Home Up Pre-History The District The Streets City Industry The Tenement Family Names North East Art

The Doric Columns

Navigation Channel

On the south side of the entrance to Aberdeen harbour, marking the inner end of the channel, there is a small breakwater projecting northwards, and like a thumb on a right hand a small mole sprouts from the shoreward end of this breakwater. This curious extremity is topped by a capstan, now rusty and leaning but once an essential part of the harbour navigation system.

A visit to the capstan reveals nothing about it, other than the fact that amazingly, it still turns. So those who are curious about its use have to delve into the history of the port, starting with the old maps of the harbour.



Probably the most famous of the maps is that drawn by Peter May in 1756. He was a surveyor employed by the magistrates of Aberdeen to produce an accurate map of the port, because they mistrusted the previous work.

This map shows a large River estuary with islands in the stream, and a cluster of houses on the north shore which was the City. The estuary narrows into something looking not unlike the channel of today apart from the fact that there was no stonework. The course of the River Dee is to the north and then curving back southward towards the entrance.

On the south side of the approach to the port there are a number of sticks which might be positioned to guide vessels, and the sea outside the port is known on the plan as the German Ocean later to be named the North Sea.  There is no sign of any moles or breakwaters, let alone capstans.  Hence one can assume that back in 1756 the sailing vessels wishing to enter the harbour either waited for the best wind to allow them to sail up the channel, or else were towed up the estuary by rowing boats. In Glasgow at the same time sailing ships were towed up to Port Glasgow by teams of horses but this option was not open to the seafarers entering Aberdeen because the coast was rocky.

Entrance to Aberdeen Harbour by James CassieIn order to ease this passage and to protect the harbour, breakwaters were constructed over the next 50 years. The harbour as we know it today began to be developed and the River Dee was re-routed to the south into the channel in which it now flows. But the single most important event for those who were challenged at every arrival by the difficulties of negotiating the entrance to the Dee, was the launching of the Paul Jones, at Alexander Halls shipyard on 22nd August 1827. The Paul Jones was Aberdeen's 1st steam tug. The 1st tug on the Clyde had entered service in 1819, so the new technology had taken some time to reach the Northeast.

A local history states that the tug "replaced the labourers on the piers who had previously hauled vessels into the port entrance using capstans", and there seems to be no other evidence of the purpose of the capstans, or indeed that they were ever used. But even this scant reference allows us to assume that during the construction of the port prior to the beginning of the 19th century, some-one realised that it might be more efficient to haul the ships in, rather than to row them in.

Probably the same rowing boats were used to take long lines from the ships and ferry them to the north side and the south side of the harbour where waiting labourers would take several turns round the barrels of the capstans. A couple of labourers would keep hold of the ends of the ropes and at least half a dozen would push the capstans round with long staves located in the slots on the top. Once in the harbour the ships could then sail on across what is now the tidal basin into the Victoria Dock area where they could either drop anchor or warp their way inward to the berths.

The CapstanIf one compares the stonework of the short mole supporting the Capstan with the stonework on the north side of the harbour, it can be seen that it is similar to that making up the 1st section of the North Pier which was constructed in 1800. One assumes that this construction was to improve the channel, and that it incorporated a Capstan matching that on the South side.  A further 900 feet was added to the pier in 1812, and a final 500 foot section was added in 1870. Both are of  noticeably different construction from the original. On the south side breakwaters pointing north were added at approximately in the same easterly longitude as the end of the pier, the final "new" south breakwater giving a certain majesty to the entrance.

Some 8 Capstans surrounded the Navigation Channel - Point Law, Pocra Jetty, Abercrombie Jetty, North Pier x 2, Old South Breakwater and 2 by Torry Beach.  There were also 2 Capstans adjacent to the Harbour Entrance complete with stave racks and staves still intact in the late 1940's.  In addition there were many mooring posts in the vicinity.

The "Fairweather", a wooden paddle steam tug, is listed in the Dundee Yearbook of 1888 as having been sold to an Aberdeen Company that year.

These additions to the length of the pier may have been due in part to the continuing failure of merchant ships to successfully navigate the channel. In 1804, when the pier was very short, the sailing coaster the Hawk, was driven onto the beach just to the north of it. Subsequent to the construction of the 1812 extension, spectators would gather at the seaward end when easterly gales were blowing just to watch the fun. Even today it is difficult to bring a ship up the channel in strong easterlies and the port is closed when the harbourmaster feels there is a chance of the ships bottoming in the channel. In the early part of the 19th century sailing ships would gamely make for the entrance knowing that, what-ever the risk, they faced the possibility of being blown ashore in any case. Even if they managed to get into the channel they could be picked up on the swell and dashed into the south breakwater, or onto the ledge which still protrudes beneath the water inside the North Pier.

There were many wrecks, and often the spectators on the pier were able to assist with the rescue of the passengers and crew of the stricken vessels. Even though the tug was available after 1827 ship-owners were as conservative as they are now, and were reluctant to arrange for a tow when it seemed likely that their vessels could get in on their own. Since it took several hours to get up steam the Paul Jones was virtually useless as a lifeboat and the crew could only watch helplessly as the wrecks took place.

In 1839 the paddle steamer Brilliant was caught by a swell and piled up on the end of the North Pier, which sloped into the sea rather than having the vertical termination to be seen at the end of the 1870 addition. The spectators helped the passengers and crew ashore in the usual manner, but no-one remembered to put the fires out. As a result when the water in the boiler dried up the vessel blew up in a spectacular fashion. 

This was the 1st steam ship to be wrecked in the port and may have suggested to the harbour authorities that even steamers were not immune to the dangers of the harbour entrance, so it may not be chance that the leading lights were completed in 1843. Two further tugs, the Dorothy and the Samson entered service in the same year doubtless allowing larger ships to enter since they would no longer be dependent on the ropes, the labourers and the capstans. For these larger vessels to avoid the dangers of the North Pier and the South Breakwater they would need to keep to the deepest part of the channel, and therefore they would have a greater the need for direction.

The same leading lights are still in service today although now powered by electricity rather than oil, and the port has continued to develop although there has been no building on the south side beyond what is now the entrance to the River Dee. This is because of the possibility of scouring of the river bed and because it is claimed by some that the original North breakwater was not in fact built in exactly the right direction. As a result the Tidal Basin remains exposed to easterly winds, and the small mole with its derelict capstan remains as the sole reminder of the difficulties the old sailing ship masters had when they were entering the port of Aberdeen.

Skene gives precise directions for the benefit of seamen or strangers coming to Aberdeen by sea, which were prepared by desire of the City Magistrates. The 1st object to attract their attention would be the Bay of Nigg, with a country church standing in the middle thereof (the old St. Fittick's Church of Nigg). Northward of it was the Girdleness or Aberdeen Ness, which had to be kept at the distance of a long cable's length, or full 600 feet (on account of the Girdle Rock). Passing this danger, two steeple spires (Town House and St Nicholas Church) would be seen, which had to be brought into a line, with the west spire a sail's breadth North of the other, and then the way was straight in. Once in, ships could ride at anchor sheltered from north, west, and south winds; but in entering care had to be taken because there was a Bar on which there was barely 2 feet of water at low tide. At spring tides the depth on the Bar was about 15 feet at high water, but only 10 at neap tides. On the left hand of a ship entering there was a beacon (about the shore end of the south breakwater - old), about a ship's breadth from which there was usually the deepest channel.  Skene recommended strangers to signal for a pilot, who could always be had by putting out a vaiffe (flag).  Off Aberdeen the flowing tide ran from North and by East to South and by West; farther off it was more southerly. A ship entering the harbour from the North could keep inshore till a depth of 5 fathoms was reached, or with a westerly wind 3 fathoms. Inside the harbour is mentioned the large and high house called the Pack-House (1634) and also the Weigh-House, (Inset) with many rooms for merchants' wares. A pleasant walk to the City could be taken along the North Pier, which led to fields (about Waterloo Station) and further on to the Harbour Mouth. 

Send mail to jazzmaster@jazzeddie.f2s.com with questions or comments about the design of this web site.
Last modified: 01/09/2013