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Harbour - Smeaton's Designs

John Smeaton's Works, 1770-1780.

The state of matters in the harbour had not been improving with the lapse of years. The Dee had crept much farther north, and had sent out a small branch to the north, which entered the harbour at the lower end of the long pier. This had reduced the current of the Denburn, and the upper harbour is shown by Pattersons Map, 1773, to have silted up. The waterway is narrowed, and the depth of water shown at the Weigh-House is only 7 feet. Though it increases going down it does not rise to 11 feet till the Dee is reached. A short Pier has been formed at Pocra with a view to increase the scour in the harbour mouth, but with apparently little effect. The Dee is now running north of Point Law, which is on an island between which and Torry harbour flows a small branch of the Dee; but a barrier has been formed across it where it leaves the Dee in order to exclude the stream and thus save Torry harbour from silting up. This part of the estuary has been improved by the change of the course of the river. The harbour of Torry is now in the old bed of the river, and the depth of water is 13 feet. A small Pier has been formed on the south side, below the village. It is interesting to note that the Raik and Stell fishings have changed their places, but the names remain. The Stells are now north of Point Law, much farther west than formerly, and the Raik or Fair Way fishings by net and coble (flat bottomed fishing boat) are also farther up the river.

In 1682 the Town Council petitioned the Government to grant them a voluntary contribution throughout Scotland because their harbour was becoming useless, which, they said, would be a great national loss. They said this was the first time they had come a-begging and they hoped their request would be granted. It was granted in so far as that they got authority to make the collection; but it does not appear that they ever got any money, and they resolved to do something for themselves. In 1770 they employed Smeaton, a great canal and harbour engineer, who had reconstructed Eddystone Lighthouse after it had been burned down. He examined the river mouth and reported to the magistrates that the formation of the bar was caused by the agency of the north-east winds on the flat and sandy shore to the north, which extends to Collieston, not quite so far as he supposed. By the great waves raised by these winds the sand was driven southward, but could not pass Girdleness, and therefore it accumulated in the mouth of the Dee, which could be kept open only by the water of the river forcing a passage to the sea.

In 1773, the sand bar was nearly dry at low water, and accordingly, to deepen the approach, Smeaton proposed building of the great North Pier. This work was of rubble masonry faced with ashlar, some of the blocks weighing over 3 tons and masses of up to 40 tons being used to protect the foundations. The pier was carried out seawards from Sandness, on the North side of the entrance-channel, at right-angles to the line of the shore , for a distance of 500 yds (457m); its breadth was nearly 30 ft (9.1m) and its parapet stood 15 ft (4.6m) above high-water level. Its objects were to prevent the influx of sand from outside the entrance, and to direct the river's deposit into the path of a tidal current which would carry it round Girdle Ness. It was under construction from 1775 to 1781, and is shown on the map of 1773 as a 'design'.  In 1789 it was found necessary to narrow the entrance-channel, Smeaton's pier having been sited rather too far to the North, and to this end 'Abercrombie's Jetty' was built near its West end.


A small catch pier which extends into the entrance of Aberdeen Harbour from the North Breakwater, immediately to the east of The Roundhouse, Abercrombie's Jetty was built in 1789 to prevent a swell from the east entering the harbour. It was named after John Abercrombie (1729 - 1820), a stocking manufacturer who became Lord Provost of Aberdeen in 1787. Abercrombie's name is recorded on a carved stone embedded within the jetty. However, lying across the harbour entrance, it proved a danger to shipping and was reduced in size to what remains today. Owing to its shape, it is known locally as 'the horseshoe'.

Taylor's plan of Aberdeen and the estuary of the Dee in 1773, before the north pier was built, shows Smeaton's design and the depth of water expected from it. At the extreme end of the pier 13 ft. 9 in. is shown on the south side of the entrance, where the channel was deepest; farther in, 16 ft ; in the main part of the channel, 17 ft ; in Torry Harbour, 13 ft; in Aberdeen Harbour, 7 ft at the quay, rising to 11 at the junction with the Dee. Milnes Plan in 1789, when the pier had been built, shows the same depths. The pier had therefore served one of the purposes expected from it, keeping the harbour mouth open; but in curing one evil another had been created. The waves of the sea had been let in, and the anchorage inside was not so quiet or safe as it had formerly been. The Town Council was greatly blamed for listening to suggestions from amateur engineers who advised that the new Pier should be built farther north than Smeaton proposed, thus widening the navigation channel. To cure this new evil, Smeaton planned a catch pier projecting from the New North Pier into the channel, and it was executed in 1789 under the superintendence of Abercrombie, a skilful Surveyor, whose name it now bears, though at first it was called "Smeaton's Jetty" after its designer.  Small jetties like this which merely divert waves are of little use.  The conditions which modern engineering demands for a safe, comfortable harbour are:- first, an entrance in deep water narrowed to the limit of safety by piers strong enough to resist the impact of the heaviest waves and high enough to prevent the top from being deluged with water and to take the energy out of heavy waves by throwing them vertically up; and the other is a large area within the entrance where the waves which cannot be altogether kept out may spread out and dissipate their force. The author of the "Book of Bon-Accord" sympathised with those who blamed the Town Council for putting the new Pier far to the North; but now that the entrance of the harbour has been carried far out and protected by Piers it is reckoned a fortunate thing that this was done. Deep water in the navigation channel is now urgently required, and by much dredging a depth approaching 30 feet has been attained. Thus, with increasing depth the solid rock seen on the south side is found extending farther and farther northward, which makes it difficult to increase the depth of the navigation channel. Though the North Pier was completed in 1781 it afterwards sustained great damage in storms, and other Acts of Parliament were obtained in 1795 and 1797 to enable the Town Council to repair and strengthen the Pier.

Milnes Plan in 1789

Abercrombie's Jetty was a curved projection from the North Pier, 50 yards long, pointing inwards, designed by Smeaton to divert waves from the North side of the channel and to prevent them from entering the harbour; but after the extension of the North Pier it was removed, as being an obstruction to shipping and to dredging the channel.  It was also supposed to cause the formation of a bank in the channel.  It was removed in 1820, all but about 60 feet, which was left as a tower for a capstan to be used in hauling in ships when the wind was in the west. Before steam tugs came into use there was considerable difficulty in getting ships up the channel with a strong breeze against them, and it required the aid of men with ropes to get them in.  The place of Abercrombie's Jetty as a protection to the harbour was taken to some extent by the Lower Jetty at the west end of the North Pier.  Between it and Pocra Jetty is the Lower Basin, where ships drawing much water had usually to discharge a part of their cargo upon lighters. These were punted up to the Pier where Trinity Quay and Regent Quay now are. In the same way ships loading at the Pier had to go down to the Lower Basin before taking in their full cargo, part of which had to be conveyed to them in lighters. Large ships had to discharge part of their cargo in the bay before taking the bar.  In 1827-8 a wharf was built at the Lower Basin, extending 200 yards, between Pocra Pier and the Lower Jetty.

On a broad view of this Phase of the harbour's history, it is the enclosure of the docks that stands out as of prime importance. In effect, the old channel onto which the town's Quays had fronted was turned into a wet dock of 34 acres (13.8 ha), with a depth of 16ft (4. 9m) and capable of accommodating up to 300 vessels. In 1847 its entrance-lock was still under construction; its gates were made of iron. An Admiralty Plan of 1833, evidently marking features which were then still unfinished, shows a large dock with a smaller upper dock abutting on its West end, while the Dee followed a course slightly further to the West and corresponding more or less with today's Albert Basin. Further diversion of the River towards the South was authorised only by the Bill of 1868 but its new course is marked, as a project on the Ordnance Survey's first 6-inch map of the area, which was surveyed in 1862. It is interesting to find that the Engineers and others responsible for the Harbour's improvement devoted much attention to the possible effect of the docks on the action of the River at the bar. The question was whether the diversion of the River's course and the embankment of some 80 acres (32 ha) of tidal ground would so diminish the amount of backwater available at the fall of the tide as to affect the River's ability to scour out the bar, the same problem, in fact, as was noted at Montrose. The Tidal Harbour Commissioners recognised that, to compensate for the enclosure of the docks, the River's channel should be deepened above the Victoria Bridge to increase its capacity as a reservoir.

The Old Weigh-House

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Last modified: 01/09/2013