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THE NATURAL HARBOUR

From the Torry shore a vast sheet of water spreads northwards and westwards: the lands we now know as the Links and Footdee are not yet above the sea, which laps the base of the Castlehill, entirely covering that space now occupied by the low-lying streets between its base and the Quay, Virginia Street, James Street, Commerce Street, etc.; it reaches the foot of St. Katharine's Hill, up which the Shiprow now winds and Market Street ascends. There is sea over the site of the Joint Station to the base of the steep ground that descends from Crown Terrace to the level of the Denburn, where now the Railway is laid, and it stretches a narrow arm over the site of Dee Village, along the gorge between Ferryhill and Springbank Terrace to expand beyond into the Loch of Dee. The river, emerging from the forests and marshes of lower Deeside, enters this broad estuary at the Craiglug, where now the Suspension Bridge spans the river.  From the northern shore of this inland sea a series of forest-clad hills and marshy hollows stretch away to where Brimond fills the sky-line, with many a brook winding through the bog and among the eminences destined to be the site of that fair city, which yet sleeps bound in the granite heart of the hills, for the iron is not yet forged for that magic wand — the chisel — at whose touch the rocks will cleave, and the white city will emerge.

THE EROSION OF THE ESTUARY
Another question connected with the harbour is:-  What was the agency by which the wide estuary was formed?  The answer is given by the grey stony clay found in the deep shaft sunk at the south end of the tunnel under the Dee. This had been formed by a Glacier coming from Ben Macdhui, Cairntoul, and other lofty mountains round the sources of the Dee.  Where the bed of a glacier is steep it is rapidly eroded; where it is nearly level the detritus is laid down and the ice passes over it. The evidence from what has been found in excavations in the Harbour indicates that the erosion of the estuary of the Dee began when the land was several 100 feet farther out of the sea than it is now and the seashore was farther to the east; that it was caused by a large glacier descending the valley of the River and carrying the debris far out to sea; that after the valley was deeply eroded the land began to sink, which caused erosion to cease at Aberdeen and a bottom moraine to be formed; and that after a long period of extreme cold the glacial phenomena began to disappear and the terminus of the Dee Glacier gradually retreated up the River valley and finally vanished - its last work being the formation of the pools of the Dee at the base of Ben Macdhui. So long as the glacier continued to be at work in the valley the River must have been heavily charged with gravel, sand, and clay, and by the deposition of these the estuary had been filled up, leaving only 2 channels, one occupied by the River Dee and the other by the Denburn. Originally these 2 streams had coalesced at the head of the estuary; but in Gordon's Chart, where we first see them, the meeting-place is at Point Law.

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

THE HARBOUR IN EARLY TIMES
At Aberdeen when we first learn anything about its Harbour large ships could go no further into the estuary of the River than Torry. They lay in what is now Torry Harbour, on the south side of the Dee, out of the current and sheltered on the west from floating ice in winter. There was no building of any sort to lie at, and they took in and discharged their cargo by boats. Fishing boats were hauled up on the beach in a small bay on the north side where Pocra Jetty is now.  The land on the north side of the river ended in a point called the Sandness. On passing it the current of the River slackened its speed and deposited the sand and gravel which it had been carrying in suspension or rolling on its bed.  This produced ail round the river mouth a bank of sand and gravel called the Bar. All Rivers entering a shallow Bar of the sea are liable to be obstructed by Bars, and Aberdeen has not quite got rid of the one at the mouth of the Dee, though it is now shifted to the end of the North Pier. A great feature of the entrances to the River Mississippi is the erections for narrowing the streams and making them scour out their channels. At the end of the Russian War an International Commission was appointed to attend to the mouth of the Danube and keep Russia out of mischief.

Torry Bulwark, from John Slezer’s view of ‘New Aberdeen from the Torry Blockhouse’, of 1693
The Footdee Blockhouse on the North Side is evident.

The Harbour of Aberdeen has grown up over the centuries in the estuary of the River Dee, originally an area of sandbanks and waterlogged marshes, roughly triangular in shape and set on an East-West axis; including marshland at the inflow of a small tributary, the Denburn, it may have measured about 3/4 miles (1.2 km) from North to South at its inner (or West) end by 1 1/4 miles (2 km) from West to East. The Dee appears to have entered it at the South West corner, on a northerly course, and then to have turned Eastwards to traverse it by a series of channels, which left between them islets, mainly tidal, known locally as 'inches'. The northernmost of these channels evidently followed a course more or less corresponding with today's Upper and Victoria Docks, and was here reinforced by the Denburn, which had joined it on its curve from the northerly to the easterly course. It was on this channel that the town's Harbour lay, the other cutting through the Inches on their various courses which seem to have been liable to change from period to period; their disposition, for example, as shown respectively on the maps of the Rev J Gordon (1661) and G Taylor (1773) being markedly different. East of the Inches lay a pool of open water, which narrowed towards the apex of the triangle where the River debouched into the sea. 

As a site for a Harbour this tidal area suffered from a number of drawbacks, the most serious of which was a Sand Bar obstructing the entrance. Coastal currents and northerly winds kept sand in movement from the vast reservoir formed by the links and dunes stretching northwards to beyond the Ythan, and this sand, when its movement was checked by the projection of Girdle Ness, tended to settle down and form a Bar outside the mouth of the Dee.  Under certain conditions of tide, the depth of water on the bar might decrease to a few feet only; the Bar itself was unstable, and its presence could also make the turn from the open sea into the river-mouth a dangerous manoeuvre for ships. In addition, the tidal area lacked protection from easterly storms, and the channel leading to the town was shallow and obstructed.

Mar's Map - 1760 - As a site for a harbour this tidal area suffered from a number of drawbacks, the most serious of which was a Bar obstructing the entrance.  Coastal currents and northerly winds kept sand in movement from the vast reservoir formed by the links and dunes stretching northwards to beyond the Ythan, and this sand, when its movement was checked by the projection of Girdle Ness (& Girdle Rock), tended to settle down and form a bar outside the mouth of the Dee. Under certain conditions of tide, the depth of water on the bar might decrease to a few feet only; the bar itself was unstable, and its presence could also make the turn from the open sea into the river-mouth a dangerous manoeuvre for Ships. In addition, the tidal area lacked protection from easterly storms, and the channel leading to the Town was shallow, ever changing and obstructed

The full chart shows the entrance to Dundee with large inset charts of Aberdeen and Montrose. Small title cartouche with putti. The dedication to the Magistrates of the City of Aberdeen is displayed within a decorative cartouche with Coat of Arms and figures.  Nigg Bay is referred to as St. Fitticks Bay Windmill Hill, Castle Hill, St Nicholas Church and Dee Ferry is shown along with the Torry Bulwark

CONTRACTION OF THE MOUTH OF THE ESTUARY

The contraction of the mouth of the estuary had been effected by sand brought down by the River Dee from deposits of glacial clay through which it passed. They had been first carried out to sea, then cast on the beach by sea waves, and lastly blown inwards in East winds. No doubt, however, the sand on which Footdee is built came partly from the north, being carried southward in north-east storms, which raise the greatest commotion in the sea on the east coast. Though there are along the coast great sandhills formed of sand blown in from the seashore the sea is constantly gaining on the land. This can be seen by the steep face presented by the sandhills to the sea. Originally it was a gentle slope, but the waves are undermining the hills and carrying the material farther and farther out. When it reaches deep water it settles and comes to rest permanently. There is sometimes a great accumulation of sand at the back of the North Pier after a north-east gale, but farther North the sea is visibly wasting the land.

In the Bay of Nigg we can better estimate the erosive power of the sea than between Don and Dee. At the close of the glacial epoch the bay had been filled with a bed of clay containing many large rounded blocks of stone. The bed was the ground moraine of a branch of the Dee Glacier which left the valley about the railway viaduct and held straight out to sea. The lowest part of the hollow between the River and the Bay does not quite reach 50 feet above sea level, and the clay bed in the bay had not been so high. High water mark at the head of the bay is now 800 yards within a line joining Girdleness and Greg Ness, which marks the depth of the erosion of the coast. The clay has been washed away; but the stones it contained are now lying in the bottom of the Bay, each where it fell out of the bed.  Some think that the River Dee had once run to the sea at the Bay of Nigg; but if it had once done so it would probably have kept to that course. The sea is gradually making its way inwards to the Dee, and if there is not rock to stop its progress a communication between the river and the sea might in the lapse of ages be effected. Others, with no responsibility upon them, say that by projecting Piers or Breakwaters from Girdleness and Greg Ness an excellent harbour could be obtained with a deep water entrance, well-sheltered from the north; but the extension of the North Pier has done much to improve the entrance to the present Harbour, and the dream of a Bay of Nigg Harbour is not likely to be realised.

The Harbour of Aberdeen is the estuary of the River Dee, which had originally extended from Virginia Street on the north to Sinclair Road on the southside, a width of fully 1000 yards. The mouth had been quite as wide, perhaps wider, though it is now restricted to 100 yards. We naturally wish to know how the area between the limits mentioned came to be so much filled up, not as it is now, but as it is seen by Gordon's chart to have been in 1661, before the citizens had done much to change its natural appearance.  It is clear that if the land were now to rise slowly out of the sea the river would tend to sweep away the matter accumulated in its estuary; and therefore we may infer that the filling up of the estuary had been caused by the sinking of the land into the sea, and that the matter which filled it up came down the river.  Excavations made in the Harbour to obtain a secure foundation for the piers of Regent Bridge showed that there is in the bed of the Harbour at a considerable depth a layer of peat-moss. As moss is formed in marshy places on dry land there must have been a great depression of the north-east of Scotland and an invasion of the land by the sea since the formation of the Estuary of the Dee. The shellfish called Solen siliqua thrives best in a sandy beach, alternately covered and bare at high and low tide, and it dies in deep water, either from want of suitable food and conditions or because the pressure of the water is too great.  Shells of this kind have been dredged up from water 400 feet deep to the east of Aberdeenshire, which indicates a sinking of the land to that extent.

Aberdeen Harbour Board, established in 1136, is Britain's oldest business.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013