had a small ship repair works at Point Law which employed the floating pontoons to make jobbing repairs to small vessels such as trawlers




Roadway and quay at Regent Quay West, Harbour Office building and buildings to the east of Weigh House Square including the office of Ellis & McHardy, Coal Merchants, various cars, lorry, empty railway carriages, single storey goods shed at Regent West, double storey goods shed at Regent East, steam cargo vessel bow on to quay at Regent Quay West, bollards, steel tow rail, cobbled deck, train rails, Chain and Stanchions, street lamps. Photographer's location: Centre of the roadway at Trinity Quay. Direction of photograph: Northeast.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013