Font Size

100% 150% 200%

Background Colour

Default Contrast
Close Reset

Musselburgh, Fisherrow Harbour

Harbour (17th Century)

Site Name Musselburgh, Fisherrow Harbour

Classification Harbour (17th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Musselburgh Harbour; Firth Of Forth

Canmore ID 53805

Site Number NT37SW 156

NGR NT 33433 73030

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2024.

Toggle Aerial | View on large map

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council East Lothian
  • Parish Inveresk (East Lothian)
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District East Lothian
  • Former County Midlothian

Archaeology Notes

NT37SW 156.00 33433 73030

Harbour [NAT]

OS 1:10,000 map, 1989.

NT37SW 156.01 NT 33395 73094 to NT c. 33407 72979 West Pier

NT37SW 156.02 NT 33372 73132 to NT 33437 73109 to NT c. 33492 72980 East Pier

NT37SW 156.03 NT 3373 73130 Leading Light (Beacon)

Not to be confused with Musselburgh, Inveresk Harbour (NT 345 733), for which see NT37SW 174.

This harbour is still in use and is in a good state of repair.

(Undated) information in NMRS.

(Location cited as NT 334 730). Fisherrow, Midlothian: Fisherrow harbour stands on a wide bay three-quarters of a mile [1.2km] W of the mouth of the River Esk [NT 345 733], and serves as the port of Musselburgh (NT37SW 409). Reasons will be given below for believing that the Esk estuary, now unnavigable, provided facilities for a harbour in the Middle Ages and decreasingly later. As silting progressed in the river, however, the Burgh no doubt found it necessary to develop Fisherrow, improving whatever had existed before in the shape of a fisherman's landing-place. Notwithstanding the present appearance of the adjoining shore as an open sandy beach, the harbour has in fact been inserted in a shallow pocket among tidal rocks, the 'breakwater' mentioned in the Fisherrow Harbour Act (1840) having been a natural rock-ridge, which gave some protection from the W. No record has been found of the building of the earliest harbour, but it may have been in existence by 1592, as Fisherrow is mentioned in that year in a list of 'towns and heavynnis', although some of the places in the list, eg. Skateraw [NT77NW 69: NT 7386 7547] did not possess built harbour-works. The port must have been fairly active in 1626, when no fewer than 12 Fisherrow skippers were listed by name as available for certain duties. In 1703, a single pier was marked on Adair's map, with a westward curve, and it may be inferred that this was of timber with a stone filling, as the Burgh Council had decided, in 1682, that it was 'to be repaired with balks of timber where the same ar wanting and to be filled up with stones to the balks according to use and wont.' Adair states elsewhere that there had once been a pier of timber.

By the beginning of the 18th century, a new harbour was needed, and for this a site was chosen at the mouth of the Esk, as in earlier times. Construction and repair were in progress in 1712 and 1713, the old harbour being treated as a quarry and owners of boats in Fisherrow being required to carry stone from it to the new works. This experiment evidently failed, as in 1740 a petition for another new harbour was presented to the Burgh Council. A return was made to Fisherrow, and building was begun there in 1743 on the old harbour's foundations. The work was to be done 'in ye same manner as if ye old harbour was built'. In 1744, the harbour was described as 'now building' and in 1753 as 'lately built'; in the former year William Adam was employed for survey work on ground adjoining the harbour, but it is not stated that he had any hand in the construction. Repairs are mentioned from time to time in the ensuing thirty years, John Adam being employed in 1762 and a plan by William Milne approved in 1767. Mention of the 'west head' proves the existence of two piers in 1772, and Taylor and Skinner figure them in 1776. In 1787 yet another scheme was considered, a long report being submitted by Cuthbert Clark, an architect in Dunbar. He advised against the estuary site and recommended alternative plans for wet docks or, failing either, the enlargement and improvement of the existing harbour. This he described as well-planned, but suffering from never having been completed. It may have been as a result of Clark's report that the Burgh Council approved, in 1790, the building of a 'Key and Parapet Wall', presumably as additions to the E Pier, which on that showing would previously have been no more than a breakwater, without facilities for working ships. In 1823 an estimate of £700 was accepted from William Watson and James Forbes, of Edinburgh, for repairing the harbour, but the nature and position of the repairs are not stated. They must, however, have been fairly extensive, as in the following year Watson and Forbes were paid £130 for work additional to the contract. A map of 1824 shows the E element of the harbour as a pier, but the W one only by a single heavy line, which probably represents the rock-ridge built up and improved as a breakwater.

An interesting experiment, suggested in 1822 in connection with the deepening of the harbour, was made in 1835, when an archway was opened under the E pier with the idea that a tidal current would wash out silt, but more harm than good resulted, and the archway was closed up again in 1838. In later years, too, repairs and improvements to the E pier seem to have been fairly frequent. In 1847, for example, it was refaced after damage by a storm, and an extension of 50ft [15.2m], the character of which is not clear, was made to the landward end. Including a concrete pier-head, added in 1939, the E pier is today about 755ft [230.2m] long, and curves westwards at its outer end to cover the N side of the harbour and overlap the end of the W pier, the entrance-gap between them being 60ft [18.3m] wide and facing NW. The pier is mainly built of red sandstone blocks, rather roughly coursed and in some places rusticated. The quay-face has chases for fenders, and its lip is rather irregular. There is a stout parapet with a step, the slabs of the coping being jointed together with lozenge-shaped keys. Several black whinstone pawls recall a minute of the Harbour Commissioners of 1850 authorising the purchase of two, and it is interesting to see how closely they have been copied in a cast-iron example. Externally, the pier has a heavily battered base below high-water mark, rather roughly constructed of material not all of which is dressed. At the landward end of the pier, a ramp leads down to the beach, and in this have been re-used stone chair-block from an obsolete railway.

While the E pier thus belongs, in the main, subject to additions and alterations, to the phase of construction begun in 1743, the W pier is wholly of the 19th century, having been built new, on the old foundations, in 1843-4 to a plan by Robert Stevenson and Sons. The contractor was W Kinghorn of Leith, and the contract price was £1450, to be paid in three instalments of £400 each, on completion respectively of the 'talus wall', the quay wall, and the hearting, pitching and parapet, with the balance when the work was finished. This figure seems, however, to have been exceeded, as an item of £1,685 2s 5d [£1,685.12] for 'building of New Pier' appears in the accounts of 1845. The pier is now about 460ft [140.2m] long, including the revetment of some made ground at its landward end, and its head, added in 1939, curves slightly inwards. Its red sandstone masonry is more neatly dressed than that of the E pier, and the heavily battered external base is smooth and regularly coursed. The lip of the quay has a rounded arris, with a broad shallow hollow immediately behind.

The S side of the harbour is formed by a beach, backed by masonry revetment. The interior dries out completely at low tide.

A Graham 1971.

(Location cited as NT 334 730). Fisherrow Harbour, 17th century, rebuilt 1806 (E pier) and c. 1850 (W pier). Formed by a straight W pier and an E pier, with an angled head.

J R Hume 1976.


Construction (1703 - 1843)

Fishing harbour at Fisherrow by 1592.

Publication Account (1996)

There is little left as a reminder of old Fisherrow. The harbour still stands now a haven for pleasure sailing boats rather than a little fishing port. It reveals little, other than its site, of its historic and sometimes chequered past (see p 29 & p 39), being largely rebuilt after 1806.

Information from ‘Historic Musselburgh: The Archaeological Implications of Development’ (1996).

Project (2007)

This project was undertaken to input site information listed in 'Civil engineering heritage: Scotland - Lowlands and Borders' by R Paxton and J Shipway, 2007.

Publication Account (2007)

A fishing harbour existed at Fisherrow by 1592. On Adair’s map of 1703 the east pier only is marked. The harbour was rebuilt from 1743 and ‘lately built’ by 1753. Numerous repairs and alterations took place to 1843, when the west pier was built new on old foundations to a plan by Robert Stevenson & Sons by W. Kinghorn of Leith for £1685. This was about 460 ft long and a round head was added in 1939. An experiment to clear the harbour of silt and sand was tried in 1835 when an arched opening was constructed in the east pier to allow tidal currents to scour the harbour bottom. This was not sufficiently successful and the opening was closed in 1838. The masonry comprises mainly random red sandstone blocks, rather better-dressed on the west pier.

R Paxton and J Shipway 2007

Reproduced from 'Civil Engineering heritage: Scotland - Lowlands and Borders' with kind permission of Thomas Telford Publishers.


MyCanmore Image Contributions

Contribute an Image

MyCanmore Text Contributions