Historic Harbours: Sustainable Conservation and Re-use

by Ben Saunders


The SESARF Study Area includes a number of historic harbours, which during previous centuries were intrinsic to the success and wellbeing of the communities that surrounded them. The vast majority have now lost their primary use: that of either fishing or movement of goods. Despite this they still have potential to be focal parts of communities, and the utilisation and protection of their historic nature is one potential use pathway.

It is important to note that any conservation project should have at its heart the principle of sustainability. Works should be reversible where possible, well-planned and have fully understood the asset in terms of physical fabric and historic associations. Projects should look to include onshore facilities within harbours- shipbuilding sheds, docks etc.- considered as part of their planning, as these were often intrinsic to the harbour when in use, particularly in the case of larger, more complex harbours and basins. Conservation management plans are therefore the first step of a sustainable conservation project.

This case study will focus on Cockenzie harbour, East Lothian and the work of the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group (1722 WHG). However, as noted above, the region has other historic harbours accompanied by associated onshore facilities, at Port of Leith, Newhaven, Fisherrow, Port Seton, North Berwick, Dunbar, Cove, St Abb’s, Eyemouth and Burnmouth.

Understanding the Physical Asset

It is important to understand the physical nature of the harbour: the makeup of the coastline and underlying strata in the immediate area; the physical processes that impact the harbour, such as longshore drift and local currents; the construction techniques and materials used across its lifespan; and finally, the present condition of the fabric of the harbour.

Oblique aerial view of semi-circular harbour on the edge of a small village. The harbour itself forms the bottom of the semi-circle, while the curved bay, with water, a few small boats and black rock form the top.
Aerial photograph of Cockenzie Harbour © Wessex Archaeology

Cockenzie Harbour is listed in records dating to the late 16th century, with redevelopment completed in 1630 for the 3rd Duke of Wilton before it was destroyed by a storm in the late 17th century. A Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey of the harbour (Wessex Archaeology 2023) potentially identified the earlier eastern quayside of this harbour, which was also been excavated as part of community excavations in 2018 (1722 WHG pers. comm.). Following the destruction of this harbour a harbour was built at Port Seton to the east, with a linked wagonway to the coal mines at Tranent and salt pans at Cockenzie. This harbour was also later destroyed by a storm, bringin significant damage to the local economy during the late 18th century. The waggonway and salt pans was later bought by the Cadells, who funded a redevelopment of Cockenzie harbour in 1833, which was designed by Robert Stevenson.

The construction techniques, materials and their strengths will have varied throughout these reworkings. Any conservation of the harbour should therefore complete an initial recording stage of extant remains to identify how material used in the harbour relate to phases of development. At Cockenzie, this process has been begun by the 1722 WHG, alongside their other work, who have uncovered the plans of the 1833 harbour redevelopment in archive searches as well as ground-truthing these plans through targeted excavation as part of a larger community project. More recent work has included a Conservation Management Plan for the harbour (Wessex Archaeology 2022), which included the use of rectified photogrammetry from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to create measured elevations and plans of the harbour structures, and identify potential defects within these.

A limited auger survey of the sediments in the southeastern corner demonstrated that the rock at the base of the harbour had been excavated, but not to the extent outlined in the later 1840s harbour plans. The GPR survey mentioned above covered much of the eastern quayside and the eastern pier, and identified areas where water ingress was heightened, as well as potentially identifying the tie walls outlined in one of Stevenson’s plans. However the nature of the infill of the harbour structures was unclear, except for the obvious difference on the eastern quayside between the original 16th century harbour and the 1830s redevelopment (Wessex Archaeology 2023). Additional archive research is ongoing to identify further material within the NLS’s Stevenson archive which relates to the planning and construction of the harbour.

Many of the principles behind harbour construction, as well as discussion of the physical processes that can cause structural failure, are outlined in Thomas Stevenson’s The Design and Construction of Harbours: A Treatise on Maritime Engineering (republished in 2011). This work is a mine of information for the methodology and materials used during the Victorian period by the Stevensons who built, modified and designed so many harbours around Scotland. It also includes lengthy discussions of the physical processes that can damage or totally destroy harbours, in particular the force of waves during storm conditions which exploit small defects in the walls. This treatise remains one of the most important documents in understanding the reasons behind the location, construction techniques and materials used in the development of 19th century harbours.

Close up of the breakwater stones, resembling a cobbled street with water on both sides. The open water can be seen in the distance.
Western breakwater at Cockenzie Harbour © Wessex Archaeology

Associative significance

The associative significances of harbours can be used to drive conservation and make redevelopment or restoration sustainable. In terms of physical associations, harbours have their onshore facilities such as dry docks, pumping houses, warehouses, cranes and other buildings (and offshore facilities in the case of beacons and navigation aids). The harbour should be considered in relation to these, both in terms of any that survive and can contribute to the significance of the harbour and in terms of presenting those that have been removed or damaged. The initial use of the harbour, whether fishing or export/import of materials, and present uses of the harbour should be identified and explored as potential pathways to present and future use of the harbour.

Harbours also have associations with ships and boats. At Cockenzie this includes the vessels constructed, maintained and repaired at the Weatherheads boatbuilding yard, vessels that operated from the harbour and more unusual connections such as the RNLB Mona, the Broughty Ferry lifeboat burnt at the harbour after the whole crew were drowned during a rescue in 1959. The coupling of historic harbours and historic vessels increases the significance of both, as can be seen all year round in the historic harbour of Nyhavn in Copenhagen, where only ships that are part of the Association of Wooden Ships or of particular historic significance are admitted. This concentration of historic vessels within a historic harbour has become a very popular tourist attraction in the centre of Copenhagen.

Within the SESARF area there are the examples of HMY Britannia, SS Explorer and the MV Fingal, all of which are currently within Leith Docks, although with varying functions and accessibility. The Britannia, a ship considered of high significance due to its royal associations and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Scotland, is fully accessible and has been a major part of the redevelopment of Leith Docks, while the Fingal has been converted from a historic lighthouse tender to a luxury hotel within an open dry dock, leading to changes in the shape of the ship and a loss of original fabric. The significance of Fingal therefore lies in the associated history of marine navigation in the UK and the presence of this historic ship, rather than the ability for the public to visit the ship itself. SS Explorer, the historic former Fisheries Research Vessel, is currently berthed in an area that is more restricted to visitors awaiting further conservation but represents the potential for preserving the more everyday history of the port of Leith: the working ships, the fishing fleets and the pioneering scientific work that was carried out from Scotland during the 20th Century.

The historic associations of a harbour can also include the industries that supported and relied on them and demonstrating these associations can make a more attractive and cohesive project, as seen at Cockenzie Harbour with the 1722 Waggonway Project. This project continues to bring together a wide variety of information covering the harbour, the wagonway between it and the coal mines at Tranent and the salt pans which previously lined the coast to the east of the harbour, and bringing together the community around these assets. Through archive research, community engagement, the development of a small museum dedicated to the industrial heritage of the local area, community excavations and some experimental archaeology in the form of a recreated salt pan, this project has successfully used the harbour and its associations to tie together the heritage of the town and present it to the community.

Five men in outdoor clothes gather around an open section of the habour where stones have been removed, leaving a large trench in the harbour. Towards the front of the image is a half-excavted wheel lying flat, poking out of the ground. The sea with small boats can be seen in the background.
Waggonway excavations, Cockenzie © 1722 Wagonway Heritage Group

Community Value

Harbours are a focal point for communities, even if some or many of the industries that gave them an original purpose have shrunk or disappeared. They therefore represent golden opportunities for tying conservation and presentation of heritage into social care, education and community wellbeing. The Covid pandemic also gave impetus to the wider population to discover outdoors pursuits closer to home, with increasing numbers engaging in watersports and sea-based activities, including sea swimming, paddleboarding and kayaking. Historic harbours being small, strongly built structures of refuge could present ideal hubs for clubs and associations for these sports, providing safety for beginners and a sense of purpose for the harbour.

Projects such as the 1722 Waggonway Heritage Group have developed their own community museum to present the heritage associated with the harbour, within a building close to the harbour. Events run by the group throughout the year have not just focused on presenting heritage alone but in weaving it into other events. Volunteers have included injured military veterans, local children, holiday makers and professional archaeologists, meaning that the reach and impact of the project was large, as well as promoting the use of heritage to assist social care for vulnerable people (1722 WHG pers. comm.). This clustering of heritage assets continues the use of the harbour as the focal point of the community.

There is the potential to continue this process using other heritage assets – the restoration/conservation of SS Explorer has great potential for education, both in terms of school groups and adult education as well as providing social care (SS Explorer Preservation Society pers. comm.). The concept of Men’s Sheds to bring social care and support, principally, for isolated retired men is yet to be fully utilised to promote heritage and assist with the conservation of historic vessels and the successful utilisation of historic onshore facilities.


Stevenson, T 2011 The design and construction of harbours: a treatise on maritime engineering. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Wessex Archaeology 2022 Cockenzie Harbour Conservation Management Plan. Unpublished client report ref: 243120.01

Wessex Archaeology 2023 Cockenzie Harbour geophysical survey. Unpublished client report ref: 243122.03