Rothesay Pier and its Origins

The present Rothesay pier can be traced back to 1752, and although various quays existed prior to this they were of poor construction. The new quay ran seaward from the foot of Watergate along the line of what is now called the old pier, then curved eastwards, approximately where the entrance to the inner harbour is and terminated under the east end of the present pier. Incoming boats were encouraged to carry stones on board their vessels to assist in the construction of the new pier and this would exempt them from harbour dues.

In 1834 a drawbridge was erected between the two quays at the entrance to the inner harbour at a cost of 258.17/- It is difficult to appreciate today that the front, from the Promenade sea wall to a point between Victoria Street and Montague Street is reclaimed land. In 1839/40 work began where a sizable boat building yard and graving slip were established immediately to the west of the new quay. Both business's proved unsuccessful ventures and were closed in 1872 and 1874 respectively. These sites were later incorporated into the promenade which had been built at the west end in 1869. Between 1860 and 1865 the protective stone breastwork, which developed into the Albert Pier was built. The wooden section was added in 1908/09. In 1884, new pier buildings were constructed to replace the old wooden buildings.

The new buildings incorporated a central feature, a square clock tower, which accommodated the Harbourmasters office at first floor level and was adorned with small baronial turrets at each of the corners; sadly these were removed in 1936 due to woodworm. The ground floor of the tower was open to the front and rear providing a covered entrance passage opposite the draw-bridge.The extension had a glass roof and was flanked by subsidiary offices. On each side of the tower building were single storey premises providing, offices for the steam boat companies, waiting rooms, a refreshment room and store rooms.

The total cost of these new harbour buildings, including the demolition of old buildings was 3,020.10/ 5d. In 1908, the draw-bridge was replaced by a swing-bridge at a cost of 2,180. The new bridge was opened and closed by a manually operated winding handle which was situated on the deck of the bridge. On Saturday 19 May 1962, fire destroyed the Victorian clock tower, gutted the harbourmasters office, and water damage was caused to the ticket and parcel offices. Repairs were carried out and a temporary harbourmasters office was built. It was finally decided to demolished the damage buildings in 1966. On 11 May 1968, new pier building estimated at a cost around 85,000 were opened by, Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. These buildings were of a two storey structure, with the concourse centrally situated and flanked by offices, toilets and a cafeteria. The east and west extensions were single storey and housed parcel and left luggage rooms and stores.

There were two internal stairways, the east leading to a lounge bar and restaurant, and also giving access to an open air observation gallery. The west stairway gave access to the harbourmasters office. This building proved to be a form of construction not conductive to the rigours of marine environment, and due to excessive maintenance needed to keep the building serviceable, Strathclyde Regional Council decided that it should be demolished and replaced with a new building. In 1972 the fate of the swing-bridge was decided, the base of the bridge and the north end of the mid pier was moving and proving to be unsafe.

This coupled with the need to allow access to a dredger into the inner harbour meant the bridge and its base had to go. Subsequent work proved to be unsuccessful, the foundations of the bridge could not be shifted, and this meant, even at high tide there was insufficient room to allow a dredger to pass into the inner harbour. The King' stairs were removed in 1972 to allow a roll-on/ roll-off berth to be built at berth A1, to the south of the west arm, the pontoon support link span was temporarily installed. On the main pier a reinforced concrete deck was built and supported on four steel piles. Western Ferries Ltd vessel the 'Sound of Islay' shipped in building materials and later Caledonian MacBrayne carried in the gas tankers with a maximum of 12 passengers due to the safety implications.

On 4 June 1977, the last of the sailings done by the MV Cowal (sister vessel to the MV Arran, and MV Bute) the last hoist loading of vehicles of this class departed Rothesay and on the same day was replaced by MV Glen Sannox with stern loading at Wemyss Bay and discharging at Rothesay pier by side ramp onto the new link span. The link span was built by Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd at an estimated cost of 216,000 and a section of the pier leased on long term rent from the Harbour Trust.

On 28 October 1983, the Harbour Trust met for the last time in the Council Chambers at Rothesay. The same day the Rothesay Harbour Revision Order, 1983 became law, the Trust was dissolved and the harbour undertaking was transferred to and vested in the Regional Council. At the end of 1986 the Regional Council carried out a detailed survey of the harbour. The borings and excavations proved what had been discovered over 150 years before that the harbour was built on sand. This survey also showed that the 1968 building was breaking its back over the reinforced concrete foundations which were laid in 1939. In the late 1980's, 3.72 million pounds development funding was made available to Strathclyde Regional Council to refurbish Rothesay pier.

Rothesay pier today

Construction work began in 1989 on the first of a three phase project. The first phase, a 1.5 million pound exercise to demolish and replace some 50% of the width of the main pier and replaced it with a safer working area. The main pier reconstruction was carried out by Mowlem (Scotland) Civil Engineers. The new structure is composed of 62 tubular steel piles, each 610mm thick. These support 20 one-metre thick, u-shaped precast concrete crossheads with a concrete deck. Phase 2, the reconstruction of the west arm was awarded to R J Levack Ltd. On this section of the pier 32 tubular piles were needed and 2550 tonnes of concrete was poured which was shipped in by ferry. The reconstruction began in 1991 and was completed by 1992.

Phase 3 the finishing contract, the construction of the new pier building was awarded to Barr Construction. In an effort to preserve the traditional character of the pier and the surrounding area many of the features of the 1885 building were incorporated with replica Victoria lamp standards providing lighting to a modern standard. The new building was opened by Councillor M Waugh on 1st. May 1992.

Stephen Neilson
Stephen is a native of Bute whose grandfather settled on the island in the 1920s.

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