By Alastair Weir

Page updated 26 August 2008

The Port of Irvine on the Clyde Coast is situated on the River Irvine and dates, in its present location, from circa 1677. Being tidal and with the confluence of the Rivers Garnock and Irvine occurring close to the harbour mouth, has meant the bar being a constant restraint on the harbour's development.

Over the centuries, the existence of the bar has compounded the problem of silting to the extent that Daniel Defoe, a government agent at the time in 1753 reported Irvine Harbour being "choked up with sand banks" , the situation being so bad at times that vessels were unable to leave for several months.

Possible as a consequence of this report, the then Harbour authorities acquired a dredger, in the late 1750s. The exact nature of the vessel is not known but at that time there were two types to choose from. One, the 'spoon' type, was basically a scoop lowered into the water by a beam, to lift the silt out and deposit it elsewhere. The other consisted of a rudimentary bucket system powered by a horse, working on a similar principal to a horse gin. In addition to acquiring a dredger, the Harbour Authorities constructed stone breastworks facing downstream and projecting at an angle into the river, so the harbour would be self-cleaning. They are still visible today.

Despite these early attempts to maintain a working depth of water in the harbour and the subsequent purchase of a steam dredger in 1869, the problem of silting and consequently the depth of water at the bar remained. Even at the turn of the century it was reported that vessels had to 'sit off' the harbour mouth and unload there cargoes into barges or other craft. Dredging could maintain the required depth of water at the bar but how could this information be given to skippers of vessels wishing to enter the harbour? The Tidal Harbour Commissioners report on Irvine Harbour in 1847 contained the information that there was 'also a signal post upon an eminence close to the harbour upon which balls are raised to indicate the state of the tide'.

Having realised the problem, the Harbour Authorities had obviously taken steps to facilitate the entry of vessels by displaying a series of signals. In the early 1900s Irvine was loosing trade to Troon, then recently acquired by the Glasgow and South Western Railway Company, and Ardrossan, another railway owned harbour. Troon lies just south of Irvine and Ardrossan just to the north, both harbours are still in existence today.

Martin Boyd, the Irvine Harbourmaster, set about determining ways to improve the access to the harbour and its facilities, to make Irvine more attractive to shippers. At this time, as well as using signals, tugs took the news of the depth of water over the bar to ships waiting in the bay.

It is of interest to note that the month of December 1905, 4,720 tons of silt were dredged from the harbour bar and a further2,500 tons from the harbour itself. The importance of these operations can be judged by the fact that the monthly Harbourmasters Reports normally started with this information.

One of Martin Boyd's initiatives was to design and patent in 1903 the Automatic Tide Marker Station (ATMS). The introduction to his application for a patent for his ATMS, which was to be an 'apparatus for automatically signalling the depth of water at harbours, docks, piers, navigable channels or the like' read as follows:

I, Martin Boyd, of 56 Harbour Street, Irvine in the County of Ayr, Harbourmaster, do hereby declare the nature of this invention to be as follows:- The apparatus is actuated by the rise and fall of the tide or water level by means of a float connected to the apparatus which will thereby cause it to automatically exhibit a code of light signals by night and a code of balls or like signals by day. Dated this 7th Day of May 1903.

He applied for his patent on 8 May 1903 and it was accepted as patent number 10448 on 7 April 1904. For his efforts, Martin Boyd was reimbursed by the Harbour Authorities the sum of 60.00 to cover his expenses in building the apparatus.

The system entailed the provision of a floating chamber, in this case made of timber, situated at some distance from the structure and which was calibrated in such a manner as to represent the tide depth at the harbour bar. In the case of Irvine, the bar and the floatation chamber are located some distance apart. Within the chamber a wooden float, like a raft, rose and fell according to the tide. Attached to this float was a cable, which ran through a wooden trough to the building which housed the apparatus. Changes in direction, the difference between the actual tide heights and the distance between the balls/lights, was achieved by pulleys and gearing. Within the building the cable was attached to eclipsers, metal frames with wheels which ran on rails attached to the building. The eclipsers, two in number, rose and fell with the tide. As the eclipser rose, it covered apertures through which a gas light had been previously observed. This light, from the main gas supply, was automatically switched off as the eclipser continued up but a by-pass jet always remained alight to maintain a supply to the main jet when the eclipser descended. At night the tide depth was indicated by the use of lights which diminished in number as the tide went out and vice versa. A code of different colours controlled by blinds was used. During the hours of daylight, the method of indication was a code of black balls which were fixed to ropes connected to the eclipsers. These ropes were passed over pulleys attached to a cross arm on a staff at the top of the building. The balls were connected at fixed intervals to the rope and, again as the eclipser rose, the rope and the balls fell and disappeared within the building. The distance between each ball was exactly calibrated to tie in with the switching on/off of the lights. To correspond with the change in colour of the lights different shape balls were proposed but never utilised. The code of balls/lights indicated by the system was as follows:

See Chart of tide Signals. Drawing 1 Drawing 2 Drawing 3 Drawing 4 Drawing 5 Drawing 6 Photograph August 2008

Adjacent to the Automatic Tide Marker Station building another signal system existed to indicate whether vessels could enter or leave the harbour. On a flag staff, two red lights hung vertically by night or two black balls hung vertically by day, were displayed when a vessel should not enter or leave.

The building which housed the system was completed in 1906, construction being slightly delayed by the late delivery of various items of equipment. Although the fifty foot high structure appears as a simple square four story tower, it is in fact only one floor above ground level. Beond that is a void but situated at each 'floor' level, on the seaward side, is a small landing with ladders connecting to the one above or below. The ladders allow access to the working equipment of the system, including the lights. Each landing also had a window. The void housed the actual signal equipment, the balls originally being made of canvas stretched over a metal frame.

The ground floor had the only usable space, being utilised by the harbour pilots as their mess room. As a result of this, the building became known locally as 'The Pilot House', to which, despite there now being no pilots, it is still referred.

The external facing of the brick building are rendered and painted white. As such, it is visible for some distance from out at sea and is regarded as an important landmark for users of small craft.

The official opening on 23 May 1906 was attended by the Provost of Irvine, members and officials of the Irvine Harbour Trust, Councillors, other prominent citizens and members of the general public. The usual speeches and presentations took place and afterwards the official party left the harbour by the steam paddle tug George Brown, travelling to Largs further up the Clyde Coast. They returned 'suitably refreshed' at 22.00 hrs to carry out a night inspection of the lights. By 22.15 hrs they had re entered the harbour and were 'completely satisfied with the Automatic Tide Marker Station'.

A newspaper advertisement at the time stated:

"Notice to Mariners - The Irvine Harbour Trustees hereby give notice that they have erected Boyd's patent AUTOMATIC TIDE SIGNALLING APPARATUS, which will be opened on Wednesday 23rd curt., and will from that day exhibit from a tower a code of ball signals. The tower is situated 40 yards or thereby southwards of the present green light".

Shortly after the opening of the Automatic Tide Signalling Apparatus, Nobel's Explosive Company (now ICI), who manufactured explosives at the adjacent Ardeer site, opened a wharf on the River Garnock. This enabled the Company's ships to load directly from their own secure property. Previous to this, the loading of ships with explosives had either to be undertaken off shore or at other harbours, where it was carried out under strict control by the relevant harbour authority.

Despite the success of the Automatic Tide Marker Station, Irvine's fortunes still declined, partly because of it being a tidal harbour and partly the intense rivalry from the adjacent ports, in the export of coal from the North Ayrshire pits and the subsequent decline in production from these same pits. Latterly, explosives were the only cargo being handled in the harbour but this trade ceased in the early 1990s.

During this decline, the Automatic Tide Marker Station was up dated with electric lights replacing the gas ones, adjustments and re calibration being made to compensate for the silting up of the riverside tank. The system, however, fell into disuse in the early 1970s. The building was no also no longer being used by the pilots, their function usually being undertaken by the skippers of the ICI vessels.

After its demise the building gradually deteriorated to the extent water was penetrating the structure, leading to rot of the upper landing and structure timbers. Settlement of the building resulted in cracks appearing around the window lintels and sills. Windows were also broken and the surrounding grass area took on an air of neglect. The float chamber became totally silted up and the connecting wooden trough for the cables disappeared. The signal equipment gradually decayed within the building.

As the author's interest in the history of Irvine Harbour and particularly the Automatic Tide Marker Station, the importance of the building was highlighted. Subsequently, the building and system was 'listed' as a category 'B' structure. Also, in 1989, Irvine Development Corporation undertook substantial repairs costing many thousands of pounds. This work included repairs to the brickwork and rendering, replacing of window frames, doors and flooring, and painting of the external structure. The building was also made wind and water tight.

Attempts have been made to fully restore this unique building and system (it is thought another similar structure was built in Northern France but there is presently no confirmation of this) but finance has never been available to do this. The Scottish Maritime Museum, based in Irvine, has also been involved in trying to obtain the necessary finance.