Case Study: Scottish Vernacular Harbours

Figure 9:  Dysart Harbour, a fine example of a longstanding vernacular harbour, developed and refined through the innovations of eminent engineers of the day, with a surviving example of a Patent Slip ©RCAHMS.

Figure 9: Dysart Harbour, a fine example of a longstanding vernacular harbour, developed and refined through the innovations of eminent engineers of the day, with a surviving example of a Patent Slip ©RCAHMS.

The wonderful archaeological resource represented in the smaller vernacular harbours around the Scottish coast offers sometimes unique opportunities to understand more about the vagaries of their development in many cases over several centuries. The coast of Fife contains a wealth of such examples and perhaps offers one of the finest corpuses of harbours offering amazing relics of the past ingenuity, and technological innovation of coastal communities and the sometimes inappropriate engineering solutions introduced in the more recent past.

Over the last twenty years or so, our understanding of the development of the creek-mouth harbour at St Andrews has benefited from a series of archaeological investigations promulgated through planning conditions associated with ongoing remedial works – often as a result of the inappropriate engineering solutions alluded to above. 

Between 1996 and 2004 investigations were undertaken along the west quay of the inner harbour; the east and west landfall of the lock gates straddling the inner and outer harbour; the main pier bulwark; and a stone built slipway. These investigations revealed an amazing array of evidence for the development of the harbour and some of the ingenious engineering solutions that normally remain hidden and unavailable for archaeological study. One such example was the remains of a puddle clay barrier confined within two rubble retaining walls built within the structure of the east landfall of the main lock gates - used to contain the water of the Kinness Burn and to periodically flush out the build up of sediments from the inner and outer harbour. This simple but highly effective measure ensured that no water could penetrate the structure and so weaken it. The periodic collapse of this structure since the later medieval and early modern period meant that by the time Rennie, the prominent Scottish engineer, introduced his remedial measures in the early 19th century the structure was in need of a more long-lived solution. It is testament to these measures that the lock gates have not suffered from structural failure since.

Evidence for the intervention of prominent engineers however is only a fraction of the archaeological legacy that embodies the technological innovation and the use of vernacular harbours as ‘test-beds’ for other notable inventions. Indeed, a fine example of this was the development of Dysart Harbour on the Forth coast. This harbour enjoyed a long developmental history, the location of which moved from the eastern shore to the west when modifications were necessitated by the developments in the coal mining industry and for a short period whale oil production. This development can still be seen in the extant structures of the harbour today, including the coal pit entrance and whale oil boiling house. Perhaps the most significant but regularly ignored feature within the harbour however is the surviving remains of the Morton patent slipway (patented by James Morton in 1818). This design was later adopted and integrated into the large scale shipbuilding operations on rivers such as the Clyde and places like Dundee where a large scale patent slip survives to this day as a protected Category A Listed Structure.

What is clear from these few examples is the amazing archaeological resource available for research evident within small vernacular harbours, and particularly the more obscure and unexpected gems that provide evidence of their place in the wider maritime and engineering contexts that made Scotland such an influential maritime focus for Britain and her colonies. Angus Graham in his extensive work on the east coast harbours (1967, 1969, 1977) gives a flavour of the different types of harbour available for study. Further research would help build upon this great foundation and help to appreciate yet further the research potential available to us.

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