The Life and Works of John Rennie (7 June 1761 – 4 October 1821)

Surveys in Caithness

Jenny Bruce

Plans, ink drawings and notebooks of detailed engineering are some of the surviving artefacts that are evidence of John Rennie’s projects in the late 18th century held by the Scottish National Library and Archives. These sketches and writings provide a wealth of information and give an insight into the thoroughness of this Scottish engineer in compiling his reports. Whether it was taking soundings of depth of water, noting the geology of the area, or recording the actual wages of masons, each is of precision. His financial calculations and accurate soundings give us an understanding of the careful manner in which he undertook his surveys.

Of particular interest are Rennie’s notebooks for the far north of Scotland, which relate to various fishing stations as part of his surveys for the British Fisheries Society. These surveys were to ascertain which inlets and harbours could be suitably developed to aid fishing at this time. To carry out these surveys Rennie travelled the coasts of Scotland in all weathers.

In the summer of 1792 he had been delayed on his Crinan canal survey and tour of the West Coast harbours due to a severe cold and rheumatism, but he left Crinan on the 29 July arriving in Caithness on 6 August 1792 some eight days later. Despite probably still recovering from these illnesses, the following week he surveyed the north and east coast harbours and inlets ranging from Scrabster, Thurso, Keiss, Staxigoe, Broadhaven, Wick to Berriedale. Of prime importance was Wick, which he felt could be developed into a great fishing station in preference to all others in the county.

For his survey of Wick, which he began on 10 August, he noted the geology and other relevant features of the bay, including the number and size of the vessels using the river mouth. The next day Rennie had taken measurements and walked the full length of the Hempriggs Burn and ascertained the width and depth of the water in both upper and lower sections. He also detailed the state of all six of the mills on its banks, plus the rentals and production of each: these being Milton Corn Mill £12 rental, production of 24 bolls of meal; the Lint Mill £10 rental, no longer working ; the Old Snuff Mill £1/13s, longer working; Charity Corn mill £4 rental, two bolls of meal; Hempriggs Corn Mill Rental 10s, obliged to grind the tenants’ meal free; and finally the Waulk Mill with a rental of £2

In his report of 25th March 1793 to the directors of the British Fisheries Society, Rennie recommended for Wick that “the shallowness of the water at the head of the bay with the exposed situation of the mouth of the river renders it unadvisable to make a harbour where the ships now lie. I have examined the bay with great attention, taken the soundings, observed the set of the tides, and the winds that most affect it. Then from all of which I am of the opinion that, the best situation for a harbour is a little above the House as represented in the plan. This is without the bar in deep water, materials are abundant in the spot where the piers should be placed. Vessels can enter it more readily and with greater safety than any other place in the Bay. “

It is interesting to note that he also advised using the stream flowing from Loch Hempriggs i.e.: “a canal to be cut so that the stream could easily be conveyed to any place on the southside of the Bay which is the proper situation for the village.” He also advocated that the quantity of water from this stream which was equal to the power of 56 horses should be utilised to power the mills on its way and might give employment to the wives and children of the settlers in the proposed village.

Rennie had particularly chosen the month of August to undertake these surveys when weather in the north would be less severe and neap tides at their highest. His easy, yet calm demeanour and professionalism must have instilled confidence and endeared the community to aid him in his surveys. Not an easy task for any stranger to this part of Scotland but probably in consultation with the local representative of the BFS he would have had to obtain boats, horses, a carriage and people to help him undertake the work throughout the county. Yet his notebooks do not give us names other than a John Rae, a mason with whom he discussed costings of materials , wages, and the suitability of the local lime.

From his notes and report Rennie was aware of the great necessity of having a suitable harbour in Wick.

“The whole coast for some miles to the south and north of the bay is bald and rocky, and there is no place between the Cromarty and Pentland Firths and indeed the Scrabster Roods, a range of 120 miles where a

vessel can take shelter. It is therefore a matter of national consequence that a harbour should be made between these places.”

Rennie’s estimate for the construction of the harbour, canal, lock and basin for 300 vessels was £14,441 and 9 shillings, but he was astute and aware that his report might not be adopted, so in line with his frequent practice, he added a Plan B at a lower cost, which was to simply deepen and widen the channel of the river, and build a breast wall opposite the town with a wharf. He still felt that all those who were interested in the Greenland and Baltic Trades would contribute funding towards delivering his main recommendations; however his plans were rejected in favour of those of his rival, Thomas Telford, who had also been commissioned also to complete surveys of Wick Bay. Telford thus was given the task to design the Inner Harbour, a bridge over the Wick River, and the Mill Lade from Loch Hempriggs which provided the water supply for Pultneytown, Telford only planned industrial town, which was also built for the local workers of the fishing industry. Much discussion took place between the owner of the designated lands Sir Benjamin Dunbar, and the Directors of the British Fisheries Society before the plans were finally agreed and work started in 1807.

Although John Rennie’s proposals for Wick never came to fruition, he did subsequently design and construct a harbour 30 miles further south of Wick at Helmsdale in 1818 for the Duke of Sutherland, which consisted of a single quay with small rectangular basin. This was later extended in 1839 before being rebuilt in 1890.

Thurso and Keiss (LEFT), Broadhaven, Wick (RIGHT)
Berrydale (LEFT), Ships in Wick Harbour (RIGHT)

Photographs courtesy of National Library of Scotland.

Photograph courtesy of National Archives of Scotland

RENNIE PAPERS MS 19842 National Library of Scotland
RENNIE PAPERS GD9/259 National Archives of Scotland