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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
Aberdeen


The first year’s work at Aberdeen was devoted to dredging the harbour, with a view to obtaining an increased ebb and flow of the tide and the outgoing current of the ’iver Dee was trained during the same period by embankments and other works calculated by the creation of additional scour to increase the depth of the entrance channel. The result was so far beneficial that at the end of twelve months the water over the bar had increased from two feet to six feet at low water spring tides, while the navigation had been facilitated by the erection of leading lights to guide vessels between the piers at night. With this improved condition of the tidal harbour the Trustees applied to Parliament for an Act to convert a large portion of it into a dock. A previous Bill to effect a similar object had been thrown out by the Committee on the ground of defective engineering, and the Harbour Trustees now invited competitive designs. A long wrangle ensued over the designs submitted, but eventually those prepared by the resident engineer were accepted, and the Bill to carry them into effect became an Act in 1841. It was strongly opposed however before the Parliamentary Committee, and this necessitated journeys to London in company with the chairman, Provost Blaikie, afterwards Sir Thomas Blaikie, Alexander Hadden, Master of Shore Works, and John Angus, Town Clerk.

Upon the passing of the act, the resident engineer was called upon to furnish the working drawings and specification, but conditionally, that the result of his work was to be submitted to a leading London engineer for criticism and approval. He was allowed, however, to nominate an expert of his own selection and upon making his choice known at a certain meeting of the Trustees one of them exclaimed “ Abernethy man, you’ve put your head into the lion’s mouth, he may bite it off.” A few days later, accompanied by Provost Blaikie, he repaired to London to undergo the ordeal of having his elaborate work criticised, and called, by appointment, upon the expert, whom he found seated at a table with his secretary, and in front of him a formidable pile of notes. These notes the secretary dealt out one by one, in the form of questions, and answers were given apparently with satisfaction to all present until it was asked why the lock invert was to be built of brick instead of granite. The expert objected to the work being of brick, and a somewhat animated argument ensued, but failing to substantiate the selection of brickwork as being the better material to employ by his replies, the candidate for honours brought the discussion to a climax by pointing out that his examiner had himself recently, as an engineer, designed and made a lock invert of the same material as that now complained of, and the interview was thereupon postponed abruptly until the following day. Provost Blaikie, however, was well satisfied with the defence of the plans, and on the way to the Old Hummum’s Hotel, Covent Garden, where they were staying, said, “Gae awa back to Aberdeen, and tak yer plans wi ye, we’ll waste nae mair time havering about them,” and he returned the same evening, at the age of twenty-eight, to undertake the construction of the docks at Aberdeen. The contract to execute the works was let to the contractor who had given the lowest tender, with the result that operations were suspended within a year, owing to failure of capital. At this juncture, with the sanction of the Trustees, the engineer took over the works on their behalf, and finished them successfully in 1848, by the autumn of which year the whole of the tidal harbour had been converted into a dock of 37 acres, approached by a lock 250 feet in length, and 60 feet in width, and with 22 feet of water over the sill at high spring tides. Before the dock was quite completed, an intimation was received by the city authorities that Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness the Prince Consort, and the three Royal children, the Princess Royal, Princc of Wales, and Prince Alfred were to visit Aberdeen, in the Royal Yacht, on Thursday, September 7th. There being no harbour master as yet appointed, the superintendence of the arrangements for disembarking fell upon the engineer. This was the occasion of Her Majesty’s first visit to Scotland. Not only had no dock master as yet been appo; ited, but the lock gates had not been tested since their erection, when the date of the projected visi: had arrived. The engineer, who had on the morning of September 6th, received a private note from his friend, Captain Washington, R.N., Hydrographer to the Admiralty, containing the postscript—“N.B., Don’t let the Queen catch you napping,” was at the works at 5 a.m. on the following morning, seeing to the final touches in connection with the triumphal arch which had been erected opposite to the ponion of the quay where the Royal party were to land, but as there was no appearance of the Royal Yacht in the distance some time after the tide had begun to ebb, he concluded that

it would not be coming till the evening, and by way of satisfying himself of the efficient working of the lock gates, played the role of dock-master in passing in one of the Aberdeen Steam Navigation Company's steamers, the Duke of Wellington, which had been offered for this purpose and placed at his disposal into the lock, and he had just got the trial steamer safely into the lock, which occupied some considerable time, when he descried the Royal Standard floating at the mainmast of the Victoria and Albert passing between the pier heads. This arrival at eight o’clock in1 the morning was fully twenty-four hours earlier than was expected, but still the authorities were not caught napping as happened to their more southern neighbours in Edinburgh just before. With all expedition the test steamer was displaced, and the yacht reached the lock entrance with Lord Adolphus Fitzclarence, the captain, on the bridge. Her dimensions had previously been supplied, and the beam across the paddle boxes was fifty-eight feet, which was but two feet less than the width of the lock. Some confusion ensued owing to the rope fenders, which had been lowered over the vessel’s sides to protect the gilt, jamming, and so preventing her entrance into the lock. His lordship refused to haul them up, but upon the temporarily appointed dock-master informing him that the tide was rapidly falling, and that if the yacht did not pass in quickly, she would ground on the outer sill, and probably break her back, he ordered them to be taker in, and by a turn of her paddles the yacht passed safely in, and was soon moored at the jetty projecting from the quay. A certain area had been railed off and was guarded by the Harbour Trustees’ workmen, who were sworn in as special constables, and the engineer as their chief, is represented in the accompanying picture of the disembarkation, with a staff in his right hand. The morning was bright and cheerful and Her Majesty, on landing, was received by the Earl of Aberdeen, the then Lord Provost, George Thompson, and the Members of the Town Council, headed by John Angus, the town clerk.

After three weeks stay, Her Majesty, on the 28th inst., returned to the yacht from Balmoral, which had been purchased from Sir Robert Gordon, with the intention of returning to Leith by sea. The weather, however, was very stormy, an easterly gale blowing and a heavy sea breaking on the bar. On the following morning Lord Alfred Paget, Her Majesty’s Equerry in Waiting, was advised by the Harbour Authorities against proceeding to sea that day, and they further suggested that Her Majesty should return by land. His Lordship agreed, and advised Her Majesty of the proposed alteration in the arrangements and the Royal Party decided to return by land, travelling by carriages to Perth, thence by rail to Crewe, and reaching Buckingham Palace on the morning of Sunday, October ist. The dockmaster's part, however, has not yet been fully described, for escorting the Royal Yacht were the steam sloop Virago, Commander Harris, and the steam packet Vivid, commanded by Captain, afterwards Sir Luke Smithett. Seeing the latter preparing to depart, he informed him of the altered arrangement, and upon receiving a reply to the effect that he had no other orders than to proceed to Leith and warn the authorities of her Majesty’s approach, he took it upon himseif to delay passing the vessel out of the lock, until Captain Smithett had received counter orders from Lord Fitzclarence. Twenty-two years later he met Sir Luke Smithett at Dover. The latter had quite forgotten him unill asked if he recollected his visit to Aberdeen in command of the Vivid and being, to his great indignation, imprisoned for a certain time in the lock there. “Yes, I do,” he replied. “And you are my old friend Abernethy, the engineer.”

Between the years 1840 and 1851, the perod of residence as Engineer to the Aberdeen Harbour Trust, one million tons of material were removed from the bed of the harbour by dredging, exclusive of large quantities of boulder stones laid bare from time to time by the constantly increasing act.'on of the outgoing current. The result was the entire removal of the bar, which may be said to have had 110 existence since 1851, as the bottom of the channel thenceforward formed a plane gradually inclining seaward.

Extensive breakwaters have since been constructed of solid concrete, which effectually protect the entrance from on-shore gales, and enable vessels to safely enter a port formerly one of the most dangerous on the eastern coast.

While acting as engineer to the Harbour Trustees, he also constructed a fishing harbour at Boddam, near Peterhead, for the Prime Minister, the Earl of Aberdeen, on the recommendation of Captain, (afterwards Admiral) Washington, and visited him several times while the works were in progress, at his seat, Haddo House, and also at his villa at Boddam, in company with his lordship’s legal adviser, Mr. James Brebner, an advocate of Aberdeen. At the completion of the harbour at Boddam, he had a long interview with his lordship in London at Argyll House, and received a complimentary note a few days later in answer to a request made to his lordship at the interview to prevail upon the Board of Works to give him an audience with regard to certain works at Birkenhead which he kindly obtained for !",m. He also designed a bridge over the river Ury for his lordship, a letter from whom, addressed to Mr. Brebner acknowledging the receipt of the design contains the following paragraphs:—

Haddo House,
“July 2,7th, 1850.

“ My Dear Sir,

“The sketch of the bridge which you sent yesterday seemed to be a very good plan; and if intended for carriages, wonderfully cheap. I cannot help, however, apprehending that there most be some great mistake in this respect, and that the expense of the whole work will be much more considerable tLan you imagine.

“The ford is really so good, that a bridge for carriages is not much wanted, as it is only impassable in extraordinary floods; but a foot bridge will certainly be a great convenience, and I should have thought might have been constructed at a very triiiing expense................."

“ I am, my dear Sir,

“ Very truly yours,

“J. Brebner, Esq.” “Aberdeen.”

In the year 1849, the subject of the utilization of sewage as manure for grass lands was engaging the attention of the Town Council. A well-known agriculturalist in the county, Mr. Smith, of Deanstone, had strongly advocated a particular scheme, but the authorities were dissatisfied with the report which he had furnished to them, and the Harbour Trustees resolved to send their engineer to Holland and France, to investigate the sewage systems of those countries. Accordingly, in company with one of his pupils, Alexander Jardine, afterwards Sir Alexander Jardine, Bart., the son of the celebrated naturalist, Sir William Jardine, of “Applegarth,” he proceeded, armed with letters of introduction from Lord John Hay sind others to the continent, and visited Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the Hague, Brussels (where he was conducted over the Field of Waterloo by a Sergeant Cotton, who had been present at the battle), and finally Paris and Versailles. The upshot of the report, however, written up upon his return, was, that no existing system which he had investigated, was satisfactory in the result.

Home life at Aberdeen was as happy as his first important engineering works there, were successful. During the first two }’ears he lived at “ Foot Dee,” then in King Street, and for the last four at Union Place, and he made, during the ten years residence in the granite city, the acquaintance of many good friends. Among them Dr. Lizars, a Professor of Surgery at Marischal College, and Dr. James Steel, a very able and experienced physician. Another friend was found in Monsieur de Vitry, an old cavalry officer in the French army, who had been obliged to quit his country in Napoleon’s reign, and against whom he was never tired of inveighing. Dr. Steel and he had found De Vitry in an abject state of poverty, and engaged him to teach them French, but the tuition time was chiefly occupied in listening to tales of Royalist plots, and in encounters with the foils in which the old French officer was exceedingly skilful. The poor old gentleman, who used to spend all his spare cash in purchasing opium, died in 1850, and Dr. Steel, who had been his chief friend in his latter days, was chief mourner at his grave. Captain Ivrashminicoff, who commanded the Russian despatch boat Vladimer was another intimate friend. He had commenced the friendship by introducing himself in the engineer’s office, with the object of ascertaining who was the proper person in Aberdeen to execute certain repairs to the engines of his vessel, and during his detention of three months, while the engines were being repaired, he and his wife, an accomplished musician, were constant guests at King Street. Mr. James Hall, the shipbuilder, and Mr. John Rennie, the shipowner, were also among his more intimate friends.

In the summer months the home was at a cottage still existing near the BriJge of Feuch, and 'n some seasons, at Inverurie, on the river Don, where, as well as on the Ury, good salmon fibbing was to be found. Rival anglers were found in Captain Hawkins, and an Alister Frazer, of Culduthal, near Inverness, a fine old highland gentleman, who frequently invited him to his country seat, but who regarded the angling achievements of the younger enthusiast as by no means approaching perfection.

The writer well remembers hearing the following anecdote of a day’s fishing during one of these visits to Cufduthal. The old gentleman was suffering from an attack of gout, and hobbled down on crutches to the river side, at the foot of his lawn, to watch his guest and his own son, who was also named Alister, fishing. The former succeeded in hooking a salmon, and after a long struggle had brought his prize within gaffing distance, when the son, in his excitemcnt, stumbled and fell into the water, breaking the line i> his fall and releasing the fish. Next moment one of the crutches, intended for the son's head, whizzed ‘nto the stream, from which it was subsequently rescued by the keepers.

He sometimes, too, during the last two years residence at Aberdeen paid \isits to Lord Lovat at “ Beaufort,” on the River Beauly, the friendship having developed from being professionally employed by his lordship, to restore the normal course of the Beauly, which flowed through his park, and secure its banks from being breached by heavy floods.

Subjoined is his lordship’s original letter, soliciting h?s advice with regard to the state of the river:—

“Beaufort,
“February 13^1, 1849.

“Dear Sir.

“The late floods have done my property a great deal of iniury by the river cutting its hanks, which are left in a very dangerous stale. I shall be obliged to you if you could come here to give me your opinion as to the way they should be secured to prevent further injury. I hope it will be convenient for you to come very soon:

“I am, yours truly,

“Aberhethy, Esq., “Lovat."
Union Place, Aberdeen.

The harbour works at Aberdeen, while in course of construction, attracted the notice of Captain Vetch, R.E. and Captain Washington, and in 1844, principally through the influence of the latter, he was appointed one of the Surveying Officers under the Preliminary Enquiries Act, and served in that capacity for a period of eight years, at the end of which time the Act was repealed. During those eight years, however, he inspected and reported upon many schemes for the improvement of ports and navigable rivers in the United Kingdom. Chief among the ports inspected were Liverpool, Birkenhead, Glasgow, Bristol, Newcastle and Belfast, and among rivers, the Tyne, Clyde, and Ribble. His duties brought him into contact with many well known engineers, contractors and counsel, and he acquired considerable experience in listening to the examination of witnesses by some of the last named gentlemen.

One of these enquiries held in the Court House at Coleraine, in April, 1858, relative to certain railway bridges to be erectcd over the river Bann, appears to have been productive of no little amusement. The promoters were represented by a solicitor, Mr. T-, and the opponents of the project also by a solicitor, Mr. K-, and a well known contractor in those days, Mr. D-.

On the first day of the hearing the promoters bad put forward a strong case, and were so elated with their success, and the position they had won, or rather thought they had won, by the evidence submitted at the close of the firs, day’s hearing, and which had been unimpaired by cross-examination, that the whole party spent the greater part of the night at Ballymena over a luxurious dinner. But sorrow came in the morning for Mr. T-’s papers, with which he was to follow up and clinch the vi:tory of the previous day, were all jumbled in hopeless confusion in a carpet bag.

Mr. T-’s endeavour to find what he wanted at the right moment, became more and more futile, as his clever opponent made point after point successfully, and finally, having listened to numerous chaffing comments on the chaos which had set in, he literally threw away his case by flinging the whole disarranged contents of the carpet bag on the floor, and walking out of the court-house.


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