Looking Back: Stonehaven Harbour

Looking Back: Stonehaven Harbour

The quintessential image of Stonehaven is from the Bervie Braes down onto the harbour and the sweeping Stonehaven Bay beyond. Obviously, it has not always looked like this so how and when did Stonehaven harbour develop?

Way, way back, the Earls Marischal owned the land around the small fishing village of Stanehyve (or Steenhive or a multitude of other spellings!) including the natural sheltered bay that would become the harbour within the Parish of Dunnottar.

detail from Robert Gordon Mernis drawn c.1636-52
Detail from Robert Gordon’s Mernis map, drawn c.1636-52
See the bay of the old town with no structures marked
(Full map HERE)

Around 1575 the Tolbooth was built as a storehouse for Dunnottar Castle by George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal, (and is the oldest building still standing in Stonehaven) and in 1600 Stanehyve was made the County Town of Kincardineshire with the Tolbooth being made the administrative centre by Act of Parliament acting as both a courthouse and prison.

Between 1688 and 1700 the first pier was created by George Keith, 9th Earl Marischal, forming the North Harbour with the Sundial opposite the Tolbooth installed 1710.

Coast of Scotland from the Red-head to Aberdeen Surveyed John Adair printed 1703
Detail from the 1703 map Coast of Scotland from the Red-head to Aberdeen,
surveyed John Adair. Note the North Pier structure clearly marked.
View full map HERE

To the south, the harbour was exposed to the open sea and a large rock called Craig-Ma-Cair – a huge sandstone mass situated off the end of the north pier in the south harbour area between Bellman’s Head and Red Craig Quarry – was situated at a short distance from the pier’s head. The estimated size of this rock was 50 x 30 square yards.

Town detail of John Thomson and William Johnson Atlas of Scotland Printed 1826
Town detail of James Robertson’s Topographical and Military Map of the Counties of Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine with Craig-ma-Cair clearly shown. Printed 1822.
Full map can be seen HERE

After the failed Jacobite rebellion in 1715, the Keiths, as Jacobites, forfeited their lands including Dunnottar Castle and Parish to the Crown and the harbour remained as it was with only the North Pier until in 1812 civil engineer Robert Stevenson was commissioned to make a survey and report on whether something could be done to improve the harbour to accommodate the growing fishing industry. Stevenson recommended a large scheme, at an astronomical estimated cost of £48,000 (approx. £3.4M in today’s money) but he also put forward a smaller scheme involving the removal of Craig-ma-Cair and the erection of a south pier. 

“The harbour is of great utility to navigation in general, being one of the most accessible harbours between the Firth o’ Forth and the Moray Firth; and would be rendered of still greater utility and more advantageous to trade and navigation if the same were enlarged, deepened, and protected by additional piers and breakwaters and proper works erected thereon.” But as we still find today, funding and permissions were hard to come by.

Thirteen years went by before an Act of Parliament was given Royal Assent on 20 May 1825: “Constitution of Harbour and Pilotage Authorities; Power to Levy Tells, Rates and Duties; Powers to compromise and settle Debts and Borrow Money; Regulation of Harbour; for improving and maintaining the Harbour of the Burgh of Barony of Stonehaven, in the county of Kincardine, and the entrance thereto, and rendering more convenient and commodious the streets and avenues leading to the same”.

The new Harbour Trustees were now in a position to take up Stevenson’s smaller scheme and in 1825 the sum of £7,500 (approx. £700,000 today) was borrowed from a bank at a rate of 4%, covering the cost of removing the rock and building the south pier. Work commenced in 1826 on the removal of Craig-ma-Cair by quarrying and blasting and the foundation stone of the South Pier was laid by Mr Peter Christian, a local lawyer, Sheriff’s Clerk and Chief Magistrate of the Burgh of Barony of Stonehaven.

Town Plan by John Wood 1823
Detail from the Stonehaven Town Plan by John Wood, published 1828 with the South Pier (originally surveyed in 1823 which may explain why Craig-ma-Cair is still featured)
Full map HERE

In his 1828 description of the Old Town, John Wood says “The Harbour is a natural basin, sheltered on the south-east, by high rocks, and protected from the sea, by a stone pier on each side; which renders it extremely convenient for loading and discharging cargoes, as it has at all time a great depth of water. The southern pier was completed in 1827, and adds greatly both to the size and safety of the harbour.”

An attempt was made in 1835 by the Harbour Trustees to obtain a further £600 to construct a westward jetty from the point of the south pier but the bank declined their request. In 1836 the Trustees then tried to secure a loan from the Exchequer Loan Commissioners to wipe off the debt to the bank and carry out proposed improvements but their application was unsuccessful. Undeterred, in 1837 the sum of £327 (approx. £36,800 today) was raised by public subscription and the westward jetty extension to the South Pier was built, known as the Fish Jetty.

Stonehaven H.Griffiths picture by WH Bartlett pubd Findens Ports and Harbours 1842
“Stonehaven” engraving by H. Griffiths from a picture by W.H. Bartlett, published in Finden’s Ports and Harbours, 1842
Detail from Hydrographic Office map showing the new enclosed South Harbour.
Surveyed 1833. Published 1842. Admiralty Chart 1443
See full map HERE

With the herring fishing industry growing the Harbour Trustees installed guiding lights on the inner wharf to aid navigation in 1839.

Detail from 1857 Hydrographic Office Map of Stonehaven Bay showing the two guiding lights. Admiralty Map 1443
See full map HERE

By 1846, with the continuing growth of the herring fishing industry the Trustees and Commissioners of the Burgh, now conjoined by Act of Parliament had become dissatisfied with the accommodation of the harbour and still working on the strength of Robert Stevenson’s 1812 report, presented a memorandum to the Tidal Harbours Commission pointing out the possibilities of the harbour and asking their favourable consideration of a grant to further improve the harbour, which was unfortunately not successful. Eight years later in 1858 a petition was presented to the House of Commons pointing out the natural advantages of the harbour as a Port of Refuge but the Select Committee of the day did not act on the suggestion. 

Kincardineshire XVII 4 Dunnottar Survey 1865 Publication 1866
Kincardineshire XVII 4 Dunnottar Survey 1865. Publication 1866 Ordnance Survey.
View full map HERE

Fast forward to November 1881 and an Amendment to the 1825 Stonehaven Harbour Act was proposed. In 1882 an important step was taken to obtain a Provisional Order to supplement the Act of 1825 and confer additional powers to the Harbour Trustees. Then in 1883 the Harbour Trustees along with Magistrates and Council of the old burgh and the Association of Feuars and Householders in Stonehaven presented a comprehensive memorandum to the Treasury, devoting attention more especially to the suitability of the Bay as a Harbour of Refuge in the hope that the government of the day might do something. This appeal to the Treasury was founded on a report by David and Thomas Stevenson, well know engineers from Edinburgh (sons of Robert Stevenson of the original 1812 report). Messrs. Stevenson made a careful survey of the bay with borings and soundings, to discover the nature of the bottom of the harbour. It is significant that the report stated that it was unaccountable that nothing material had been done since the completion of the south harbour in 1827. The engineers advocated 2 schemes:

  1. one that is similar to the breakwater we have today, at a cost of £4000  (equivalent to £490,000 today) 
  2. an extended design to enclose the greater part of the South Bay to near Downie Point, at an estimated cost of £67,000 (£8.2M in today’s money). 

Again, nothing was done.

By 1890 the Trustees had requested new harbour extension plans from Mr Barron C.E. of Wick which were presented on Monday 1st September 1890. The main considerations were:

  1. Increased depths of water to enable boats and vessels to enter and leave at all times of tide
  2. Shelter existing basins from north-easterly seas
  3. Increased quay space and harbour area

To facilitate this they proposed:

  1. A breakwater and quay from The Tolbooth in an easterly direction for a distance of 350ft and thence in a south easterly direction for a distance of 340ft
  2. Deepening of part of the area of proposed new outer harbour to a depth of 6ft below the low water mark, and the remaining part to level of low water of ordinary spring tides.
  3. The widening of inner portion of existing North pier.

It was proposed that the breakwater and quay be constructed with an inner and outer wall with the space between being filled in with materials from the extension areas of the new harbour with construction taking advantage of an existing high ridge of rock to build the outer wall on. The costs totalled £13,650 (equivalent to just short of £1.8M today) and broken down into

  1. breakwater and quay £9450
  2. deepening area of proposed new outer harbour to low water level £1335
  3. deepening portion of area of proposed new harbour to 6 ft below water level £1304
  4. widening of inner portion of existing north pier to form access to new harbour and quay £320
  5. contingencies 10% £1241

To meet the cost the Trustees asked for a grant from the Fishery Board of £5,000 and the balance they hoped to obtain from Public Works Loan Commissioners, supported by a petition from Stonehaven fishermen and those at smaller ports along the coast. The grant was refused by Fishery Board who claimed they had no funds for this but they did make strong representation to the Treasury on Stonehaven’s behalf. However, there was no favourable result from Treasury and the larger scheme of Messrs Stevenson was not carried out.

In 1893 a two day Bazaar was held in August to help raise funds to pay off the existing £6000 debt on the existing harbour as it was felt that there was no point applying for further grants until majority of the debt had been paid off.

Dundee Advertiser 18 Aug 1893

By now Stonehaven was at the centre of the height of the herring fishing industry with 1894 seeing some 15 million fish being landed and employing 1280 people locally.

Herring Packers in Stonehaven Harbour 1890
Herring Packers in a very busy Stonehaven Harbour 1890

It was necessary to again request to extend the Order of Works as no work had been carried out and this was granted in 1896. Now at the height of the herring fishing industry the Trustees really needed to be able to improve the harbour as the progress and changes in the boats used were to contribute to Stonehaven harbour’s future decline as it was not deep enough for the new bigger boats. 

Come February 1899 the Trustees garnered a reduced quote of £11,000 from Barron by reducing quay space from 40ft to 30ft along the proposed new works. The extension was now to have a rocky bottom, built of concrete and shingle removed from the beach. This new plan had a time frame of 18 months and was put out to tender in October 1899. Not surprisingly at this point, the works were not started and the extended Order of Works ran out in 1901.

The Harbour Postcard fishing boats
A postcard from c.1900 of the Harbour with fishing boats

In 1905 the Order of Works was applied for again and was granted. Then in 1910 a free grant of £6,500 (£771,500 today) was received from a Development Fund.

Finally, in February 1912 funding was granted for the deepening of the harbour and on Tuesday 11th September 1912 the first blasts to break up rock under the water in the harbour using a steam crane some 90ft high with a carrying power of 15 tons were carried out by Messrs. Kinnear, Moodie & Company, contractors from Glasgow who were tunnelling specialists. The first breakwater was completed in 1913 but by now the heyday of the fishing industry was long gone. It was not as long as the existing breakwater and had a small lighthouse at the end.

Stonehaven Harbour with lighthouse from braes Colin Brown
Harbour from the Bervie Braes with the light house at the end of the breakwater clearly visible
1950s © Colin Brown
Lighthouse at end of breakwater 1950s
The small lighthouse off the end of the breakwater
1950s © Colin Brown

During World War II there were three flame throwers on the middle pier of the harbour with two sets of two nozzles in each compartment facing the main harbour and the last set of nozzles were at the end of the pier, facing the small harbour pier to prevent access. They were fed by large pumps housed in an underground bunker in the courtyard of the old Tolbooth. The oil tank to fuel these flame throwers was housed in a brick building in the courtyard.

Steel piles were placed on the ends of the south pier and Fish Jetty around 1950 to protect the masonry along with storm gates to fully protect the inner harbour during stormy winters.

Stonehaven Harbour 1948
Aerial view of Stonehaven Harbour, 1948
See the shorter breakwater with lighthouse

In 1960 the Stonehaven Harbour Trust made a plan to carry out major repair work on the outer breakwater. At a meeting on January 19, it was pointed out that part of the harbour wall was undermined and bits dislodged over the 240ft length, and that their engineers, Archibald Henderson & Partners were asked to prepare a report, which in turn called for a reconstruction of the head of the breakwater at a cost of £27,450 (equivalent of £405,000 today). Provost T. Christie, said that the work had needed to be done for many years and his own feeling was that they should face up to it. A grant of 75% of costs was predicted and they could borrow the remainder to be paid back over a period of 20-30 years. This would bring the cost down to about £7000 (£162,000 today).

Work started in Sept 1961 but was stopped a month later due to adverse weather conditions. It was admitted that starting the work in autumn was a mistake and work resumed in spring 1962, being completed over the summer. The old lighthouse was no more with the remains being encased by steel piling and cement poured in to form the new breakwater head which is several feet wider than the original. The breakwater wall was strengthened and heightened by three and a half feet with a curved throwback at the top to help prevent any volume of water coming right over as it had before. Steps lead to the top where a constant light was situated. However, they failed to move the guiding lights at the back of the harbour that had been installed in 1839 so if boats now followed them they would pilot directly into the new breakwater!

Storms with mountainous seas over the winter 1963 tore chunks of the new concrete from the new breakwater curve back and a boom was employed to protect the inner harbour from the intense swell.

In March 1969 more storms further damaged the breakwater with the stairs leading to the top of the head collapsing, water pouring through cracks at the face of the north end of the wall and huge chunks of concrete littering the harbour.

P&J Tues 18 Mar 1969
Press & Journal, Tues 18 Mar 1969

The urgency of the need for repair was not ignored and work started on 25th April 1969. The cost was £9260 (equivalent £153,500 today) but was covered by a 95% grant from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries so only cost the town £463 (£7,700). The devastating damage was later put down to the effect of the curved throwback on the original breakwater causing a levering action as the waves hit it. The remaining part of the throwback was subsequently removed.

In 2020, more preservation and renovation is now required, with the sheet steel piles needing to be replaced as they have come to the end of the useful life due to corrosion which in turn will potentially endanger the walls they are protecting. We need to protect the structural integrity of our historic harbour. Aberdeenshire Council is currently working on permissions to carry out this vital work.

Stonehaven Harbour aerial October 2019
Aerial image of Stonehaven Harbour in October 2019
Note the longer breakwater is solid with no lighthouse and the wider head.
© Dawn Black

So Stonehaven Harbour has taken quite some time to develop with some very familiar frustrations of delays and ferreting for funding but what we have now is a wonderful harbour. We do still have some creel fishermen operating from the harbour, with 7 boats currently registered but it is now mainly a hub of leisure activity with well established historic hostilities of The Ship Inn (1771) and Marine Hotel (1884), B&Bs, self catering apartments and fun activities that should not be missed like Stonehaven Paddleboarding and Stonehaven Sea Safari plus our award winning Tolbooth Museum as well as being home to Stonehaven Yacht Club.

All maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

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