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Pair of leading lights at Aberdeen Harbour, Sinclair Road, Torry, Aberdeen

A Category B Listed Building in Torry/Ferryhill, Aberdeen

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Latitude: 57.1397 / 57°8'22"N

Longitude: -2.0749 / 2°4'29"W

OS Eastings: 395564

OS Northings: 805419

OS Grid: NJ955054

Mapcode National: GBR SGR.3G

Mapcode Global: WH9QR.3T61

Entry Name: Pair of leading lights at Aberdeen Harbour, Sinclair Road, Torry, Aberdeen

Listing Date: 19 September 2019

Category: B

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 407261

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB52520

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Aberdeen

County: Aberdeen

Electoral Ward: Torry/Ferryhill

Parish: Aberdeen

Traditional County: Kincardineshire


A matching pair of mid-19th century cast iron, lighthouse-style leading lights, located approximately 240 metres apart on a northeast to southwest alignment at Sinclair Road, Aberdeen Harbour. They were first erected in 1842 to designs by harbour engineer James Abernethy and his cousin James Abernethy of Ferryhill Foundry and extended to a height of around 12 metres (40ft) in 1886/87.

The tapering, octagonal-plan towers are cast to imitate blocks of coursed ashlar masonry. They have a splayed base and a recesssed timber door with moulded panels and a circular window. Embossed plaques are located about halfway up the shafts (above the blocked earlier doorways). These read 'Erected by the Harbour Trustees 1842 - Thomas Blaikie Esq, Lord Provost. Alexander Hadden Esq, Master of Shore Works'. The lanterns are partially glazed and have octagonal roof caps with cast iron ball finial and wind-vane. The lanterns contain remotely operated electric lighting equipment. The southwest (inner) tower is set on a rubble masonry base inset with six steps.

The upper sections are constructed of vertically and horizontally jointed cast iron plates with bolted flanges, while the base sections are singularly cast in the round (Paxton and Shipway, 2007). The interiors have not been seen (2019). A sectional drawing of the towers shows a metal platform with a ladder access and a fitted cupboard at the base of the lanterns (Aberdeen Harbour Archives, 2013).

Statement of Interest

Summary of assessment

The pair of leading lights at Aberdeen Harbour meets the criteria of special architectural or historic interest for the following reasons:

Historical development

The leading lights at Aberdeen Harbour first became operational on 10 May 1842 (Liverpool Mail) and are first shown on an 1843 Admiralty Chart of Aberdeen. Sperm whale oil was used to fuel the lamps until the 1860s when alternative oils and paraffins became available.

In 1874 the southwest tower was moved around 6 metres to the north to improve the navigational alignment. The lights were converted from oil to gas around 1877. To improve visibility, cast iron sections were added to the base of the existing towers in 1886/87 by James Abernethy and Company, raising their height from around 7 metres (25ft) to around 12 metres (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 1887).

The northeast tower was moved a short distance in 1896 to minimise operational risks in the event of a storm or flood (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 1896). The 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey map (revised, 1900) shows the lights in their new positions with the (demolished) Keeper's house beside the southwest tower. The lamps were converted from gas to electric in 1928. External metal access ladders and gantries around the lanterns were removed from both towers after 1980. The northeast tower was re-positioned again by a few metres in 2013, when the navigation channel was widened.

The leading lights remain active (2019) and have rarely been out of use since 1842. The lighting equipment is now remotely controlled from the Marine Operations Centre at the foot of the North Pier.

Architectural interest


The Aberdeen Harbour lights have been described as the most sophisticated pair of leading lights in Scotland, with the quality of their design and construction reflecting the status of Aberdeen as a nationally significant commercial port (Hume, 1977).

The light towers were erected in 1842 as part of plans by resident civil engineer James Abernethy to convert the tidal harbour into a dock. His choice of cast iron as a building material for the lights is likely to have been influenced by his cousin, James Abernethy who owned a successful ironwork company at nearby Ferryhill Foundry, Aberdeen.

The unusual lighthouse-style design (with shafts tapering inwards towards the lantern houses, splayed bases, and exterior castings detailed to imitate ashlar masonry) deliberately resembles the design of larger-scale coastal lighthouse towers of the period.

The iron castings of the upper (1842) sections of the towers are vertically and horizontally jointed with the type of bolted flanges first used in the construction of tunnel linings (Paxton and Shipway, 2007). The 1887 additions complement the character of the original towers which were, by then, 45 years old. The methods used in the casting the upper (1842) and lower (1887) sections of the towers illustrate developments in cast iron fabrication during the second half of the 19th century.

Marine engineer James Abernethy (1814-1896) was employed as resident engineer at Aberdeen Harbour from 1840 to 1851. He contributed to numerous important dock and harbour schemes throughout the world during a long and industrious career. His cousin, James Abernethy (1809-1879) produced many cast and wrought iron designs including railway bridges. Both men signed the 1842 plan drawing of the light towers (Aberdeen Harbour Archives).


The harbour setting contributes significantly to the interest of the leading lights. The positioning and alignment of the two towers on Sinclair Road, Torry is crucial to their continued active role in Aberdeen Harbour operations. Later developments in and around the harbour have not affected the industrial and commercial character of the area. The changes do not lessen the interest of the leading lights, or their historic relationship with the harbour setting.

The leading lights contribute to a group of historically significant structures at Aberdeen Harbour. These include the octagonal-plan Captains House (listed building reference LB50941) at the foot of the North Pier, the octagonal-plan Valve House at Mearns Quay and Pump House at Torry Quay (listed building reference LB50953) and the small capstan jetty (listed building reference LB51752) on the south bank of the Dee.

Historic interest

Age and rarity

Leading lights are a specific type of navigational aid, usually consisting of two lighted towers located one behind the other to the rear of a harbour entrance. When the two lights are visually aligned in front of an approaching vessel, it can be sure it is entering the harbour on the safest bearing or navigating the deepest part of the channel. Leading light towers, built of stone, are known to have existed in Britain from at least as early as the 16th century. While few early towers survive, these navigational aids are relatively common components of both large and small harbours.

The rarity of this pair of navigation lights is related to their construction in cast iron. Navigation lights built in cast iron (including lighthouses, leading lights and other types of harbour light) originated in Britain during the first half of the 19th century (Lewis 2011, p.24). Scotland's global leadership in the manufacture of cast iron during this period led to a wide range of uses by civil-engineers, including lighthouses intended for overseas export. The earliest of these prefabricated lighthouses to survive are at Morant Point, Jamaica (1841) and Gibbs Hill, Bermuda (1844) both designed by Scottish civil engineer Alexander Gordon (1802-1868). By the end of the 19th century, iron lighthouse construction had largely been superseded steel and reinforced concrete.

No cast iron leading lights are known to have been built in Scotland prior to 1840, and few later examples survive. The leading lights at Aberdeen Harbour are the earliest surviving pair of cast iron light towers in Scotland and are among the oldest in the world, with possibly only one or two earlier examples surviving.

Social historical interest

The social, commercial and economic fortunes of the city of Aberdeen are closely associated with its harbour. A port has existed at Aberdeen since at least the 14th century, with the modern harbour developing from around 1770 onwards. Aberdeen Harbour has evolved to reflect industrial changes from fishing, shipbuilding, textiles and the global transportation of stone, through to offshore oil and gas in the mid 20th century. The largely continuous operation of this pair of leading lights has played a major role in ensuring harbour safety throughout more than 170 years of harbour development.

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