Scotland’s lengthy coastline, and the Scots’ long association with seafaring as fishermen, merchant seamen and Navy men has resulted in the establishment of numerous havens, harbours and ports, inland and around the coast. Furthermore, travel by river, firth, sea-loch and open sea was a frequent part of the Scottish experience so that ferry harbours and slips can be found, marking crossing points in a communication network often unrelated to more recent patterns of land transport.
These features were sometimes merely sheltered open beaches, or proto-harbours created by clearing obstructions from narrow leads between skerries. On the whole, these sites are usually undeveloped and offer little in the way of archaeological evidence. In some cases however, evidence of rock- cut features such as landing steps and platforms can be seen in the rocky outcrops and skerries at landing places (e.g. at Castle Sands in St Andrews and the old boat harbour at Pittenweem in Fife).
At many points around the coast more elaborate structures were built, providing greater protection and convenience in harbours with one or more enclosed basins. The vast majority of these harbours are vernacular in scale, dependent upon the resources of local communities for their construction. Vernacular harbours comprise the most expensive endeavours these local communities have undertaken and the great cost of harbour works (arising from the harsh environmental challenges they must survive) often means that local harbours have evolved progressively through a series of historical stages, as funds became available.
This is in marked contrast to major commercial docks and harbours such as those at Glasgow and Leith, which have usually developed following parliamentary legislation and which were designed and constructed by renowned engineers, with the aid of central state funding. Developments in transport, trade and commerce in the late 18th and 19th centuries, combined with the advent of steam power, culminated in harbour and port expansions, both great and small, on an unprecedented scale. The relative independence of steamers from the vagaries of wind and weather gave rise to the era of timetables of regular sailings. This in turn demanded the ability to board vessels at any state of the tide, a requirement served by the proliferation of deep-water steamer piers. Many of the great Scottish ports such as Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Greenock and Leith were developed during this period under the direction of engineers such as Rennie and Telford.
In a few cases, massive harbours of refuge have been built with government finance which can provide a safe haven in adverse weather conditions for substantial fleets of ships, both naval and commercial (e.g. whaling and fishing fleets). Peterhead is a fine example of such a harbour of refuge, comprising a multi-basin inner harbour (with an interesting history of earlier vernacular development) and a large outer harbour protected by a great breakwater, within which a sizeable fleet may lie safely at anchor.
Finally, harbours act as a magnet for the specialised craft skills and services required to run a maritime economy, so that the hinterland immediately around them is often the site of ship and boat-building yards, roperies, sail lofts, cooperages, mission bethels and other related workshops and social institutions. Remains of these activities succeed in augmenting the harbour archaeological resource.
Vernacular harbours have been expensive to maintain and local records sometimes provide details of a succession of major repairs following storm damage to bulwarks and quays. In recent years the decline in economic activity in local vernacular harbours, following the concentration of commercial operations at a smaller number of larger harbours around the coast, has led to considerable neglect of local harbours, along with a loss of local knowledge as to how to repair and maintain them. Thus, in East Fife during the past 50 years there have been major breaches of bulwarks and collapses of sea-walls and quays at St Andrews, Crail, Cellardyke, Anstruther Wester and Dysart. Other harbours have been abandoned as unusable following changes in sedimentation (sometimes associated with the dumping of mining waste at sea nearby, as in Buckhaven and West Wemyss). This part of the archaeological resource is fragile and very much under threat. This serious problem is compounded by the poor levels of recording that have prevailed in this sector.
Equally fragile are the sites of boat-yards, roperies, cooperages and related activities, for many of these crafts were for long periods carried out wholly or in part in the open air. More recently, as these processes became more profitable, there was a tendency for these open air sites to be developed by the addition of small scale industrial buildings. An excellent example of such progressive development can be seen at Montrose, where an original open air roperie was progressively developed with buildings to protect the increasingly sophisticated machinery employed, culminating in a fully enclosed rope-making process with separate hatchelling house, tar-house and covered laying floor. The complex survives intact, making possible a detailed study of its development over c.225 years (Atkinson & Prescott 2010).
Future research potential: Scotland’s havens, harbours and ports comprise a bountiful archaeological resource. However, this extensive resource has thus far only been subjected to limited ad hoc study and there is a case for a broader, more integrated approach to harbour research. This might best be promoted by setting up a multi-disciplinary Harbours Working Group to collaborate over the design and execution of research in this area. The group should bring together historians and archaeologists with civil engineers from universities and research institutions such as HR Wallingford (until 1982 the UK Govt. Hydraulics Research Station) with expertise in marine engineering projects, particularly in tidal zones. Research should lead to a better understanding of the evolution of our harbours, and of the problems to be faced in conserving them. Some suggested topics for research are set out below: