Port Elphinstone: About half a mile of the original canal survives in modified form as a lade to Tait’s paper mill.
by Pat Jones
The landowners, traders and various gentlemen living around Aberdeen in the late 18th century felt that a canal could be of great benefit to the locality. England, they knew, had gained much from its canals, finding them a excellent way to transport heavy goods.
Aberdeen granite to make paving was in constant demand from London and this would keep the many quarries busy, providing work for many. Timber and agricultural produce could also be carried to the port in Aberdeen. On their return journey the boats could carry much needed lime and manure for the fields.
In 1793 several landowners and wealthy local businessmen got together to discuss the construction of a canal from Aberdeen to Monymusk using the River Don. They thought that they could then use the Urie river to make a branch which would reach Insch. In the event however, John Rennie, a noted canal builder of the day, was commissioned to look into the matter and he preferred a canal which was independent of the rivers.
An act of Parliament was passed in 1796, allowing for the sale of shares and enough money was raised to start construction. Things did not run smoothly. Not everyone approved of the idea and the workmen regularly complained of acts of vandalism. However, with time and after a second round of shares had been sold to meet the ever-rising cost of the construction, the canal finally opened in June of 1805.
There were just 17 locks between the Waterloo quay in Aberdeen and Stoneywood, but thereafter the canal remained level, apparently following the natural contours of the land all the way to a basin just south of the River Don at Inverurie. It was named Port Elphinstone, presumably after Sir James Dalrymple Horn Elphinstone, a local landowner and shareholder.
The towpath ran along the right-hand bank all the way from Aberdeen; wharves and moorings were on the left, so that the passage of other boats would not be impeded. Parliamentary permission was obtained for the canal to take water from any watercourses within 2,000 yards of the canal and from the river; likewise any masonry and timber required.
There were problems when people, watering their animals and doing their washing, broke down the banks. Unwanted babies were found weighted with stones and there were endless squabbles over land and compensation. By 1805, however, these matters together with a list of tolls for the carriage and wharfage of goods had been settled and the canal opened in early June.
On the day it opened there was an inaugural voyage by the barge the Countess of Kintore, which was suitably decked out for the occasion. Landowners, shareholders, magistrates and other important people boarded the boat in Inverurie and were joined by their ladies and others as they progressed on their journey to Aberdeen. Food and drink was provided and a cannon on the bow of the boat announced their arrival at various places where they were met by enthusiastic crowds.
The highly-decorated boat with its colourful cargo was entertained by the band of the Stirlingshire Militia as it made its way down the locks to Aberdeen, a journey which took seven-and-a-half hours.
Due to poor construction the locks collapsed a year after the canal opened, but by the end of 1806 the work had been done properly and normal traffic recommenced. Although a passenger service was introduced and ran three times a day from 1807, this was reduced to once a day between October and December. The north-east weather dictated that the canal season ran from 1 April to 1 December.
Had no one thought to connect the canal to the harbour in Aberdeen? Either that or the cost was prohibitive. All goods had to be transported by road from ship to boat and vice versa. It was well into the life of the canal before a tidal lock was constructed in 1836. Unfortunately, this did little to revive the sagging finances of the canal. It had never realised its potential and was probably constructed too late in time.
A rival service in the form of new and much quicker coaches on the nearby turnpike road opened up in 1816, which although more expensive, proved to be more popular. Apart from this, the railway age had well and truly arrived and steam trains were proving to be more reliable and far quicker than any other means of transport.
In the 1840s, shareholders in the failing canal and other wealthy and interested persons met to discuss the building of a railway from Port Elphinstone to Huntly. They further proposed to buy the canal and use the route for a railway from Aberdeen called The Great North of Scotland Railway. They considerately left the canal open for use until the line to Huntly was finished, then gradually progressed in the direction of Aberdeen.
The idea was to use the old canal bed, but where the canal followed the contours of the land too rigidly, the railway was able to take a straighter line. It is where the two diverged that today we can explore the remains of the old canal.
At the Inverurie end of the erstwhile canal, there is a stretch which is full of water, preserved originally to be used as a source of water for the paper mill, but long since abandoned.
Officially the canal closed in 1845, but parts remained in use until the railway line replaced it. That was the end of the dream.
PAT JONES came to Scotland in 1977. Brought up in England, she lived for 10 years in Nigeria and eight in Holland. A teacher and a catwalk model, she is keen on writing and painting and local history. Last year, she researched and traced the Aberdeen-Inverurie canal with the idea of portraying in paint how it once looked.Tweet
This is an article from the April 2007 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.