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HOME > Biographical > Life of Robert Stevenson > CHAPTER VI. FERRIES.
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    Ferry Engineering—Extracts from Report on the Tay Ferries—Reports on various Ferries—Orkney and Shetland Ferry, etc.

Before we had steamers to navigate our firths and railways to bridge our estuaries, the “crossing of the ferry” was an event of no small solicitude to the traveller. In the sailing pinnace-boat of those days he not only might encounter serious danger, but his exposure to sea-sickness and drenching spray depended wholly on the weather, and sometimes the length of the passage, and the duration of his suffering could not be foretold by the most experienced “Skipper,” as the captain of the boat was invariably styled. Anything that could reduce the hazard and uncertainty of so miserable a state of things was naturally hailed as a priceless boon; and the improvement of “ferry communication” at the beginning of this century was an important branch of civil engineering. Its successful practice demanded nautical knowledge as well as constructive experience, for the engineer had first of all to study the strength and direction of the tidal currents of flood and ebb, and then to consider from what points on the shore a ferry-boat, under the varying states of wind and tide, could most readily make her passage across. He had further to select the most suitable102 sites for landing-places, and to construct high and low water slips at different points to meet the varying states of tide and wind, and to construct roads of more or less extent to connect the landing-places with existing turnpikes. All this arrangement was required, because at the time of which I write, before steamboats were invented, two costly deep-water piers placed ex adverso of each other, one on each side of a ferry, would not have met the requirements of the case; for the management of a sailing pinnace, at the mercy of the currents and winds, demanded not a single pier for which to steer, but a choice of several points, on as wide a range of coast as possible, for which the “skipper” could shape his course and make a landing. Mr. Stevenson’s nautical experience peculiarly fitted him for giving valuable advice in this important branch of marine engineering. It is no doubt a branch of the profession which may be said to be obsolete, but I do not know that on that account it is undeserving of notice; and the best mode I can think of for conveying to any one who may be interested in it an idea of the “ferry engineering” of former times, is to give an extract, with an illustrative sketch, of one of Mr. Stevenson’s early Ferry Reports. I select for this purpose a report made to the “Freeholders, Justices of the Peace, and Commissioners of Supply of the counties of Fife and Forfar” relative to the ferries across the Tay at Dundee:—

    “Having examined the shores and firth of Tay the reporter has now the honour of submitting the following as his report regarding the proposed improvements:—

    103 “The improvement of the ferries on the Tay has long been the desire of the public; and though this measure has hitherto been delayed, on account of the expense which necessarily attends such operations, yet so desirable an object has been invariably kept in view; and now, when the advantages attending the recently improved state of Queensferry and Kinghorn ferries have been in a good measure realised, the passage across the Tay has very opportunely been brought under the consideration of the freeholders of the adjoining counties.

    “The present landing-slips or quays upon the Tay are situate at Dundee upon the north, and at Woodhaven and Newport on the south. The bed of the firth or river at Dundee is so much silted up and encumbered with sandbanks and mud, that the piers, which were no doubt originally built of sufficient extent, and perhaps commanding the necessary depth of water for floating the passage-boats at low tides, have at length become inadequate to so great a thoroughfare, and the boats are now left by the water at every spring-tide, to the great annoyance and inconvenience of the public.

    “It will be observed from the plans accompanying this report that the Craig pier at Dundee is proposed to be extended from the southern extremity of the present landing-slip or pier 400 feet in length, or to the southern extremity of the Craig rock, so as to command a depth of about five feet at low water of spring-tides, which will be sufficient to float decked boats of twenty to twenty-five tons register, built upon a suitable construction for sailing. It is proposed to construct this pier, where the greatest business is to be done, upon the plan of a double pier, sixty feet in breadth; and as it will now be of a much greater extent than formerly, a screen wall is proposed to be erected in the middle of it, in a longitudinal direction, so as to check the waves or run of the water over the pier, and also for the defence and shelter of passengers from the inclemency of the weather. This pier will form an104 inclined plane sloping to seaward at the rate of one perpendicular to twenty-six horizontal.

Fig. 14.

    “In sailing from the southern side of the Tay for Dundee, it will on some occasions be found convenient, with certain directions of the wind and currents of the tide, to have landing-slips or piers both above and below the town of Dundee, so as to prevent the necessity of tacking with adverse winds, as is the case at present105 from the want of such accommodation. Upon examining the shores above or to the westward of Dundee, the most convenient position for a landing-slip is at the Magdalene Point, about 1400 yards to the westward of the Craig pier at Dundee.

    “In the same manner a convenient position presents itself on the rocky shores of the Rood Yards, about 2000 yards below or to the eastward of the Craig pier. These proposed new piers are delineated and laid down in the drawings accompanying this report.8

    “Upon the southern side of the Tay, and opposite to Dundee, the harbour or landing-slip most frequented at present is that of Newport. In former times, when the accumulation of sand, called the Middle Bank, between the opposite shores of the ferry at Dundee, was less extensive, the principal landing-place upon the Fife side of the firth was that of Woodhaven. Newport is a small harbour, built of masonry, with a landing-slip or sloping pier attached to the outward wall of the harbour for the convenience of the ferry-boats. At this station it will therefore only be necessary to extend the landing-slip about eighty-eight feet northward, in order to obtain five feet of depth at low water of spring tides; and as the present sloping pier or slip is inconveniently narrow, it is proposed to add fourteen feet to its breadth; and the reporter would recommend that this work, in connection with the pier at Dundee, should be executed in the first instance, on account of its being of primary importance in the improvement of the Ferry.

    “At Woodhaven it is proposed to add seventy-one feet to the length of the landing-slip, to enable the ferry-boats to approach it at low water of spring tides, in the same manner as at Newport.

    “At or near Craighead, about 830 yards below or to the eastward of Newport, there is a convenient point of land, where it is proposed to erect a slip or pier 250 feet in length and 30 in106 breadth. This pier will command five feet, or a sufficient depth of water for the ferry-boats at the lowest tides, and is in a position calculated to be highly useful.

    “A pier has likewise been suggested as necessary at Wormit Bay, about a mile to the westward of Woodhaven, which, in certain directions of the wind, may no doubt be found useful; but when the piers opposite to Dundee come to be put in good order, and the ferry placed under proper regulations, it is presumed that a pier at Wormit Bay would very seldom be found necessary. The cost of these works is estimated at £20,952, 13s. 6d.

    “In forming the several landing-places already described, it is obvious that there must be a ready communication between each of these piers and the public roads in their respective neighbourhoods. It will also be of essential importance to this measure, that a connection by good roads be formed and kept up between the several landing-places, in so far as this can be effected. At present there is a pretty good line of road between Woodhaven and Newport, which would require to be extended eastward to the landing-place at Craighead.

    “In the event of Craig pier being adopted as the landing-place at Dundee, it might be advisable to take a power in the proposed Act, as a measure of the burgh of Dundee, for making a new and more direct approach from that pier to the main street. The extension and formation of these roads, however, will necessarily fall under the joint consideration of the trustees for the ferries and roads in apportioning the expense between the respective trusts.

    “At present there are said to be no less than about thirty boats plying upon the passage at Dundee, which are navigated by about fifty men and boys. But were the piers and landing-places, with the accesses to them, completed in the manner proposed, and the whole placed under proper regulations, there can be little107 doubt that the ferry of Dundee would be much better attended, and the public better served, by one half of the present number of boats, as has been experienced on the ferries of the Firth of Forth.

    “Some are of opinion that both the number of boats and of piers or landing-places might be still further reduced by the introduction of the Steamboat upon this passage. The reporter, however, does not think it would be advisable to have fewer than three landing-places at each station, as even the steamboat itself is more or less liable to fall short or to be driven past its port by adverse winds and strong currents; and, in a great public measure of this kind, it is proper to be prepared for the worst that is likely to happen. Regarding the adoption of the steamboat in preference to sailing-boats, the reporter is not however prepared to give any very decided opinion upon the subject. He has, indeed, seen the steamboat used with great facility on the passage across the river Mersey at Liverpool, and has himself brought the plan of a steamboat under the notice of several of the trustees for Kinghorn and Queensferry passages, proposed to be constructed upon similar principles with that originally tried, it is believed, by the late Mr. Millar of Dalswinton. But it would seem to be premature to recommend the framing of the Bill or the construction of piers for Dundee ferry upon the idea of the exclusive use of the steamboat. The consideration of the late unpleasant accidents which have befallen some of those boats renders this a matter of great delicacy, and one in which much precaution should be used on so public a ferry. Under such circumstances it is not only necessary to consult the actual safety of passengers while afloat, but even to meet their prejudices, with proper attention to their comfort. From considerations of this kind, the reporter recommends that such of the piers or landing-slips on the ferry of Dundee as may108 ultimately be erected, should be completed agreeably to the plan herein proposed; and it is fortunate that, with some trifling alterations or additions, the piers suitable for the common boat can be made answerable for the steamboat. When this measure is in full operation it may then be highly proper to make an experiment with the steamboat upon the passage at Dundee, and if this mode is approven of by the public it can be extended, and the number of sailing-boats diminished accordingly.”

Mr. Stevenson was employed to give similar advice by other Trusts, and particularly by the “Trustees of the Queensferry Passage” and the “Trustees of the Edinburgh and Fife Ferry,” both across the Forth,—the “Freeholders and Justices of Peace of the counties of Ross and Sutherland,” for the Ferry of the Dornoch,—the “Freeholders of the county of Glamorganshire,” for the new passage-ferry of the Severn, to all of whom he made reports at various times, as to the improvement of the mode of communication under their charge. He also was engaged by the Lords of the Treasury “to inquire into and report on the best mode of improving the post-packet communication to Orkney and Shetland,” which he did after careful survey and consideration, in an elaborate report, from which I give the following extracts, as illustrating some of the disadvantages under which the public laboured before steam was generally adopted:—

    “The islands of Orkney are separated from the coast of Caithness or mainland of Scotland by the rapid channel of the Pentland Firth, which varies in breadth from six to nine miles, while Zetland lies fifty miles to the northward of Orkney.”

    “These two groups of islands, forming one county, are of late109 years greatly advanced in importance, and possess an aggregate population of 60,000 inhabitants, who are chiefly engaged in maritime affairs and fishing adventures. From their local position also in the North Sea, they lie much in the track of vessels sailing in the higher latitudes, and correspondence with them regarding the destination and insurance of ships is often of the greatest importance to commercial men. It is likewise known to the Right Honourable the Lord Advocate of Scotland, and the Honourable the Sheriff of the county, that the want of a proper communication by post not unfrequently interferes with the regular administration of justice in these islands; and now that Orkney and Shetland jointly send a member to Parliament, the evils resulting from the want of a regular communication press more forcibly, not only on the inhabitants of these islands, but on the public generally.

    “So uncertain is the post of Zetland on its present footing, that the reporter himself carried to Lerwick the first intelligence of the appointment of Sir William Rae as Lord Advocate of Scotland, after it had been currently known through the newspapers in all other parts of the kingdom for several weeks, and it is well known that the succession of the King was not known in Lerwick for several months after the event took place. During the winter months the intercourse is indeed precarious as well as uncertain, and much painful delay is often experienced by parties interested in any question connected with the insurance of vessels wrecked on this dangerous coast.

    “In order to lessen the labour and expense to themselves, the Orkney ferrymen on either side contrive to leave their shores so as to meet about the middle of the Firth, where they exchange the mail and passengers, and then return to their respective homes. In this way they seldom complete the full trip across the Firth, excepting when obliged by stress of weather. This interchange of the post from boats, it must be allowed, is rather a hazardous experiment110 anywhere, but more especially in the middle of the Pentland Firth; and whether the inhospitable state of the shores on either side, the rough and boisterous nature of the sea to be passed through, or the want of management be considered, there is evidently great room for improvement on the ferry of the Pentland Firth.”

This communication is now, as is well known, carried on by first-class steamers, which touch at Kirkwall and Lerwick, and by a daily mail steamer which crosses the Pentland Firth from the low-water pier at Scrabster in Caithness to Stromness in Orkney; and the travelling public may be congratulated that the ferry communication of the early part of the century, of which I have given a sketch in this chapter, no longer forms a part of the practice of the civil engineer.


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