TAMH: Source Material
Arbroath: Shipping: mid-late 19th Century - 1| 2| 3

From the Guide 3rd January 1953.


When Brothock Burn was Dammed and Flow was Used to Remove Silt from Inner Dock


The suggestion made recently to the Harbour Committee of Arbroath Town Council by Councillor Chapel that the Brothock

Burn was diverted into the harbour so that the flow of the stream might assist in overcoming the silting up of the harbour basin, and relieve the work of the dredger, is no novelty. Councillor Chapel was recalling a practice followed for many years when what is now the inner dock was Arbroath harbour.

The harbour entrance in those days was at the South-west corner of the present wet dock, near where stands the old surf boat-house above the lifeboat slipway. The gates at the entrance, or 'booms,' as they were called, were let down by crane into grooves in the quay walls in stormy weather.


CAPTION: The old tug 'Atlanta' which took sailing vessels in and out of the busy dock is in the foreground. In the background repair works are being executed on the harbour wall at the dock-gates.

Before the building of the harbour the Brothock Burn ran straight to the sea from the foot of Marketgate, with a bend to the westward, falling into the sea near where the lighthouse now stands on the quay at the West end of the protection wall.

Councillor Chapel, in his suggestion to the council, was quoting from evidence given in 1846 at Arbroath before a Royal Commission inquiring into tidal harbours, when it was proposed by the then harbourmaster that a sluice introduced into the new harbour in connection with the Brothock might help to scour away the silt accumulating, even then at the rate of six inches per annum, as this mode had been found very beneficial in the old harbour. and was used at every Spring tide.


In fact, there were ultimately two of these sluices at the old harbour, now the wet dock.. They were in the wall next the burn, which at that point was about double the width between Ladybridge and Old Shorehead which it is now. In the days before dredgers when it was found necessary to clean out the harbour, the waters of the burn were dammed back for a day or two until there was a good head of water. Then the sluices were opened, and a good deal of the mud was swept out to sea by the flow, men working with long 'clatts' in efforts to help to stir up the silt and move it. In fact, one of the early plans, about 1838, for the extension of the harbour, showed the burn 'reservoir', as it was called, being covered over, as it is at present on the yard of the Fishermen's Association. This process of clearing out the harbour was considered unsatisfactory, it appears, and was discontinued about 1870, when the harbour trustees employed a dredger.

The old sluices were operated by a ratchet and toothed wheel, like a crane and windlass. They finally disappeared in 1877 when the old quay wall was taken down, the bed of the burn narrowed, and the present dock walls erected.

The founding of the town's first harbour is ascribed to Abbot John Gedy in 1394. The charter of King William at the founding of the Abbey gave to the monks the right to erect the village of Aberbrothock and the adjoining lands into a burgh, with a port and weekly market. To the village lying outside the walls the monks of Arbroath gave the constitution of a burgh long before the building of their own monastery was completed. The churchmen of that time doubtless recognised the advantage which would acrue to themselves by drawing prosperous trading communities around the great religious houses. Trade depression caused by the wars with England was not overcome until the middle of the 14th century, during the reign of David II. It was almost in the early years of the revival that the public-spirited Abbot founded the harbour. But while a trade, apart from fishing, did spring up at Arbroath it was for a long period very small, the dues received a the harbour being insignificant.

Three hundred years later the trade of the town was still small. It seems to have consisted chiefly in the manufacture and exporting to Dutch ports of malt liquors. The town was a pleasant place, lying amid cornfields, with orchards interspersed, and, although a royal burgh, still only the dimensions of a village. From the Abbey to the sea, at Danger Point, there extended a long range of houses mostly thatched cottages. The line terminated in the Abbot's harbour, then merely a protecting breakwater.


The first of the Arbroath harbours, that built by Abbot Gedy, was only a wooden pier resting upon an embankment of boulders. It was in the shape of a bent arm projecting from the small promontory now called Danger Point, and turning westward. The space which it partially enclosed thus lay in front of the street called Old Shorehead.

This harbour. which lay to the East side of the Brothock, continued to be under the joint management of the monastery and the burgesses as long as the former had any existence. A formal covenant was entered into between the two in April 1394, and is an interesting document reputed to be one of the oldest, and also one of the most curious and interesting, in the records of harbour-making and also of voluntary taxation in Scotland. A summary of the document shows it was agreed the Abbot and convent should make and maintain, at their expense, in the best situation a safe harbour for the burgh. The burgesses, on the other hand, were to clear the place fixed on from sand and stone and all other impediments; to fill with stone, and place, the coffers required for the harbour under the direction of the masters of the work; and to find certain tools necessary for that purpose at their own expense. Because in the founding of the harbour much labour and expense were entailed, more than the burgesses could bear, the burgesses were required to pay to the Abbot yearly three pennies from each rood of land within the burgh in addition to the three pennies already paid.

The customs dues were taken possession of by the Crown about 1357 to contribute towards the ransom of David II from captivity, but a renewed grant in favour of the Abbey was made by James V, and this showed that by 1528 the harbour had fallen into dilapidated state for want of revenue to meet the cost of repairs. It was found necessary in that year to call on all inhabitants to give labour in clearing the harbour of sand and stones, under penalty of a fine of eightpence for absence from this duty.


It was also found necessary not only to clear the harbour of sand and stones but to renew the pier. In 1529 trees were bought at South Ferry for this, although the work of rebuilding the pier was not begun until the following year. From records about 1538, it appears that a portion of the rents of the common-folds and other parts of the common-good of the burgh were applied to 'bigg up the hawyn' (haven).

By 1590 the harbour was again in a ruinous state. At the Aberdeen Convention of Burghs in that year supplication was made by Arbroath 'craving support to the reperalling of their decayed harbour'. A grant of £60 was given the next year. Further appeals followed and in 1612, meeting at Arbroath, the Convention admitted the necessity of repair work and recommended the burghs to grant voluntary contributions for carrying it on. Dundee Town Council agreed to give 'the soum of ane hundred pounds to the harbour of Arbrothock', and Edinburgh council gave 250 marks.

The general repair which was then effected on the old harbour early in the seventeenth century began some years before any money was voted for it by the Convention. Most of the timber came from Ferryden. The stones and timber were drawn to the harbour on sledges, and harbour-making entries in the records regarding 'gallons aill' and other potations, must have been an occasion for festivity in which the 'haill toun' had a part.

When more repairs were undertaken in 1654, at a time when the anchorage or shore dues were about £80 Scots or £7 sterling, contributions to the expense were made in the churches throughout the county. More appeals were made to the Convention in the next 50 years and various sums were voted, but they were insufficient, even with local effort. A disastrous storm in 1706 broke up the greater part of the harbour, and it remained in a semi-ruinous condition for many years, although the subject of many reports at meetings of the Convention.


The old Abbot's harbour had outlived its day. At the best, affording only indifferent accommodation and shelter to shipping, it was of little use in developing the trade of the burgh and always liable to destruction by severe storms. In 1725 work was begun on the formation of another harbour, to the Westward of the Abbot's harbours and of the Brothock Burn. It was excavated out of about two acres of beach and adjoining grass land, and the total cost of the work was upward of £6000 sterling.

A greater part of the burden of building this harbour now incorporated in the wet dock fell on the burgh itself, and in the course of the operations the personal labour of the inhabitants was required. The situation of this harbour was that of the present wet dock, the entrance to it being at the South-west corner of the harbour. Between the present tidal harbour and wet dock was what was called 'ballast hill' which formed the outer wall of this old harbour on the site of the quay now occupied by the harbour sheds. It was built up of stone and rubble excavated to form the dock. The name was given this part of the harbour because the material was, doubtless, used from time to time to ballast sailing ships leaving port light. During the Napoleonic wars a battery of six 12-pounder guns was placed on the ballast hill for the defence of the port. The battery was dismantled after the exile of Napoleon.

The pierhead of the old harbour extended out from the ballast hill quay in the form of a sickle, the handle being at the harbour entrance at right angles to the main quay. The stones used in the building of it were obtained from the Ness Quarry. All that remains of this original pier at the harbour entrance is now built into what is to-day called the capstan quay on the other side of the present entrance to the harbour.


In 1765 the Town Council found it to be 'absolutely necessary for the preservation of the harbour and shipping' to erect a sluice so as to let the water of the Brothock run through the harbour to clear out the silt; and this was, accordingly, done. There had been an earlier resolution to the same effect, but it did not appear to have been acted upon. When it was found the harbour was much filled up with sand in 1741, expert advice was taken, and it was reported 'that the only way for clearing it was to bring the water by an aqueduct from the burn into the harbour, and that it would be necessary to enlarge the basin at the head of the canal' - at Ladybridge.

Trade increased after the new harbour was built. Following a memorial presented by the Town Council in 1786 by shipmasters and importers representing their own hazard and loss through the smallness of the harbour, its unsheltered situation, encroachment of the sea, and decay of some of the piers, the Town Council accepted the suggestions to erect gates at the narrow end of the harbour and a breastwork of breakwaters off the pierhead, one which remained until 1842, being on a site midway between the shore and the present West breakwater.

The smallness of the harbour was increasingly felt with the development of the trade of the port. The subject continued from time to time to occupy attention. In 1822 a high tide swept away a large portion of the ballast hill, and the engineer then consulted advised the harbour be extended. The first of several plans was obtained, but nothing was done until 1839, when a bill was passed by Parliament for extending, improving, and regulating the harbour, the board of management appointed by the Act consisting of 19 trustees.

At the time the trade of the harbour was still prosperous. The improvements of the old harbour, enlarged to an area of about 3 acres, and the construction of a new outer harbour, generally to a plan similar to the lay-out of the present harbour, were begun, but the scheme was held up by lack of funds. The conversion of the old harbour into a floating basin, the renewal of old piers, and the deepening of the entrance could not be gone on with. A government Commission visited Arbroath in 1846, and, consequently recommended that financial assistance be given.


At this time (1846) the arrivals at the harbour in a year were 731 laden vessels of which 32 were from the colonies and foreign ports, and in the busiest years of the harbour's trade there were as many as 20 pilots on duty.

The matter was once more brought under the notice of the Royal Commission in 1858 on Harbours of Refuge, when the granting of Government aid to Arbroath was urged, not on commercial grounds so much as on the grounds of public utility and humanity, owing to the number of wrecks on the coast.

In 1864, by going to Parliament for a new Act, the harbour trustees increased the harbour revenue and were able to renew part of the works which had become dilapidated. River walls hemming in the course of the Brothock from the foot of Marketgate to the sea at Danger Point were also built.

A loan was got from the Government in 1871, and reconstruction of the harbour was proceeded with. The new harbour and the entrance from the bar were deepened and the old harbour, with its quays rebuilt was converted into a wet dock. The wet dock was completed in 1877.

It was during the alterations undertaken about 1875 that the old entrance to the inner dock at the South-west corner was built up and a new entrance gateway was formed where the dock-gates are now situated. An old slipway in the Northeast corner of the dock was also done away with.

In 1882 the dock entrance collapsed, the ruin extending to part of the adjoining walls of the dock. Restoration work was begun at the end of the year, but difficulties were encountered, and it was not until 1887 that the dock entrance was fully restored.