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Fittie’s Tragic Harbour Master
by Peter Gordon (2007)

The wreck of the brilliant, 1839: as torrid sea drove the ship onto the root of the pier the chief engineer abandoned the engine-room and rushed on deck. The unfortunate passengers were left in the pitch darkness, with the accompanying thunder of breakers and the roar of escaping steam.

Having spent much of my life in Aberdeen, my mind was unexpectedly cast into Fittie’s past when I read in March a newspaper a report about eight-year-old Ralph Fairhurst. Ralph was asked to describe his favourite little piece of Scotland and this is what he excitedly related: “My little piece of Scotland is Aberdeen. I love the beach because of the view from the pier. I also love the ice-cream, and at Footdee there is an excellent boat to play on.” Reading this, I wondered, how many children had played on this old pilot boat of Fittie – recalling fondly that not so many years before I had played on it with my young son Andrew, pretending to rescue a shipwreck. Special moments like this come from the extraordinary imagination of the child. Yet I was to discover that history had uncannily served up a real such story in our family’s distant past.
This is where the adventure began – at Fittie’s boat. I sent a picture of Andrew in the pilot boat to his grandfather Stuart, who has a wonderful fund of family stories. In his reply Stuart recalled how he had been told by his mother about her Aberdeen grandfather, the harbourmaster at Fittie. That sparked an easily-kindled childlike curiosity and the search that followed opened up like a book. It was as if the story beckoned to be told.
Captain Alexander Morrison was born on Christmas day 1794 in Foveran. His family had for generations been seafarers with both his father and grandfather having mastered their own boats. So it was that Alexander in his own right became a master mariner.
At Fittie, in January of 1821, Captain Morrison married Isabella Allan, a local lass that had captured his heart. Three bairns quickly followed, and whilst family life was simple, it revolved strictly around the captain and his work. Within a decade Isabella was struggling and what was to follow, as I was to discover, was utterly tragic.
At the time I was uncovering the story of Captain Morrison I was working as a doctor at Royal Cornhill Hospital in Aberdeen. I was intrigued to discover that Isabella had died in my hospital 130 years before. In Isabella’s time the hospital was known as the Aberdeen Lunatic Asylum.
That very next morning I contacted Dr Fiona Watson, archivist for Grampian Health Records. I asked, without hope, if any hospital records from Isabella’s time might survive? Fiona thought it unlikely, as many records had been destroyed in a flood in the basement of Elmhill many years previously. My disappointment turned to joy when Fiona contacted me later that week to say that Isabella’s records had survived.
The asylum notes in beautiful copperplate made sad reading. On 25 April 1831 Isabella Morrison was admitted urgently in a state of florid insanity; she was incoherent and rambling and was described as “noisy and turbulent and inclined to injure herself and others.”
The notes described how Isabella had started to dwell on an innocent remark made at a Christmas party, convinced that she had been accused of an act of infidelity.
There was no treatment, care was by restraint and confinement, and she was ‘bled and purged’ in the belief that it would drain away the evil. Isabella left behind three young children, the youngest less than a year old. She was never to mother them again and spent the rest of her life in the asylum. When she died 40 years later she was severely demented and riddled with tuberculosis. By this time her family had given up visiting her.
To help young Captain Morrison raise his three children he brought his mother from Foveran whilst he continued in the frenetic life of the harbour. Despite such circumstances, in May 1836 the harbour board rewarded Captain Morrison’s endeavour by appointing him as captain pilot of the harbour. This appointment came with occupancy of the Roundhouse at Pocra Quay and a wage increase to £34 a year. That was not a lot, even back then, particularly when you realise the asylum care of his wife was costing him £15 yearly: nearly half his wage. Fortunately accommodation on the middle floor of the Roundhouse was rent free, and for the captain and his family it must have been a rather special place to live.
The Roundhouse (it is actually octagonal) has stood at the junction of the Pocra Quay and the North Pier, since the late 18th century. It survives as one of Aberdeen’s most historic buildings and has become the symbolic icon of the harbour. Examination of the Shoremaster’s Accounts for 1797 reveals that the Roundhouse was built at a cost of £225.
Yet the Roundhouse stood impotent while three shipwrecks took place during the time of Captain Morrison: the Brilliant in 1839, the Velocity in 1848 and the Duke of Sutherland in1853. Fittie had never witnessed such repeated disaster and Aberdeen harbour gained a fearsome reputation.
The wooden paddle ship Brilliant was the first to be lost when she went ashore on the harbour entrance on 12 December 1839. At 159 tons gross she was relatively modest in size. The Brilliant had sailed from Leith the previous afternoon.
Captain Morrison had been wakened during the night with a raging south-easterly gale which overtook the Brilliant. Off Girdleness early the next morning, her master Captain Wade, standing on the quarter deck, was thrown overboard when the ship rolled violently in a heavy sea. As it was well before dawn there was no chance of Wade being saved. In the beam seas the steamer struck the North Pier just inside the seaward end.



Captain Morrison was unaware of the unfolding drama as a torrid sea drove the Brilliant further on to the root of his pier. The chief engineer abandoned the engine-room and rushed on deck. The unfortunate passengers were left in the pitch darkness, with the accompanying thunder of breakers and the roar of escaping steam.
When the Brilliant finally came to rest, those on board were able to scramble ashore without much difficulty. Poor Captain Morrison awoke to the cries of the survivors on his very own pier.
The boilers, now empty of water, rapidly over-heated, setting alight to the wooden hull of the paddle steamer. The stern was soon burning fiercely and though a fire-engine was brought out along the pier it proved impossible to extinguish the flames. Efforts were then concentrated on saving the cargo. Only two days after the wreck, several lots of the cargo were advertised for sale by a local firm in the same issue of the Aberdeen Journal that carried an account of the loss of the Brilliant.
Nearly a decade on another wooden paddle-steamer, the Velocity, was lost in almost identical circumstances. On 25 October 1848 Velocity arrived in the bay of the Dee at low water and lay off until the leading lights were lit at dusk. It is clear that her master, Captain Stewart, did not appreciate that the lights were lit regardless of the tide and steered straight for the harbour.
The wind, blowing strongly from the south-east combined with a strong fresh breeze in the Dee to produce a heavy sea off the harbour mouth; here the paddle steamer was struck on the starboard quarter by a large wave, and hit the south-east end of the North Pier. Her back was broken; she was lodged fast.
By the time the pilot boat was launched, the steamer’s longboat, carrying five of the crew, had managed to reach the safety of the harbour. The Velocity broke up, the poop deck carrying the master, mate, eight passengers and the remaining five crewmen out into the main channel. They were rescued by the pilot boat which had finally been manned by fishermen who ‘conducted the boat nobly, and took the men off the wreck and brought them to land in the most dextrous and sealike manner’. It was recorded that the pilots were ‘unwilling’ to volunteer for crew, claiming they seldom received anything for their efforts.
The stranded steamer broke up and disappeared in less than an hour. Wreckage and cargo were strewn along the Torry side of the river and in spite of guards being set, a great deal was stolen under cover of darkness.
The following morning Captain Morrison’s mother, who had acted as mother to his children, was found dead in her bed.
On the night of 30 March 1853, the paddle steamer the Duke of Sutherland was driven off course after being struck on the starboard quarter by a very heavy sea. In spite of five men struggling with the helm and the engines being put astern, she was swept by a second sea which drove her on to the seaward end of the North Pier and extinguished the furnace fires.
The Duke of Sutherland was holed in the vicinity of the boiler room which flooded rapidly. The steamer was then flung broadside on to the end of the pier before settling on the rocks and starting to break up, the fore-mast going over the side. Captain Howling, coolly directing operations from the bridge, had one of the lifeboats launched just as the bow section broke off. One of the female passengers was seriously injured when she jumped into the lifeboat; another fainted and was swept away, her body being washed up on the beach later.
The harbour lifeboat had to make for the beach carrying only 15 survivors, leaving 30 people on the rapidly disintegrating wreck. Captain Morrison commanded volunteers to help him retrieve lifelines from his Roundhouse; he knew that they could be fired to the stranded vessel using Dennett’s Rockets; but the damp fuses refused to light. It took 20 attempts before even one rocket fired and several more before a lifeline fell across the wreck.
At this point Captain Howling, having just been knocked down by a wildly swinging quarter boat entangled in the stern netting, tried to free it, but fell into the sea and drowned in full view of his brother who was on the pier.
Simultaneously, a salmon coble manned by some seaman and the steamer’s second mate, Peter Ligterwood, put off from the beach and pick up several people who had been washed off the poop. On the way back to the beach the coble fouled some salmon nets and capsized; only one of the crew of six men survived.
It was then that the hero of the disaster emerged. The chief steward, Duncan Christie, took charge of directing rescue operations on the stranded paddle-steamer and with a mixture of ‘extraordinary effort, encouragement and the occasional threat’ succeeded in safely sending ashore the 20 or so people still aboard the ship.
Finally, having ensured that all of the survivors had reached the pier safely, Christie left the wreck with a knife clenched between his teeth in case the rope pulling him ashore became entangled. In fact, this is exactly what did happen and he had to cut himself free just as he reached the pier.
Because of the heavy loss of life Aberdeen harbour commissioners appointed a full-time crew for the lifeboat and ordered an enquiry. The lifeboat had arrived alongside the casualty only half an hour after she had struck, but had been so badly damaged by floating debris that she was unable to return to the stranded steamer. The delay in the use of the Dennett Rockets was found to be due to a combination of inexperience, heavy spray soaking the rocket fuses and misguided interference from the huge crowd of onlookers.
Captain Morrison was in his 60th year when morning dawned on the wreck of the Duke of Sutherland. He was never to recover, and developed a chronic chest condition from the drenching he had received.
Three months after the Duke of Sutherland was shipwrecked, Captain Morrison was served with 21 new regulations made after an emergency meeting of the harbour board. They leave no doubt that this was a reprimand, but more than that, a confirmation that safety of the harbour was the over-riding duty of the captain pilot. Reading the list I was left to feel sorrowfully sick for my distant grandfather: simply he had failed as Fittie’s gatekeeper.
Surely the captain was hardy, yet he was also thrawn for he did not, and would not, retire. He worked on till his very last breath. Captain Morrison died at the Roundhouse in July 1856. His funeral was held at St Clements and in a mark of respect the ‘vessels in the harbour universally hoisted a flag half-mast high, as evincing respect’.