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Aberdeen Harbour

Aberdeen Harbour
©2016 Gazetteer for Scotland

Aberdeen Harbour

Aberdeen has a compact harbour, but one which is exceptionally busy, due largely to the North Sea oil industry, with almost continuous ship movements 24-hours per day. The harbour lies in the heart of the city, a short distance southeast of Union Street, and often displays the impressive sight of large oil support vessels parked neatly together in the Upper Dock alongside Market Street opposite the Union Square shopping centre.

Controlled by a modern Marine Operations Centre at its entrance, which replaced the 18th century Harbourmaster's Station (known as the Roundhouse) in 2006, Aberdeen Harbour is a publicly-owned trust port with administration, maintenance and improvement entrusted to an independent statutory body - Aberdeen Harbour Board. Much of the harbour's activity is focused on 'bases' which supply oil platforms in the British sector of the North Sea. Alongside fuel-oil tanks are distinctive tall thin tanks containing oilfield drilling fluid (or 'mud'). Other activities include a grain export terminal, trade in forest products, container and general cargo handling, the Northern Isles ferries (conveying vehicles, passengers and freight) and a few fishing boats, having contracted from the 200-strong herring fleet of the 1870s. 5.01 million tonnes of cargo was handled in 2008, worth some £1.5 billion.

Ideally located to trade around the North Sea, with Scandinavia and in the Baltic, a harbour has existed at Aberdeen certainly since 1136, when King David I granted the Bishops of Aberdeen the right to tax ships trading here, and probably from the 10th century, when the city was burned by the Vikings. Aberdeen Harbour therefore holds a record as one of Britain's oldest businesses. The Mediaeval harbour was located at the bottom of Shiprow but, although considered a safe anchorage, it was difficult to access at low tide and its entrance suffered from silting up. Documents record a crane being installed in 1582 to load and unload ships and that, in 1596, King James VI granted a charter to pay for a bulwark at Torry, on the south bank of the Dee, which was duly constructed in 1607 to help deepen the harbour entrance. A harbour overseer was appointed in 1751 while the engineer John Smeaton (1724-94) was commissioned in 1770 to advise on its development. His report led to the construction of the North Breakwater, begun in 1774, to reduce the silting problem. This work was continued by Thomas Telford (1757 - 1834), who proposed the creation of new docks in 1810, although his plans were not executed until the 1840s following modifications by harbour engineer James Abernethy (1814-96). In the 1830s Telford was again consulted and came up with an even more ambitious scheme involving channeling the River Dee, land reclamation and further new docks, plans which came to fruition forty years later.

Today, the harbour is divided into three principal sections: a northern section comprising the Upper Dock and Victoria Dock dating from 1843-48, together with Telford Dock (developed in the 1990s), which was once an area focused on ship-building; a middle section around the Albert Basin (constructed 1869-72) and further quays along the banks of a much-constrained River Dee which had been diverted south at the same time, separated from the Albert Basin by the Point Law Peninsula.

The Girdle Ness Lighthouse was built in 1833 by Robert Stevenson (1772 - 1850) to prevent the wrecking of ships on dangerous rocks on the approach to the harbour, while the Leading Lights were erected as navigation aids in 1842 as part of Abernethy's improvements. The Torry Point Battery was built to defend the harbour in 1859, and served it well through both world wars.

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