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Harbours of Refuge on the East Coast of Scotland

 Letter from Dundee Chamber of Commerce supporting Peterhead for harbour of refuge

Fishing off the East Coast of Scotland has always been hazardous. In the 19th century there were many plans to improve safety. One of the ways this was to be done was by building safe harbours or 'harbours of refuge'. These were harbours where boats could find shelter in bad weather. Unlike other harbours, they were not designed primarily for trading.

Harbour of refuge at Peterhead

 Petition regarding a harbour of refuge at Peterhead, 1858

The North East Coast of Scotland was particularly dangerous. When it was decided to build a new harbour of refuge here, there was much discussion about where it should be located. A number of different places including Arbroath, Aberdeen, Stonehaven and Peterhead were considered. Finally, the South Bay of Peterhead Harbour was chosen as the best location.

There were a number of reasons why Peterhead was considered the best choice. Fishing has been carried out here for centuries, with the first harbour built in 1593. By the mid 19th century herring fishing was important to the town and whaling, sealing, and white fishing were also carried out. All these fishing boats needed a safe harbour in which to shelter.

 Plan relating to the development of a harbour of safety at Peterhead, 1847

Many supported the building of a safe harbour at Peterhead. A petition was received from the Shipmasters, mariners and other seamen who often used the seas around the North East coast. They were stressing the need for a harbour of refuge here. They considered Peterhead to be most suitable, as it lay midway between the Firths of Forth and Cromarty.

David Stevenson, engineer, wrote a report to the Parliamentary Trustees of Peterhead Harbour in 1847. In it he gives a general description of the North East coast and lists the advantages of Peterhead for a harbour of refuge. The site was considered suitable due to its position on the most North East coast of Scotland. It also had natural advantages such as its rocky sand-free coast. This would enable a large new harbour to be built. In particular he mentions the natural breakwater formed by Keith Island.

Stevenson first produced plans for the development of a harbour of refuge at Peterhead in 1858. It was decided to build a prison here in order to employ convict labour in the construction of the harbour. In 1886 an Act of Parliament was finally passed allowing the prison to be built. Because of the time elapsed, certain changes were made to the plan. The whole bay was to be enclosed giving a larger area of deep water and there were to be two entrances instead of one.

When work finally began, a 3000 foot breakwater was constructed. The harbour was granite base topped with concrete. Portland cement was a new product at this time and it gave the harbour a more solid and stronger structure. The whole project was actually not completed until 1958. And by this time weather forecasting made the whole concept obsolete.

Harbour of refuge at Eyemouth

 Engineers report on Eyemouth Harbour regarding improvements and extension in 1881

Another part of the East Coast also deserves mention. By the mid 19th century, Eyemouth had become one of the most important East Coast fishing ports. The lack of a safe harbour had, however long been a cause of great concern. The Great Storm of 14 October 1881, which took the lives of 129 Eyemouth fishermen, highlighted the problem.

In 1881 Eyemouth Harbour Trust put a report together with memorials from several Councils and fishing communities. They pleaded the case for a new harbour of refuge, following the Great Storm 1881. They summarize the history of their port and stress the need for a safe harbour between Shields and Leith, with the changes in the size of boats and advent of steam in fishing. Their aim was to persuade the Public Works Loan Commissioners to fund a new safe harbour of refuge at Eyemouth. The Trust were successful. With a loan of 25000 from the Public Works Loan Commission, a new safer harbour of refuge was begun at Eyemouth in 1884.

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