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 system.


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 harbour, and 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. And so 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 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. A 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 North Pier.

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.

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