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

The Doric Columns

The North Pier - 1/2 Mile Long

As a lad there was free access to the Harbour and the North Pier and it was quit an adventure to walk it's unrestricted length from Abercrombie's Jetty to the Lighthouse and Raised Head like walking the deck of a giant liner with the sea either side of the Pier.  Trapping fingers in dropped Mooring Rings, spinning the Capstans, perching on Mooring Bollards, crawling under the Flag House and shinning the Flag Poles, jumping the shallow and raised walkway with its Chain Lifeline grab on the north side to enable dry access for maintenance men to reach the lighthouse.  To finally to climb the steep steps to the V pointed Bulwark beyond the Lighthouse where there were always rod and line fishermen would be casting baited hooks into the ocean beyond the Pier to catch large fish from the prow of our imaginary Ship.  A great adventure and quite confidence building for young unaccompanied lads during the seemingly endless summer holidays.  Passing Cargo Sips to waive at or watching the Trawler Fleet advance like an armada jockeying its way out into the open sea on a Monday morning with a half sobered crews gathered up by taxis after being dragged reluctantly from their Marital beds.  Although it looks quite straight to the beholding eye but it has a distinct bend where it was extended.

The harbour of Aberdeen was in its natural state in the very worst conceivable place for accommodating any vessels except small fishing boats. John Smeaton, however, saw what was necessary to be done to make it a useful harbour; and he recommended that a Bulwark should be erected on the north side of the entrance with the 2-fold objectives of preventing the sand from the North currents from getting into the River Mouth and of contracting the width of the River at its mouth so as to increase its self scouring power.  An Act of Parliament was obtained in 1773 for the erection of a Pier on the North side of the Harbour entrance and other purposes, and operations were begun in 1775; and the pier was finished in 1781. It is 20 feet wide at the base, and 12 at the top, where it begins, and 16 feet high. But these dimensions proved too slight as it advanced into the sea, and the width at the base was increased to 36 feet and at the top to 24, and the height was raised to 30 feel. The length of the pier was made 1200 feet; but by Smeaton's plan it was intended to be 1400 feet. The end of the pier curved round to the north, gradually expanding in width, and it terminated in a rounded end. A sloping bank was built on the south side. A great improvement was effected by the New Pier, but we have only to look at the shape of the mouth of the entrance to the navigation channel and the place where it began to see that much more was necessary before the making of the entrance to Aberdeen Harbour would be perfected. The ingress of sand from the North was greatly prevented, but a Bar continued to be formed where the current of the River ceased to be perceptible as the tide rose. The Bar was formed partly of sand and gravel brought down by the River, the quantity of which is much greater than is generally imagined; partly it was formed of gravel brought inward by great rollers in easterly gales. On the coast of Egypt there are great salt lakes formed by Bars thrown up by the sea in storms. 

In 1773, the Bar was nearly exposed 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 the original Sandness, on the North side of the entrance-channel, and at right-angles to the line of the shore, for a distance of 500yds (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 ingress 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 'Abercromby's Jetty' was built near its West end.

John Smeaton - The extraordinarily prolific John Smeaton was one of the 1st people to call himself a Civil Engineer. He laid the foundations for the profession of Civil Engineering, as well as establishing Consulting Engineering and defining the role of resident engineer. His career mirrored the developments of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Smeaton's achievements and interests were wide-ranging - from scientific instruments to steam engines, canals to harbours, bridges to lighthouses and mills to astronomy. His most famous work is perhaps Eddystone Lighthouse but he had notable successes with at least 35 other major Civil Engineering projects, including the Scotland-spanning Forth & Clyde Canal, Ramsgate Harbour and Perth Bridge, plus over 60 Mills and more than 10 Steam Engines.  Always wanting to know exactly how things worked, Smeaton spent hours making and testing models of his schemes. He recorded everything meticulously in his diaries and produced copious drawings and reports, many of which survive. He was always happy to explain or demonstrate his ideas, pencil or tools in hand. He continually refined his designs and once convinced that he was right about a concept, would stick to it with some determination.  John Smeaton inspired people - whether site labourers or learned colleagues - and always led by example, never asking anyone to do something he would not attempt himself. His recognition of the need for a multi-skilled approach to problem solving made him a pioneer of Engineering.

The North Pier was constructed in 3 distinct stages as part of the major series of harbour improvements in the 18th and 19th centuries. The harbour was prone to silting so that only shallow-draught vessels could be allowed entry, larger vessels being required to lie in the 'Gawpuill' or Gawpool on the Torry Bulwark side (which now forms part of the turning basin) at the inner end of the Navigation Channel.  The 1st major works were designed by John Smeaton and carried out in 1770-81. The extended pier was 1200ft [365.9m] long and cost £180. It reduced the entry of sand into the Harbour area, and changed the angle of incoming waves at the Harbour entrance.  The pier was further extended between 1810 and 1816 on the advice of Thomas Telford. This extension measured at least 900ft [274.4m] in length, and ended among a group of large rocks responsible for at least 5 shipwrecks.  The final phase of construction (between 1869 and 1874) extended the pier beyond these rocks into deeper water. It measured 500ft [152.3m] in length, bringing the total length to some 2600ft [792.7m].

John Smeaton submitted a report recommending the construction of a granite pier at Aberdeen, a natural harbour where ships sailed up a channel of the River Dee to the town quay. A sand bar had built up outside the harbour, hindering access. The pier would run along the North side of the river mouth and periodic dredging would be done beyond the pier head. John Gwyn left the Portpatrick works to take charge at Aberdeen, Work started in January 1775 and was completed on 19th October 1780. The scheme increased the depth of water over the Bar at high tide by just over a metre, but it also amplified wave action upstream. To combat this, Smeaton designed a Catch Pier - a low-level projection of the North Pier - and advised reducing the South Pier to a shorter length. This work was carried out between July 1788 and December 1790.  His professional approach extended to all areas. When asked to comment on the work of others, he replied that it was "contrary to the usual practice of Professional men to give their opinions upon each others work". By contrast, he was happy to recommend his colleagues to clients. John Gwyn, William Jessop and Mathias Scott were some of those who benefited from this.

Aberdeen Map 1789 Clearly defines the above works.

Elevation and plan of a lighthouse at Aberdeen. Illustration from Thomas Telford's (1757-1834) 'Atlas to the Life of Thomas Telford, Civil Engineer', published in London in 1838.

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 due to inclement weather 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 become 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.


The completion of the new South Breakwater in 1873 allowed the extension of the North Pier to be begun in 1874. It was formed of stones and gravel brought by rail from the Bay of Nigg, and sand carted from the Hill of Balnagask. All had to be transported across the river.  It was built on sand above glacial stony clay, in 15 feet of water at low tide. The lower part was made with hags of semi-liquid concrete, each 50 tons in weight, deposited from a Well in a Steam Hopper Barge. The base course was formed of bags laid longitudinally, to the width of 120 feet; the 2nd was formed of bags laid across these; the 3rd of hags laid longitudinally, to the width of 55 feet; and the 4th of bags 40 feet long, stretched across the whole width of the pier, from outside to outside. It was brought up in this way within 2 ft of the surface of the water at low tide, and upon this foundation blocks of concrete, 600 tons in weight, were formed in frames. A parapet, 7 feet, high was built on the north side of the pier, and another, not so high, on the south edge; and a Light-house was erected at the Eastern extremity.  The extension of the North Pier was completed in October, 1877. The length stated in the Act of 1868 was 166 yards, and though while the work was in progress a further extension of 500 yards was contemplated several considerations led to the abandonment of this proposal. The South Breakwater was planned to be 1200 feet in length, but it was curtailed and made only 1050 feet to make the harbour more easily taken by ships coming from the South. It was thought that to extend the North Pier would alter the aspect of the entrance to the Harbour materially from the Parliamentary plans which had been prepared for the Act of 1868 by the eminent Engineers Hawkshaw & Abernethy. Moreover, there remained at the command of the Harbour Commission only £42,000 of £293,000 authorised by the Act of 1868, and it was thought best to defer further operations till a new Act should be obtained. The annual revenue of the harbour had risen to £6,000, and it was believed that it was safe to undertake some desirable new works.

Sir Alexander (Sandy) Bannerman 1788-1864 was a veritable fountain of fun, and let nothing escape him. When by a severe storm the pier, then in course of erection, was demolished, he lets his idea be known in a rhyming ballad, saying in it — Our Pier can neither firmly stand,
Nor sober habits learn;
For why? the stones that it compose,
Are all from Dancing Cairn.

Stones have their natural tendencies,
As well as mortal men;
And thus our Pier hastes to become
A Dancing Cairn again.

Pocra Quay, Aberdeen Harbour. An illustration shows the navigation channel leading from Aberdeen Harbour into the North Sea, with the North Pier on the right. The Pier was built by John Smeaton in 1781 and extended on several occasions to provide better access to the Harbour. Later to the right of the Round House was the Customs Watch House, part of which has now been converted into a Seafood restaurant, while the remainder is used by the Harbour boatmen who tend to the mooring of Ships. The brick obilisk in the centre is a ventilation shaft for a sewer which emptied into the channel, although a new sewer outfall being constructed may render it redundant. It is popularly known as Scarty's Monument. 'Scarty' was the nickname of William Smith, one of 2 Harbour Pilots in the mid-19th century whose duty was to keep watch from the North Pier during rough weather. Nicknames were often used in the fishing community to distinguish between people of the same surname.

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