This was a contribution to
a book about Aberdeen which went on sale in Ottakars in 2002. The book was about
the history of the city, and most of the contributions were about living in
tenements in the 1930s, or something similar. This approach was not open to me
since I only started living in a tenement in 1996, so I wrote about what
On the south side of the entrance to Aberdeen harbour,
marking the inner end of the channel, there is a small breakwater projecting
northwards, and like a thumb on a right hand a small mole sprouts from the
shoreward end of this breakwater. This curious extremity is topped by a capstan,
now rusty and leaning but once an essential part of the harbour navigation
A visit to the capstan reveals nothing about it, other than
the fact that amazingly, it still turns. So those who are curious about its use
have to delve into the history of the port, starting with the old maps of the
Probably the most famous of the maps is that drawn by Peter
May in 1756. He was a surveyor employed by the magistrates of Aberdeen to
produce an accurate map of the port, because they mistrusted the previous work.
This map shows a large river estuary with islands in the stream, and a cluster
of houses on the north shore which was the city. The estuary narrows into
something looking not unlike the channel of today apart from the fact that there
is no stonework. The course of the river Dee is to the north and then curving
back southward towards the entrance.
On the south side of the approach to the port there are a
number of sticks which might be positioned to guide vessels, and alarmingly the
sea outside the port is known on the plan as the German Ocean. There is no sign
of any moles or breakwaters, let alone capstans.
Hence one can assume that back in 1756 the sailing vessels
wishing to enter the harbour either waited for the best wind to allow them to
sail up the channel, or else were towed up the estuary by rowing boats. In
Glasgow at the same time sailing ships were towed up to Port Glasgow by teams of
horses but this option was not open to the seafarers entering Aberdeen because
the coast was rocky.
In order to ease this passage and to protect the harbour,
breakwaters were constructed over the next fifty years. The harbour as we know
it today began to be developed and the river Dee was re-routed to the south into
the channel in which it now flows. But the single most important event for those
who were challenged at every arrival by the difficulties of negotiating the
entrance to the Dee, was the launching of the the Paul Jones, at Halls shipyard
on 22nd August 1827. The Paul Jones was Aberdeen's first steam tug. The first
tug on the Clyde had entered service in 1819, so the new technology had taken
some time to reach the Northeast.
A local history states that the tug "replaced the labourers
on the piers who had previously hauled vessels into the port entrance using
capstans", and there seems to be no other evidence of the purpose of the
capstans, or indeed that they were ever used. But even this scant reference
allows us to assume that during the construction of the port prior to the
beginning of the nineteenth century, some-one realised that it might be more
efficient to haul the ships in, rather than to row them in.
Probably the same rowing boats were used to take long lines
from the ships and ferry them to the north side and the south side of the
harbour where waiting labourers would take several turns round the barrels of
the capstans. A couple of labourers would keep hold of the ends of the ropes and
at least half a dozen would push the capstans round with long staves located in
the slots on the top. Once in the harbour the ships could then sail on across
what is now the tidal basin into the Victoria Dock area where they could either
drop anchor or warp their way inward to the berths.
If one compares the stonework of the short mole supporting
the capstan with the stonework on the north side of the harbour, it can be seen
that it is similar to that making up the first section of the North Pier which
was constructed in 1800. One assumes that this construction was to improve the
channel, and that it incorporated a capstan matching that on the South side.
further 900 feet was added to the pier in 1812, and a final 500 foot section was
added in 1870. Both are of noticeably different construction from the original.
On the south side breakwaters pointing north were added at approximately in the
same easterly longitude as the end of the pier, the final "new" south breakwater
giving a certain majesty to the entrance.
These additions to the length of the pier may have been due
in part to the continuing failure of merchant ships to successfully navigate
the channel. In 1804, when the pier was very short, the sailing coaster the
Hawk, was driven onto the beach just to the north of it. Subsequent to the
construction of the 1812 extension, spectators would gather at the seaward end
when easterly gales were blowing just to watch the fun. Even today it is
difficult to bring a ship up the channel in strong easterlies and the port is
closed when the harbourmaster feels there is a chance of the ships bottoming in
the channel. In the early part of the nineteenth century sailing ships would
gamely make for the entrance knowing that, what-ever the risk, they faced the
possibility of being blown ashore in any case. Even if they managed to get into
the channel they could be picked up on the swell and dashed into the south
breakwater, or onto the ledge which still protrudes beneath the water inside the
There were many wrecks, and often the spectators on the pier
were able to assist with the rescue of the passengers and crew of the stricken
vessels. Even though the tug was available after 1827 ship-owners were as
conservative as they are now, and were reluctant to arrange for a tow when it
seemed likely that their vessels could get in on their own. Since it took
several hours to get up steam the Paul Jones was virtually useless as a lifeboat
and the crew could only watch helplessly as the wrecks took place.
In 1839 the paddle steamer Brilliant was caught by a swell
and piled up on the end of the North Pier, which sloped into the sea rather than
having the vertical termination to be seen at the end of the 1870 addition. The
spectators helped the passengers and crew ashore in the usual manner, but no-one
remembered to put the fires out. As a result when the water in the boiler dried
up the vessel blew up in a spectacular fashion.
This was the first steam ship to be wrecked in the port and
may have suggested to the harbour authorities that even steamers were not immune
to the dangers of the harbour entrance, so it may not be chance that the leading
lights were completed in 1843. Two further tugs, the Dorothy and the Samson
entered service in the same year doubtless allowing larger ships to enter since
they would no longer be dependent on the ropes, the labourers and the capstans.
For these larger vessels to avoid the dangers of the North Pier and the South
Breakwater they would need to keep to the deepest part of the channel, and
therefore they would have a greater the need for direction.
The same leading lights are still in service today although
now powered by electricity rather than oil, and the port has continued to
develop although there has been no building on the south side beyond what is now
the entrance to the river Dee. This is because of the possibility of scouring of
the river bed and because it is claimed by some that the original North
breakwater was not in fact built in exactly the right direction. As a result the
Tidal Basin remains exposed to easterly winds, and the small mole with its
derelict capstan remains as the sole reminder of the difficulties the old
sailing ship masters had when they were entering the port of Aberdeen.
Vic Gibson 2002
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