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Wick Harbour and Breakwater
Wick, Caithness, Highland, Scotland, UK
associated engineer
Thomas Telford
James Bremner
Thomas Stevenson
James Barron
date  1803 - 1811, 1824 - 1831, 1863 - 1877
era  Georgian  |  category  Harbour  |  reference  ND367507
ICE reference number  HEW 599
Wick was once the world’s largest herring fishery port. It now has three interlinked basins — the inner harbour, the outer harbour and the river harbour, which is the main quay area. Its breakwater has suffered repeated damage and it has been suggested that a new one is needed.
Harbour development at Wick, where the River Wick flows into Wick Bay on the north east tip of the Scottish mainland, was difficult because of a lack of shelter from the east. In the 18th century it had only a rough quay. From 1790 both Thomas Telford (1757-1834) and John Rennie (1761-1821) produced plans and estimates for improving the harbour for the British Fisheries Society.
In 1803, Telford planned and laid out the inner or north harbour, which was completed in 1811. He also planned the layout of, and designed numerous buildings in, the new district of Pulteneytown (ND368508), adjoining the harbour to the south. It was named after Sir William Pulteney MP (1729-1805), then Governor of the British Fisheries Society.
Expansion of the fishing industry required the provision of an outer harbour. The new south harbour was planned in 1824 by Telford, surveyed in 1825 by Joseph Mitchell (1803-83) and a contract was awarded subsequently to engineer James Bremner (1784-1856). Soon afterwards much of his partly completed work was destroyed in a storm.
With consummate skill, Bremner saved the harbour from destruction and completed it in 1831, using the ingenious expedient of near-vertical flagstones. Modifications were also made to the north harbour as part of this improvements. Bremner’s stonework is still visible on the outer face of the outer harbour walls.
By 1861 the British Fisheries Society felt that the harbour needed more protection from the effects of storms, and a larger haven. They obtained a report from D. & T. Stevenson that recommended the construction of a breakwater from each bank of the estuary, with a navigational channel opening between them. Thomas Stevenson (1818-87) provided the design, using an empirical formula that he had developed to describe the relationship between a wave's height and fetch (distance of open sea over which a wave travels).
Work began in 1863 with construction of the southern breakwater — a stone pier some 15.2m wide built from narrow stone blocks weighing 5-10 tonnes. These were set on edge atop a rubble mound, the crest of which was about 5.5m below low water. The pier head was advanced by placing stones with cranes known as ‘jennies’, which moved along timber gantries supported on rows of piles on either side of the breakwater.
By 1868 the breakwater had reached a length of 335m and was at a depth of around 9.1m below low water. In 1870 one-third of its length was destroyed in a storm. An unsuccessful attempt was made to secure the pier by means of blocks of concrete weighing 81-102 tonnes each. The upper structure was then rebuilt in concrete, and the outer end of the breakwater was capped with a 726 tonne concrete block dowelled into the foundations with 90mm diameter iron bars.
Further serious damage occurred in 1872, when the concrete cap and a large chunk of the breakwater’s foundations — total weight around 1,370 tonnes — were displaced in a storm. Repairs were made and Stevenson added a much more substantial concrete capping block.
However, in 1877 the whole of the end of the breakwater, weighing some 2,640 tonnes, was swept away by the waves. The breakwater, with its inclined slabs, can still be seen on the south shore. The project was abandoned, after a total expenditure of £132,000, which contributed to the demise of the British Fisheries Society by 1893.
The problem, not then appreciated, was that Stevenson’s formula underestimated the wave heights at Wick because the fetch and wind speed were far higher than those for which the formula was accurate. When the waves 12m or more high, the rubble base beneath the breakwater was susceptible to movement where it was less than about 12m below the surface.
Stevenson’s son Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) lived in Harbour Terrace and was resident inspector in 1868, even donning a diving suit to examine the foundations. He dubbed the project "the chief disaster of my father’s life". Nevertheless it did furnish an instructive example for engineers.
Wick Harbour Trust took over the ownership and operation of the port from 1879. In 1882-87, James Barron (1836-1918) extended the south breakwater and added a north breakwater to the inner harbour. He also formed the river basin, which now has some 1.36km of quays. Most of his work was in concrete and much of it remains in place.
Storms in January 1912 caused a 30m long breach in the breakwater, which took eight months to repair at a cost of £5,000. The harbour suffered further storm damage on 8th December 1959, and was repaired in spring 1960. The north pier was damaged significantly during winter 2002-03, costing £3m to repair.
The situation of Wick Harbour renders it vulnerable to wave action from the North Sea. Poor weather regularly results in the harbour being closed to shipping, with consequent loss of income, in an effort to prevent the flooding of Pulteneytown.
In a report of December 2003, it was recommended that a rubble mound replacement breakwater at least 500m long, though preferably 600m long or more, be constructed east of the original south breakwater. This has yet to be implemented.
Wick Harbour Authority took over management of the port from 1st July 2005.
Resident inspector (1868): Robert Louis Stevenson
Contractor (1807-11): George Burn
Contractor (1863-77): A & K McDonald
Research: ECPK
"Wick Harbour Breakwater: Initial Feasibility Study" by Climate Change Capital, London, December 2003
"Bright Lights: The Stevenson Engineers 1752-1971" by Jean Leslie and Roland Paxton, published by the authors, Edinburgh, 1999
"Coast Erosion and Protection" by Ernest R. Matthews, Charles Griffin & Company Limited, London, 1913
reference sources   CEH SHIBDCE1

Wick Harbour and Breakwater