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Aberdeen Harbour

Harbour (Period Unassigned)

Site Name Aberdeen Harbour

Classification Harbour (Period Unassigned)

Alternative Name(s) Aberdeen, Tidal Harbour; River Dee; Den Burn; Pockra; Futty; Point Law; Torry Pool; Sandness; Port Of Aberdeen; Footdee

Canmore ID 19993

Site Number NJ90NE 7

NGR NJ 95846 05614

NGR Description Centred NJ 95846 05614

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Aberdeen, City Of
  • Parish Aberdeen
  • Former Region Grampian
  • Former District City Of Aberdeen
  • Former County Aberdeenshire

Archaeology Notes

NJ90NE 7.00 centred 95 05

Tidal Harbour [NAT] [name centred NJ 954 057]

OS (GIS) MasterMap, August 2011.

NJ90NE 7.01 NJ 9600 0559 to NJ 9601 0564 and NJ 9597 0558 Jetty: Capstan

NJ90NE 7.02 NJ 9590 0570 to NJ 9639 0609 North Pier

NJ90NE 7.03 NJ 9639 0609 North Pier, Lighthouse Beacon

NJ90NE 7.04 NJ 9637 0572 to NJ 9637 0581 Old South Breakwater

NJ90NE 7.05 NJ 9674 0570 to NJ 9674 0600 South Breakwater

NJ90NE 7.06 NJ 9674 0600 South Breakwater, Lighthouse (Beacon)

NJ90NE 7.07 NJ 9562 0580 to NJ 9573 0569 Lower Basin, Pocra Quay

NJ90NE 7.08 centred NJ 9522 0537 River Dee Dock (Maitland's Quay)

NJ90NE 7.09 centred NJ 9530 0531 Mearns Quay

NJ90NE 7.10 centred NJ 9523 0574 Atlantic Wharf

NJ90NE 7.11 centred NJ 9505 0576 Pacific Wharf

NJ90NE 7.12 centred NJ 9530 0576 Matthew's Quay

NJ90NE 7.13 NJ 9521 0580 Matthew's Quay, Harbour Workshops

NJ90NE 7.14 centred NJ 9548 0545 Torry Quay

NJ90NE 7.15 NJ 95871 05712 Abercromby Jetty, Port Entrance Control Tower ('Roundhouse')

NJ90NE 7.16 NJ 9520 0594 and NJ 9521 0589 Waterloo Quay, Locks

NJ90NE 7.17 NJ 9521 0590 Waterloo Quay, St Clements' Bridge

NJ90NE 7.18 NJ 9520 0591 Waterloo Quay, Victoria Dock Entrance, Signal Tower

NJ90NE 7.19 NJ 9538 0530 Torry, Sinclair Road, West Leading Light

NJ90NE 7.20 NJ 9555 0541 Torry, Sinclair Road, East Leading Light

NJ90NE 7.21 NJ 9517 0598 Waterloo Quay, Sheer legs

NJ90NE 7.22 NJ 9527 0589, NJ 9524 0590 to NJ 9532 0587 Waterloo Quay, Locks, Jetty

NJ90NE 7.23 NJ 95922 05708 to NJ c. 95894 05715 Abercromby Jetty

NJ90NE 7.24 NJ 95919 05707 Abercromby Jetty, Beacon ('Aberdeen 3')

NJ90NE 7.25 NJ 95714 05733 Pocra Quay, Light Tower ('Aberdeen 4')

NJ90NE 7.26 NJ 96008 05640 Skate's Nose Jetty, Beacon ('Aberdeen 5')

NJ90NE 7.27 NJ c. 9636 0581 Old South Breakwater, Beacon ('Aberdeen 6')

NJ90NE 7.28 NJ 95709 05665 to NJ c. 95732 05691 Pilot Jetty

NJ90NE 7.29 NJ 95953 05778 Marine Operations Centre (new Port Control Building)

NJ90NE 7.30 Centred NJ c. 9560 0586 Pocra Quay, mud tanks

See also:

NJ90NW 291.00 centred NJ 94 05 Aberdeen Harbour

NJ90NW 291.01 centred NJ 9480 0578 Albert Basin

NJ90NW 291.02 centred NJ 9485 0573 Albert Basin, Pontoon Docks

NJ90NW 291.03 NJ 9466 0521 to NJ 9499 0530 Albert Basin, Fish Market

NJ90NW 291.04 NJ 9457 0584 to NJ 9529 0571 Albert Basin, Commercial Quay

NJ90NW 291.05 NJ 9459 0573 to NJ 9553 0559 Albert Basin, Albert Quay

NJ90NW 291.06 centred NJ 9490 0605 Victoria Dock

NJ90NW 291.07 NJ 9460 0611 to NJ 9479 0612 Victoria Dock, Regent Quay

NJ90NW 291.08 NJ 9459 0615 to NJ 9476 0617 Victoria Dock, Regent Quay, Regent Shed

NJ90NW 291.09 NJ 9452 0602 Victoria Dock, Ferry Terminal

NJ90NW 291.10 NJ 9480 0615 to NJ 9515 0600 Victoria Dock, Waterloo Quay

NJ90NW 291.11 NJ 9462 0604 to NJ 9531 0582 Victoria Dock, Blaikie's Quay

NJ90NW 291.12 centred NJ 9442 0607 Upper Dock (Trinity Quay)

NJ90NW 291.13 NJ 9458 0610 to NJ 9458 0602 Regent Bridge

NJ90NW 291.14 NJ 9445 0617 15-16 Regent Quay, Harbour Offices

See also:

NJ90NW 1552 NJ 9432 0606 Market Street, pillbox

NJ90NW 1553 NJ 9465 0555 Market Street, pillbox

NJ90NW 1554 NJ 9457 0613 Regent Quay, pillbox

NJ90NE 19 NJ 9570 0578 Pocra Quay, blockhouse

NJ90NE 31 NJ c. 95 05 'blockhouse'

NJ90NE 48 NJ 95752 05740 Pocra Quay, TS Scylla (SCC HQ)

NJ90NE 49 NJ 9642 0570 Greyhope Road, (lifesaving) rocket house

NJ90NE 61 NJ 9554 0546 Torry Quay, pillbox

NJ90NE 62 NJ 9590 0579 Footdee, pillbox

NJ90NE 212 NJ 95797 05703 Pocra Quay, war memorial

For Aberdeen Maritime Museum (NJ 94364 06204), see NJ90NW 53.

For remains of harbour discovered in excavation at Shore Brae (NJ 9437 0612), see NJ90NW 81.

For Trinity Quay, Weigh-house (NJ 9444 0617), see NJ90NW 264.

Rail access to the harbour area was gained through Aberdeen, Waterloo Place, Waterloo Station (NJ 9493 0617), for which see NJ90NW 322.

For Aberdeen, Girdleness Lighthouse (NJ 9715 0534), see NJ90NE 8.

For Aberdeen, Hall Russell Engineering Works (NJ 9522 0615) and Shipyard (NJ 954 059), see NJ90NE 10 and NJ90NE 11 respectively.

For Aberdeen, Footdee, Engine Works (NJ 9558 0602), see NJ90NE 12.

For Torry Point battery (NJ 965 056) and earlier coast defence works (NJ c. 95 05), see NJ90NE 22 and NJ90NE 31 respectively.

For iron cannons dredged from the harbour, see NJ90NE 24.

For 'Scarty's Monument' (sewerage ventilation shaft) at NJ 95926 05743, see NJ90NE 213.

(Location cited as NJ 95 06). The oldest part of the harbour is the N pier (NJ90NE 7.02) which was built (in 1775-81) by John Smeaton, extended (in 1810-16) by Thomas Telford, and extended again in 1874-7). The inner S breakwater (NJ90NE 7.04) was completed in 1816 (by Telford) and superseded by a longer one, built of concrete, in 1870-3 (NJ90NE 7.05). The first dock was the Victoria Dock (NJ90NW 291.06) which was built in 1840-8; the Albert Basin (NJ90NW 291.01), now the fish dock, followed in 1869-70. The mouth of the River Dee is also quayed and has a small dock (NJ90NE 7.08) opening off it.

Perhaps the most interesting features, since the demolition of the hydraulic Regent Bridge (NJ90NW 291.13) in 1974, are the control tower (NJ90NE 7.14), an unusual 5-storey octagonal building from which are operated signal balls; the slotted post signals which control the entrance to Victoria Dock (NJ90NE 7.15); the 2-storey harbour workshops on Matthew's Quay (NJ90NE 7.13); the 18-bay, 2-storey, snecked-rubble warehouse on Regent's Quay (NJ90NE 291.08) with its 8 covered hoists, 4 roof cranes and bowed ends, built c. 1900 (NJ 947 062) and two rivetted light-towers in Torry (NJ90NE 7.19 and NJ90NE 7.20 ), built 1842.

J R Hume 1977.

The harbour of Aberdeen has grown up over the centuries in the estuary of the River Dee, originally an area of sandbanks and waterlogged marshes, roughly triangular in shape and set on an E-W axis; including marshland at the inflow of a small tributary, the Den Burn, it may have measured about 3/4 miles (1.2 km) from N to S at its inner (or W) end by 1 1/4 miles (2 km) from W to E. The Dee appears to have entered it at the SW corner, on a northerly course, and then to have turned eastwards to traverse it by a series of channels, which left between them islets, mainly tidal, known locally as 'inches'. The northernmost of these channels evidently followed a course more or less corresponding with today's Upper and Victoria Docks (NJ90NW 291.12 and NJ90NW 291.06 respectively), and was here reinforced by the Den Burn, which had joined it on its curve from the northerly to the easterly course. It was on this channel that the town?s harbour lay, the other cutting through the Inches on their various courses which seem to have been liable to change from period to period.; their disposition, for example, as shown respectively on the maps of the Rev J Gordon (1661) and G Taylor (1773) being markedly different. East of the Inches lay a pool of open water, which narrowed towards the apex of the triangle where the river debouched into the sea.

As a site for a harbour this tidal area suffered from a number of drawbacks, the most serious of which was a bar obstructing the entrance. Coastal currents and northerly winds kept sand in movement from the vast reservoir formed by the links and dunes stretching northwards to beyond the Ythan, and this sand, when its movement was checked by the projection of Girdle Ness, tended to settle down and form a bar outside the mouth of the Dee. Under certain conditions of tide, the depth of water on the bar might decrease to a few feet only; the bar itself was unstable, and its presence could also make the turn from the open sea into the river-mouth a dangerous manoeuvre for ships. In addition, the tidal area lacked protection from easterly storms, and the channel leading to the town was shallow and obstructed.

Measures of improvement appear, on the available evidence to have fallen into three principal phases. Records of the first of these begin with a charter of 1281 which mentions a bulwarks running southwards from the foot of Shiprow, and thus places the early medieval harbour much in the position of the nucleus of the later port. Nothing further is said as to the size or character of this work, but the N-S alignment that seems to be implied for it recalls the 'Old Pier' that is marked on Taylor?s plan of 1773, being shown not as connected with the town?s quay but as projecting towards it from Trinity Inch opposite, with a narrow gap between its head and the quay at a short distance W of the Weigh-house. Nothing more seems to be on record until 1399, when the 'key of Aberdeen' is mentioned in a contract; the 'key' is described as a 'platea communis' in 1413, in 1453 it was repaired, and in 1484 either repaired or rebuilt. In 1844, remains of an ancient quay-wall, then believed to be older than 1400, were dug up somewhere near the Weigh-house. Other late-medieval improvements were the erection of beacons at the harbour entrance, the clearance of obstructions from the channel, further repairs to the quay in 1512 and 1526, and the installation of a crane in 1582. The work of 1526 called for the use of hewn stone, a fact which suggests that the earlier quay or bulwark may have been of rough drystone masonry and timbering.

A second phase, in which improvement moved at a brisker tempo, seems to have begun at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus in 1596 the burgh was authorised to apply for an imposition for the building and repairing of its bulwark, pier, shore and harbour, and this language must imply work on a considerable scale. In 1609 a serious attempt was made to deal with the bar by means of a bulwark, the 'South Pier', on the S shore of the entrance, so sited as to deflect the river's current northwards, directly onto the bar, with the idea that it should wash away the sandbank. This bulwark was of drystone construction with timber stakes, and took three years to build. The bar, however, continued to give trouble, as the entrance-channel, was unable to carry off floods, with the result that water tended to back up and overflow the quays. In 1610, David Anderson removed the great boulder known as Craig Maitland from the channel by floating it with empty barrels.

Conditions existing in the 17th century are illustrated by a document of the time. This distinguishes between the 'portus' which it places a thousand paces from the town, and the 'cothon', by which it evidently means the quay discussed above, and it records a plan to extend the latter downstream so as to join it up with the former. At this time, high tides covered everything as far upstream as the quay, thereby giving small craft access to the quay while the larger vessels discharged their cargoes 'in portu'. Work on this scheme was begun in 1623, but was delayed by the wars of the Covenant and was only completed in 1659. A generally similar picture is resented by Gordon?s account (1661) and its accompanying plan; Gordon places the quay, with a weigh-house built in 1634, at the quay?s head, somewhere just E of Shiprow, and carries it thence to Futty, which occupied an area behind what is now Waterloo Quay (NJ90NW 291.10). He gives the distance as 500 paces, which agrees pretty well with his plan. The extension of the quay cut off, and permitted the reclamation for agriculture of, a large area of what had previously been tidal ground. The Latin text reads 'e macerie arena congesta magno labore demum anno 1659 peractus agger', but this does not seem to justify the rather improbable statement that the work was faced on both sides with drystone masonry and had a core of sand. Futty is described as stretching along the shore for some 400 paces, and as being inhabited mainly by fishermen and sailors; ships lay at anchor off it, no doubt primarily those of too great a draught to reach the town's quay. It also possessed a dock for building and repairing ships. Beyond Futty lay the fishing boat harbour of Pockra, where, as at Futty, the plan shows ships lying at anchor.

A third phase in the harbour?s development may be thought of as having opened in 1770 with Smeaton?s report on really far-reaching developments. The outline here given of the ensuing course of events has been put together from the sources already quoted without individual references, to avoid such a plethora of these as would have obscured the tenor of the narrative. The state of affairs that existed when Smeaton arrived is illustrated by the plan prepared by Taylor in 1773, which differs from Gordon?s plan in important respects. For example, Taylor shows the main channel of the Dee as separated from the harbour by a block of tidal 'inch', with the harbour sited on a subsidiary channel lying N of the 'inch' and representing tidal portion of the mouth of the Den Burn. From the main stream, slightly higher up, there branches another subsidiary channel which joins that of the harbour at the downstream end of the extended pier that is described and planned by Gordon, while the main stream itself runs out into the open water off Pockra and Torry. In so doing, it passes N of the Point Law ?inch? but also throws off a branch which passes S of Point Law, forming Torry Pool at the village. Torry possesses a pier, and from Torry, a long bulwark, presumably the South Pier of 1609, runs eastwards along the S side of the entrance-channel; one of Slezer's drawings (1693) shows this work as being of timber and masonry. A 'new pier' has also appeared at Pockra. The factual reliability of such plans, however, should not perhaps be taken entirely for granted, as another, of 1746 by G and W Paterson, shows a somewhat different arrangement of channels and 'inches' from those of either Gordon or Taylor; though again the discrepancy may be due to the sandbanks' instability from one period to another.

In 1773, the bar was nearly dry at low water, and accordingly, to deepen the approach, Smeaton proposed building of the great North Pier (NJ90NE 7.02). 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 Sandness, on the N side of the entrance-channel, at right-angles to the line of the shore , for a distance of 500 yds (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 influx 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 N, and to this end 'Abercromby's jetty' was built near its W end.

Improvements inside the harbour were recommended in later years by several leading engineers, the names of Rennie, Telford, Walker, Gibb and Stevenson all appearing in the record, as well as that of J Abernethy who was appointed resident engineer in 1840. Rennie was consulted in 1797, and, although his recommendation were not carried out, it is important to remember that they included the formation of a wet dock. Telford made a report in 1802, and a Bill based on it was passed in 1810 which authorised an extension to Smeaton's North Pier (NJ90NE 7.02), the construction of a wet dock and spillway, and the diversion of the river's current. By 1829 all these works had been carried out apart from the wet dock, of which only the quay-walls had been completed; the length of the North Pier, no doubt in its extended form, is given as 2000 ft (610m) at this date. Other major works of this period were the South Breakwater of 1812-15 (NJ90NE 7.05), stretching 800 ft (244m) from the S shore at a point outside the entrance and reaching to within 250 ft (76m) of the end of the North Pier; and wharfage along the whole length of Waterloo and Regent Quays (NJ90NW 291.10 and NJ90NW 291.07 respectively).

To attempt to describe in detail the whole process of the harbour's development in the first half of the 19th century would not be a rewarding exercise, partly for the danger of obscuring the wood through over-attention to the trees and partly because the process itself continued long after the terminal date of this study. Reference, however, may usefully be made to a general account of what was done between 1840 and 1846 as given in evidence to the Tidal Harbours Commission by J Abernethy, the resident engineer; this shows that, in the course of these years, the harbour as a whole had been widened and deepened, some sand-banks at the entrance had been dredged away, part of Abercromby's jetty had been found to be unserviceable and removed, and likewise old warping-posts and cairns of stones which caused obstruction in the fairway. At the same time, 330 yds (301m) of new wharfage had been built and effective leading lights set up at the harbour entrance. The depth of water at the entrance was now 19 ft (5.8m) and the width between pier-heads 380 ft (116m); that between Pockra jetty and the point of the 'inch' opposite it was 350 ft (107 m). Navigation at this point was difficult, especially for long steamers, as it was necessary to make a turn of almost 90 degrees.

On a broad view of this phase of the harbour's history, it is the enclosure of the docks that stands out as of prime importance. In effect, the old channel onto which the town's quays had fronted was turned into a wet dock of 34 acres (13.8 ha), with a depth of 16 ft (4. 9m) and capable of accommodating up to 300 vessels. In 1847 its entrance-lock was still under construction; its gates were made of iron. An Admiralty plan of 1833, evidently marking features which were then still unfinished, shows a large dock with a smaller upper dock abutting on its W end, while the Dee followed a course slightly further to the W and corresponding more or less with today's Albert Basin (NJ90NW 291.01). Further diversion of the river towards the S was authorised only by the Bill of 1868 but its new course is marked, as a project on the Ordnance Survey's first 6-inch map of the area, which was surveyed in 1862. It is interesting to find that the engineers and others responsible for the harbour's improvement devoted much attention to the possible effect of the docks on the action of the river at the bar. The question was whether the diversion of the river's course and the embankment of some 80 acres (32 ha) of tidal ground would so diminish the amount of backwater available at the fall of the tide as to affect the river's ability to scour out the bar, the same problem, in fact, as was noted at Montrose (NO75NW 44). The Tidal Harbour Commissioners recognised that, to compensate for the enclosure of the docks, the river's channel should be deepened above the bridge [presumably Victoria Bridge, NJ90NW 304] to increase its capacity as a reservoir.

A Graham 1979.

J A Slezer 1693; G Taylor 1773; J Robertson 1839; J Gordon 1842; J D Marwick 1866-90; W Macfarlane 1906-8; J Milne 1911; V E Clark 1921.

Air photographs:

Aberdeen, general view of Shiprow, Castlegate and harbour: AAS/00/08/CT.

Aberdeen, Torry and harbour: AAS/00/08/CT

St Clement's church and the harbour: AAS/00/08/CT.

Aberdeen Harbour, ferry terminal: AAS/00/08/CT.

NMRS, MS/712/100.


Publication Account (2007)

A port existed at Aberdeen at least from the 14th century, but it was not until 1770 that a start was made on the modern harbour by commissioning a report from John Smeaton, following which the first North Pier, one of the

most remarkable in Britain requiring exceptional engineering talent to overcome storm effects, was built from 1774 and twice extended later. A southern breakwater was completed in 1815 and another further east from

1870–73. From the pounding they receive from the sea both have required regular maintenance.

In 1810 Telford proposed a scheme for a large dock adjoining the north shore and what was to become Waterloo Quay to be created by impounding water in the harbour at high tide by means of an entrance lock. Between 1816 and 1829 very little was done except dredging. The

1831 version of this proposal formed the basis for the Victoria Dock project later developed by James Abernethy. About this time Telford also advised on the new channel for the Dee, reclamation of the Inches, new wet docks and quays and dredging. The cost of the work done under his

direction amounted to £160 590.

In 1843, after receiving reports from James Walker and Alexander Gibb, the Harbour Commissioners executed the plans of Abernethy, their resident engineer, and the 28-acre Victoria Dock, and an upper dock west of Regent opening bridge, was built by 1848 with two entrances 60 ft and 70 ft wide and about 20 ft deep, one with a lock for the passage of ships and the other with ebb-gates.

From 1869–72 the channel of the Dee was realigned southwards to Wellington Suspension Bridge at a cost of £51 585 and the old channel was converted into a tidal basin with Commercial Road to the north and Albert Quay to the south.

With the advent of the oil industry, in the 1970s Victoria Dock was redeveloped and the tide locks were removed in 1975 making the whole harbour tidal, with deepening by dredging as necessary.

R Paxton and J Shipway, 2007.

Reproduced from 'Civil Engineering heritage: Scotland - Highlands and Islands' with kind permission from Thomas Telford Publishers.


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