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Telford's Harbour

The neighbourhood of Aberdeen was originally so wild and barren that Telford expressed his surprise that any class of men should ever have settled there. An immense shoulder of the Grampian Mountains extends down to the sea-coast, where it terminates in a bold, rude promontory. The country on either side of the Dee, which flows past the town, was originally covered with innumerable granite blocks; one, called 'Craig Metellan', lying right in the River's mouth, and forming, with the sand, an almost effectual Bar to its Navigation. Although, in ancient times, a little cultivable land lay immediately outside the town, the region beyond was as sterile as it is possible for land to be in such a latitude.

"Any wher," says an ancient writer, "after yow pass a myll without the tonne, the countrey is barren lyke, the hills craigy, the plaines full of marishes and mosses, the feilds are covered with heather or peeble stons, the come feilds mixt with thes bot few. The air is temperat and healthful about it, and it may be that the citizens owe the acuteness of their wits thereunto and their civill inclinations; the lyke not easie to be found under northerlie climats, damped for the most pairt with air of a grosse consistence."

The inhabitants were industrious, and their plaiding, linen, and worsted stockings were in much request as articles of Merchandise. Cured salmon were also exported in large quantities. As early as 1659, a Quay was formed along the Dee towards the village of Footdee.

"Beyond Futty," says an old writer, "lyes the fisher-boat heavne; and after that, towards the promontorie called Sandenesse, ther is to be seen a grosse bulk of a building, vaulted and flatted above (the Blockhous they call it), begun to be builded anno 1513, for guarding the entree of the harboree from pirats and algarads; and cannon wer planted ther for that purpose, or, at least, that from thence the motions of pirates might be tymouslie foreseen. This rough piece of work was finished anno 1542, in which yer lykewayes the mouth of the River Dee was locked with cheans of iron and masts of ships crossing the river, not to be opened bot at the citizens' pleasure.

We're bought and sold for English Gold,
Sic a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.

After the Union of Parliaments in 1707 but more especially after the rebellion of 1745, the trade of Aberdeen made considerable progress. Although Burns, in 1787, briefly described the place as a "lazy toun," the inhabitants were displaying much energy in carrying out improvements in their port.  In 1775 the foundation-stone of the new pier designed by Mr. Smeaton was laid with great ceremony, and, the works proceeding to completion, a new pier, 1200 feet long, terminating in a round head, was finished in less than 6 years. The Trade of the place was, however, as yet too small to justify anything beyond a tidal harbour, and the Engineer's views were limited to that object. He found the River meandering over an irregular space about 500 yards in breadth; and he applied the only practicable remedy, by confining the channel as much as the limited means placed at his disposal enabled him to do, and directing the land floods so as to act upon and diminish the Bar. Opposite the north pier, on the south side of the river, Smeaton constructed a breast-wall about half the length of the Pier. Owing, however, to a departure from that Engineer's plans, by which the pier was placed too far to the North, it was found that a heavy swell entered the harbour, and, to obviate this formidable inconvenience, a bulwark was projected from it, so as to occupy about 1/3rd of the channel entrance.

Portrait of male with white hair wearing a white cravat and blue jacket.The Trade of the place continuing to increase, Mr. Rennie was called upon, in 1797, to examine and report upon the best means of improving the harbour, when he recommended the construction of floating docks upon the sandy flats called Footdee.  Nothing was done at the time, as the scheme was very costly and considered beyond the available means of the locality. But the Magistrates kept the subject in mind; and when Mr. Telford made his report on the best means of improving the Harbour in 1801, he intimated that the inhabitants were ready to cooperate with the Government in rendering it capable of accommodating ships of war, as far as their circumstances would permit.  In 1807, the South pier-head, built by Smeaton, was destroyed by a storm, and the time had arrived when something must be done, not only to improve but even to preserve the port. The Magistrates accordingly proceeded, in 1809, to rebuild the pier-head of cut granite, and at the same time they applied to Parliament for authority to carry out further improvements after the plan recommended by Mr. Thomas Telford; and the necessary powers were conferred in the following year. The new works comprehended a large extension of the wharfage accommodation, the construction of floating and graving docks, increased means of scouring the harbour and ensuring greater depth of water on the bar across the river's mouth, and the provision of a navigable communication between the Aberdeenshire Canal and the new harbour.

The extension of the North Pier was 1st proceeded with, under the superintendence of John Gibb, the Resident Engineer; and by the year 1811 the whole length of 300 additional feet had been completed. The beneficial effects of this extension were so apparent, that a general wish was expressed that it should be carried further; and it was eventually determined to extend the Pier 780 feet beyond Smeaton's head, by which not only was much deeper water secured, but vessels were better enabled to clear the Girdleness Point. This extension was successfully carried out by the end of the year 1812. A strong breakwater, about 800 feet long, was also run out from the South shore, leaving a space of about 250 feet as an entrance, thereby giving greater protection to the shipping in the harbour, while the contraction of the channel, by increasing the "scour," tended to give a much greater depth of water on the Bar.  The outer head of the North Pier was seriously injured by the heavy storms of the 2 succeeding winters, which rendered it necessary to alter its formation to a very flat slope of about 5/1 all round the head

New wharves were at the same time constructed inside the harbour; a new channel for the River Dee was excavated, which further enlarged the floating space and wharf accommodation; wet and dry docks were added; until at length the Quay berthage amounted to not less than 6290 feet, or nearly a 1.25 mile in length.  By these combined improvements an additional extent of Quay room was obtained of about 4000 feet; an excellent tidal harbour was formed, in which, at spring tides, the depth of water is about 15 feet; while on the bar it was increased to about 19 feet. The prosperity of Aberdeen had meanwhile been advancing apace. The City had been greatly beautified and enlarged: shipbuilding had made rapid progress; Aberdeen Clippers became famous, and Aberdeen Merchants carried on a trade with all parts of the world; Manufactures of wool, cotton, flax, and iron were carried on with great success; its population rapidly increased; and, as a maritime city, Aberdeen took rank as the 3rd City in Scotland, the tonnage entering the port having increased from 50,000 tons in 1800 to about 300,000 in 1860.

Dredging Aberdeen Harbour


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Last modified: 01/09/2013