Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Life of Thomas Telford
Chapter IX. Telford's Scotch Harbours

No sooner were the Highland roads and bridges in full progress, than attention was directed to the improvement of the harbours round the coast. Very little had as yet been done for them beyond what nature had effected. Happily, there was a public fund at disposal--the accumulation of rents and profits derived from the estates forfeited at the rebellion of 1745--which was available for the purpose. The suppression of the rebellion did good in many ways. It broke the feudal spirit, which lingered in the Highlands long after it had ceased in every other part of Britain; it led to the effectual opening up of the country by a system of good roads; and now the accumulated rents of the defeated Jacobite chiefs were about to be applied to the improvement of the Highland harbours for the benefit of the general population.

The harbour of Wick was one of the first to which Mr. Telford's attention was directed. Mr. Rennie had reported on the subject of its improvement as early as the year 1793, but his plans were not adopted because their execution was beyond the means of the locality at that time. The place had now, however, become of considerable importance. It was largely frequented by Dutch fishermen during the herring season; and it was hoped that, if they could be induced to form a settlement at the place, their example might exercise a beneficial influence upon the population.

Mr. Telford reported that, by the expenditure of about 5890L., a capacious and well-protected tidal basin might be formed, capable of containing about two hundred herring-busses. The Commission adopted his plan, and voted the requisite funds for carrying out the works, which were begun in 1808. The new station was named Pulteney Town, in compliment to Sir William Pulteney, the Governor of the Fishery Society; and the harbour was built at a cost of about 12,000L., of which 8500L. was granted from the Forfeited Estates Fund. A handsome stone bridge, erected over the River Wick in 1805, after the design of our engineer, connect's these improvements with the older town: it is formed of three arches, having a clear waterway of 156 feet.

The money was well expended, as the result proved; and Wick is now, we believe, the greatest fishing station in the world. The place has increased from a little poverty-stricken village to a large and thriving town, which swarms during the fishing season with lowland Scotchmen, fair Northmen, broad-built Dutchmen, and kilted Highlanders. The bay is at that time frequented by upwards of a thousand fishing-boats and the take of herrings in some years amounts to more than a hundred thousand barrels. The harbour has of late years been considerably improved to meet the growing requirements of the herring trade, the principal additions having been carried out, in 1823, by Mr. Bremner,*[1] a native engineer of great ability.

Folkestone Harbour.

Improvements of a similar kind were carried out by the Fishery Board at other parts of the coast, and many snug and convenient harbours were provided at the principal fishing stations in the Highlands and Western Islands. Where the local proprietors were themselves found expending money in carrying out piers and harbours, the Board assisted them with grants to enable the works to be constructed in the most substantial manner and after the most approved plans. Thus, along that part of the bold northern coast of the mainland of Scotland which projects into the German Ocean, many old harbours were improved or new ones constructed--as at Peterhead, Frazerburgh, Banff, Cullen, Burgh Head, and Nairn. At Fortrose, in the Murray Frith; at Dingwall, in the Cromarty Frith; at Portmaholmac, within Tarbet Ness, the remarkable headland of the Frith of Dornoch; at Kirkwall, the principal town and place of resort in the Orkney Islands, so well known from Sir Walter Scott's description of it in the 'Pirate;' at Tobermory, in the island of Mull; and at other points of the coast, piers were erected and other improvements carried out to suit the convenience of the growing traffic and trade of the country.

The principal works were those connected with the harbours situated upon the line of coast extending from the harbour of Peterhead, in the county of Aberdeen, round to the head of the Murray Frith. The shores there are exposed to the full force of the seas rolling in from the Northern Ocean; and safe harbours were especially needed for the protection of the shipping passing from north to south. Wrecks had become increasingly frequent, and harbours of refuge were loudly called for. At one part of the coast, as many as thirty wrecks had occurred within a very short time, chiefly for want of shelter.

The situation of Peterhead peculiarly well adapted it for a haven of refuge, and the improvement of the port was early regarded as a matter of national importance. Not far from it, on the south, are the famous Bullars or Boilers of Buchan--bold rugged rocks, some 200 feet high, against which the sea beats with great fury, boiling and churning in the deep caves and recesses with which they are perforated. Peterhead stands on the most easterly part of the mainland of Scotland, occupying the north-east side of the bay, and being connected with the country on the northwest by an isthmus only 800 yards broad. In Cromwell's time, the port possessed only twenty tons of boat tonnage, and its only harbour was a small basin dug out of the rock. Even down to the close of the sixteenth century the place was but an insignificant fishing village. It is now a town bustling with trade, having long been the principal seat of the whale fishery, 1500 men of the port being engaged in that pursuit alone; and it sends out ships of its own building to all parts of the world, its handsome and commodious harbours being accessible at all winds to vessels of almost the largest burden.


It may be mentioned that about sixty years since, the port was formed by the island called Keith Island, situated a small distance eastward from the shore, between which and the mainland an arm of the sea formerly passed. A causeway had, however, been formed across this channel, thus dividing it into two small bays; after which the southern one had been converted in to a harbour by means of two rude piers erected along either side of it. The north inlet remained without any pier, and being very inconvenient and exposed to the north-easterly winds, it was little used.

Peterhead Harbour.

The first works carried out at Peterhead were of a comparatively limited character, the old piers of the south harbour having been built by Smeaton; but improvements proceeded apace with the enterprise and wealth of the inhabitants. Mr. Rennie, and after him Mr. Telford, fully reported as to the capabilities of the port and the best means of improving it. Mr. Rennie recommended the deepening of the south harbour and the extension of the jetty of the west pier, at the same time cutting off all projections of rock from Keith Island on the eastward, so as to render the access more easy. The harbour, when thus finished, would, he estimated, give about 17 feet depth at high water of spring tides. He also proposed to open a communication across the causeway between the north and south harbours, and form a wet dock between them, 580 feet long and 225 feet wide, the water being kept in by gates at each end. He further proposed to provide an entirely new harbour, by constructing two extensive piers for the effectual protection of the northern part of the channel, running out one from a rock north of the Green Island, about 680 feet long, and another from the Roan Head, 450 feet long, leaving an opening between them of 70 yards. This comprehensive plan unhappily could not be carried out at the time for want of funds; but it may be said to have formed the groundwork of all that has been subsequently done for the improvement of the port of Peterhead.

It was resolved, in the first place, to commence operations by improving the south harbour, and protecting it more effectually from south-easterly winds. The bottom of the harbour was accordingly deepened by cutting out 30,000 cubic yards of rocky ground; and part of Mr. Rennie's design was carried out by extending the jetty of the west pier, though only for a distance of twenty yards. These works were executed under Mr. Telford's directions; they were completed by the end of the year 1811, and proved to be of great public convenience.

The trade of the town, however, so much increased, and the port was found of such importance as a place of refuge for vessels frequenting the north seas, that in 1816 it was determined to proceed with the formation of a harbour on the northern part of the old channel; and the inhabitants having agreed among themselves to contribute to the extent of 10,000L. towards carrying out the necessary works, they applied for the grant of a like sum from the Forfeited Estates Fund, which was eventually voted for the purpose. The plan adopted was on a more limited scale than that Proposed by Mr. Rennie; but in the same direction and contrived with the same object,--so that, when completed, vessels of the largest burden employed in the Greenland fishery might be able to enter one or other of the two harbours and find safe shelter, from whatever quarter the wind might blow.

The works were vigorously proceeded with, and had made considerable progress, when, in October, 1819, a violent hurricane from the north-east, which raged along the coast for several days, and inflicted heavy damage on many of the northern harbours, destroyed a large part of the unfinished masonry and hurled the heaviest blocks into the sea, tossing them about as if they had been pebbles. The finished work had, however, stood well, and the foundations of the piers under low water were ascertained to have remained comparatively uninjured. There was no help for it but to repair the damaged work, though it involved a heavy additional cost, one-half of which was borne by the Forfeited Estates Fund and the remainder by the inhabitants. Increased strength was also given to the more exposed parts of the pierwork, and the slope at the sea side of the breakwater was considerably extended.*[2] Those alterations in the design were carried out, together with a spacious graving-dock, as shown in the preceding plan, and they proved completely successful, enabling Peterhead to offer an amount of accommodation for shipping of a more effectual kind than was at that time to be met with along the whole eastern coast of Scotland.

The old harbour of Frazerburgh, situated on a projecting point of the coast at the foot of Mount Kennaird, about twenty miles north of Peterhead, had become so ruinous that vessels lying within it received almost as little shelter as if they had been exposed in the open sea. Mr. Rennie had prepared a plan for its improvement by running out a substantial north-eastern pier; and this was eventually carried out by Mr. Telford in a modified form, proving of substantial service to the trade of the port. Since then a large and commodious new harbour has been formed at the place, partly at the public expense and partly at that of the inhabitants, rendering Frazerburgh a safe retreat for vessels of war as well as merchantmen.


Among the other important harbour works on the northeast coast carried out by Mr. Telford under the Commissioners appointed to administer the funds of the Forfeited Estates, were those at Banff, the execution of which extended over many years; but, though costly, they did not prove of anything like the same convenience as those executed at Peterhead. The old harbour at the end of the ridge running north and south, on which what is called the "sea town" of Banff is situated, was completed in 1775, when the place was already considered of some importance as a fishing station.

Banff Harbour.

This harbour occupies the triangular space at the north-eastern extremity of the projecting point of land, at the opposite side of which, fronting the north-west, is the little town and harbour of Macduff. In 1816, Mr. Telford furnished the plan of a new pier and breakwater, covering the old entrance, which presented an opening to the N.N.E., with a basin occupying the intermediate space. The inhabitants agreed to defray one half of the necessary cost, and the Commissioners the other; and the plans having been approved, the works were commenced in 1818. They were in full progress when, unhappily, the same hurricane which in 1819 did so much injury to the works at Peterhead, also fell upon those at Banff, and carried away a large part of the unfinished pier. This accident had the effect of interrupting the work, as well as increasing its cost; but the whole was successfully completed by the year 1822. Although the new harbour did not prove very safe, and exhibited a tendency to become silted up with sand, it proved of use in many respects, more particularly in preventing all swell and agitation in the old harbour, which was thereby rendered the safest artificial haven in the Murray Firth.

It is unnecessary to specify the alterations and improvements of a similar character, adapted to the respective localities, which were carried out by our engineer at Burgh Head, Nairn, Kirkwall, Tarbet, Tobermory, Portmaholmac, Dingwall (with its canal two thousand yards long, connecting the town in a complete manner with the Frith of Cromarty), Cullen, Fortrose, Ballintraed, Portree, Jura, Gourdon, Invergordon, and other places. Down to the year 1823, the Commissioners had expended 108,530L. on the improvements of these several ports, in aid of the local contributions of the inhabitants and adjoining proprietors to a considerably greater extent; the result of which was a great increase in the shipping accommodation of the coast towns, to the benefit of the local population, and of ship-owners and navigators generally.

Mr. Telford's principal harbour works in Scotland, however, were those of Aberdeen and Dundee, which, next to Leith (the port of Edinburgh), formed the principal havens along the east coast. 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."*[3] But the old inhabitants of Aberdeen and its neighbourhood were really as rough as their soil. Judged by their records, they must have been dreadfully haunted by witches and sorcerers down to a comparatively recent period; witch-burning having been common in the town until the end of the sixteenth century. We find that, in one year, no fewer than twenty-three women and one man were burnt; the Dean of Guild Records containing the detailed accounts of the "loads of peattis, tar barrellis," and other combustibles used in burning them. The lairds of the Garioch, a district in the immediate neighbourhood, seem to have been still more terrible than the witches, being accustomed to enter the place and make an onslaught upon the citizens, according as local rage and thirst for spoil might incline them. On one of such occasions, eighty of the inhabitants were killed and wounded.*[4] Down even to the middle of last century the Aberdonian notions of personal liberty seem to have been very restricted; for between 1740 and 1746 we find that persons of both sexes were kidnapped, put on board ships, and despatched to the American plantations, where they were sold for slaves. Strangest of all, the men who carried on this slave trade were local dignitaries, one of them being a town's baillie, another the town-clerk depute. Those kidnapped were openly "driven in flocks through the town, like herds of sheep, under the care of a keeper armed with a whip."*[5] So open was the traffic that the public workhouse was used for their reception until the ships sailed, and when that was filled, the tolbooth or common prison was made use of. The vessels which sailed from the harbour for America in 1743 contained no fewer than sixty-nine persons; and it is supposed that, in the six years during which the Aberdeen slave trade was at its height, about six hundred were transported for sale, very few of whom ever returned.*[6] This slave traffic was doubtless stimulated by the foreign ships beginning to frequent the port; for 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 Foot Dee. "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 pirats 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."*[7] After the Union, 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.*[8] 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, twelve hundred feet long, terminating in a round head, was finished in less than six 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 five hundred 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 one third of the channel entrance.

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 Foot Dee. 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. 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.

Plan of Aberdeen Harbour

The extension of the north pier was first 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.

Aberdeen Harbour.

The outer head of the pier was seriously injured by the heavy storms of the two succeeding winters, which rendered it necessary to alter its formation to a very flat slope of about five to one all round the head.*[9]

Section of pier-head work.

New wharves were at the same time constructed inside the harbour; a new channel for the river 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 mile and a quarter 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 third in Scotland, the tonnage entering the port having increased from 50,000 tons in 1800 to about 300,000 in 1860.

Improvements of an equally important character were carried out by Mr. Telford in the port of Dundee, also situated on the east coast of Scotland, at the entrance to the Frith of Tay. There are those still living at the place who remember its former haven, consisting of a crooked wall, affording shelter to only a few fishing-boats or smuggling vessels--its trade being then altogether paltry, scarcely deserving the name, and its population not one fifth of what it now is. Helped by its commodious and capacious harbour, it has become one of the most populous and thriving towns on the east coast.

Plan of Dundee Harbour.

The trade of the place took a great start forward at the close of the war, and Mr. Telford was called upon to supply the plans of a new harbour. His first design, which he submitted in 1814, was of a comparatively limited character; but it was greatly enlarged during the progress of the works. Floating docks were added, as well as graving docks for large vessels. The necessary powers were obtained in 1815; the works proceeded vigorously under the Harbour Commissioners, who superseded the old obstructive corporation; and in 1825 the splendid new floating dock--750 feet long by 450 broad, having an entrance-lock 170 feet long and 40 feet wide--was opened to the shipping of all countries.

Dundee Harbour.

Footnotes for Chapter IX.

*[1] Hugh Millar, in his 'Cruise of the Betsy,' attributes the invention of columnar pier-work to Mr. Bremner, whom he terms "the Brindley of Scotland." He has acquired great fame for his skill in raising sunken ships, having warped the Great Britain steamer off the shores of Dundrum Bay. But we believe Mr. Telford had adopted the practice of columnar pier-work before Mr. Bremner, in forming the little harbour of Folkestone in 1808, where the work is still to be seen quite perfect. The most solid mode of laying stone on land is in flat courses; but in open pier work the reverse process is adopted. The blocks are laid on end in columns, like upright beams jammed together. Thus laid, the wave which dashes against them is broken, and spends itself on the interstices; where as, if it struck the broad solid blocks, the tendency would be to lift them from their beds and set the work afloat; and in a furious storm such blocks would be driven about almost like pebbles. The rebound from flat surfaces is also very heavy, and produces violent commotion; where as these broken, upright, columnar-looking piers seem to absorb the fury of the sea, and render its wildest waves comparatively innocuous.

*[2] 'Memorials from Peterhead and Banff, concerning Damage occasioned by a Storm.' Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed, 5th July, 1820. [242.]

*[3] 'A Description of Bothe Touns of Aberdeene.' By James Gordon, Parson of Rothiemay. Reprinted in Gavin Turreff's 'Antiquarian Gleanings from Aberdeenshire Records.' Aberdeen, 1889.

*[4] Robertson's 'Book of Bon-Accord.'

*[5] Ibid., quoted in Turreff's 'Antiquarian Gleanings,' p. 222.

*[6] One of them, however, did return--Peter Williamson, a native of the town, sold for a slave in Pennsylvania, "a rough, ragged, humle-headed, long, stowie, clever boy," who, reaching York, published an account of the infamous traffic, in a pamphlet which excited extraordinary interest at the time, and met with a rapid and extensive circulation. But his exposure of kidnapping gave very great offence to the magistrates, who dragged him before their tribunal as having "published a scurrilous and infamous libel on the corporation," and he was sentenced to be imprisoned until he should sign a denial of the truth of his statements. He brought an action against the corporation for their proceedings, and obtained a verdict and damages; and he further proceeded against Baillie Fordyce (one of his kidnappers, and others, from whom he obtained 200L. damages, with costs. The system was thus effectually put a stop to.

*[8] 'A Description of Bothe Touns of Aberdeene.' By James Gordon, Parson of Rothiemay. Quoted by Turreff, p. 109.

*[8] Communication with London was as yet by no means frequent, and far from expeditious, as the following advertisement of 1778 will show:--"For London: To sail positively on Saturday next, the 7th November, wind and weather permitting, the Aberdeen smack. Will lie a short time at London, and, if no convoy is appointed, will sail under care of a fleet of colliers the best convoy of any. For particulars apply," &c., &c.

*[9] "The bottom under the foundations," says Mr. Gibb, in his description of the work, "is nothing better than loose sand and gravel, constantly thrown up by the sea on that stormy coast, so that it was necessary to consolidate the work under low water by dropping large stones from lighters, and filling the interstices with smaller ones, until it was brought within about a foot of the level of low water, when the ashlar work was commenced; but in place of laying the stones horizontally in their beds, each course was laid at an angle of 45 degrees, to within about 18 inches of the top, when a level coping was added. This mode of building enabled the work to be carried on expeditiously, and rendered it while in progress less liable to temporary damage, likewise affording three points of bearing; for while the ashlar walling was carrying up on both sides, the middle or body of the pier was carried up at the same time by a careful backing throughout of large rubble-stone, to within 18 inches of the top, when the whole was covered with granite coping and paving 18 inches deep, with a cut granite parapet wall on the north side of the whole length of the pier, thus protected for the convenience of those who might have occasion to frequent it."--Mr. Gibb's 'Narrative of Aberdeen Harbour Works.'

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus