James Bremner, Engineer


Wick is a coastal town in the north-east of Scotland, and when you visit it, as we did in 2013, the name of James Bremner is much in evidence; there’s a memorial to him overlooking the harbour, and many of the of the tourist plaques here and in surrounding towns give him a prominent mention. He’s our most distinguished relative, and so no apologies for spending a little time on him.

Early life

James was born in 1784 in the tiny hamlet of Stain. Today there are a couple of houses there and a long stretch of beach with a plaque giving details of James’ early life. It’s about a mile from the village of Keiss, and about 15 minutes north of Wick. If his father was away on military service, as we’re led to believe, then James, the youngest child, was largely brought up by his mother. According to the 1856 memoir his education was ‘… of a very superior nature’, which meant he could read from the Proverbs of Solomon without stammering and write, but not necessarily spell…

What was perhaps his earliest attempt at ocean navigation was a voyage of discovery across Sinclair’s Bay in his mother’s washing tub, with the blade of an oar for a propeller. He was prevented from completing the trip by his brother David giving an alarm, which resulted in his being picked up by a boat when half out towards Ackergill at the south end of Sinclair’s Bay.

It’s clear from an early age that older son David was the staid, sensible one, with James the mercurial younger son, who put his energies to good use.
There are two primary sources for the next stage of his education – James’ own treatise, written in 1845, and the 1856 memoir, and presumably culled from information gleaned from his son (yet another James…)

Fort George and Apprenticeship

The memoir states that he went with his father to Fort George near Inverness, and that he was taken up by a Colonel MacDowal, who said that he could promise to get him into the army or navy. James, still precocious, said that he was really interested in shipbuilding, and could he do that instead? It says that his father had gone there from Ireland to escort prisoners from the 1798 (the memoir says 1786) Irish Rebellion which occurred in March 1799 when young James was 15. His friendship with Colonel MacDowal grew over a period of months, and was followed by the Colonel falling sick for ten months, at the end of which he offered to get him into the army or navy, but young James said he wanted to become a shipbuilder, so MacDowal helped to procure an apprenticeship at Robert Steele’s prestigious yard in Greenock, instead of the one in Leith his father had lined up. This would be in 1800 or 1801, when James was 16. But James’ own treatise states that he started his apprenticeship in 1798, when he would have been 14.
It’s interesting to think that Britain was at war with France from 1793 to 1802, and the Royal Navy (presumably as an officer) might have seemed a particularly tempting career choice for someone of James’ stature, energy and talent. One other consideration was the Royal Navy press gang, which would presumably have viewed the Greenock shipyards with considerable envy, but they were mostly in the south of England, and in any case apprentices were exempt…
Whichever date is correct, during his time there, in 1804, he took an interest in the extension of Greenock harbour, and on completion of his apprenticeship (6 1/2 years according to the memoir) he made two trips to the United States. (By this time Britain was embroiled in the Napoleonic War, and so the trips would have been subject to the risk of attack by French privateers). In fact he was very nearly persuaded to settle in Pictou, Nova Scotia, to start a shipyard, but was dissuaded and decided to come back to his birthplace, Wick, which was undergoing a huge expansion at the time with investment from the British Fisheries Society, a privately-funded organisation set up in 1786 to develop the fishing industry in the Highlands of Scotland.

Return to Wick

It’s impossible to know what persuaded him to return. His brother David was five years older than him and it’s possible that he had already set up in business there curing herring to make kippers, though we’ve already seen that David was the quiet, steady sibling, and James was clearly self-confident and didn’t need guidance, least of all from an older brother! But he might have heard of the many business opportunities through him. Pulteneytown would have been a huge opening for anyone with his energy and drive energy to make an impact.
James had grown into an imposing figure. He was described as ‘of above the middle size with a strong and robust frame’ and ‘in the Viking mould’. Clearly he had a very warm personality in addition to his energy, drive and inventiveness, and I have yet to find a word of less than fulsome praise for him.
The precise date of his return to Scotland is also somewhat ill-defined. The memoir says he was in his 25th year (1808/9) but James’ 1845 Treatise states that his involvement in Pulteneytown began in 1807.


The infamous Highland Clearances (clearing the Scottish Highlands of crofters in order to keep sheep) meant that the displaced crofters had been encouraged to look to the sea for their living. The herring industry was growing very rapidly, and in 1803 the legendary engineer Thomas Telford was asked to advise on how best to build the infrastructure for this business. He had picked on Wick as the best natural harbour, but recommended building a completely new town on the south side of the river facing the old town of Wick. He designed the new town complete with the quays and harbour, and called it Pulteneytown after the sponsor who had got him the job of chief engineer for the county of Shropshire. It was the first purpose-designed industrial village to be built in the world. Today the layout of Pulteneytown differs very little from Telford’s design, though there are many more modern buildings.
Telford’s Clerk of Works, George Burn, was appointed prime contractor, and James struck up a warm and long-lasting friendship with him. George moved into the Round House overlooking the new harbour. Designed by Telford himself, it had originally been intended as an inn, but by the time it was finished there were so many other inns, George converted it into a private house and moved in himself. The relevance of this paragraph will become evident later on.

Pulteneytown Harbour

In 1807 James became involved in the work of building Pulteneytown harbour, providing assistance and expertise in the laying of the first pier, which required the lifting and placing of enormous stones under water. This first (inner) harbour was completed in 1811.
He devised a crane barge and a method of laying the foundations of the pier below the low tide mark. Both of these were innovative ideas that relied more on his instinctive feel for the sea and the materials to hand than to specific knowledge obtained through his apprenticeship.
Through this work he also became friends with Thomas Telford, a friendship which lasted until Thomas died in 1834.


About the same time he started in the shipbuilding business for which he had trained. Initially he had worked for a shipyard in Castlehill (near Castletown, Thurso) for local laird Mr. James Traill, who remained a keen supporter of James’ career for the rest of his life, but soon he set up his own shipyard in Pulteneytown as Wick became the ‘Herringopolis of the North’. Employing at its height 60 men, the earliest known ship he built is the Rose, an 85 ton sloop, in 1811.
That year he also married local girl Christina Sinclair. At 22, she was five years younger than James and a devout Christian, but she remained his staunchest help and support for the rest of their lives.
The shipyard still exists today, though it’s no longer operational. It’s in a prime spot launching into the inner harbour, and overlooked by James’ house, as we shall see. The yard continued to be his most regular source of income, and the next known launch there was the Jannet, a 22 ton sloop in 1812, with three more the year after that – the Brothers, the Friendship and the Phoenix.
His first child, Christina, was born in 1812 and Jessie was born in 1814.
The following year saw the end of the Napoleonic Wars at Waterloo, and while this did not have as direct an impact on their lives as those in England, there were consequences, as we shall see.
We’ve no evidence of James’ employment during this time, but it seems likely that he was making fishing boats for the rapidly emerging herring trade.
Their first son, James, was born in 1816 but died the following year.

Back to his birthplace

But in 1818 he was contracted by landowner Kenneth MacLeay to build a harbour at his birthplace, Keiss. With no formal training in civil engineering, his ability to come up with pragmatic, unconventional solutions to problems quickly gained him a reputation for getting things done.

The coastline in this area is dramatic, with sedimentary rocks on a more or less horizontal plane, leading to rock faces with almost perpendicular horizontal and vertical faces.

He is credited with inventing the idea of laying the outer seawall stones vertically, so that the scend of the sea in a storm wastes its energy combing up the cracks, instead of lifting the stones, and you can see this amply demonstrated on the sea wall of the beautifully preserved harbour at Keiss. In typical Bremner fashion, he transported the larger stones – up to 40 tons in weight – by lashing together a couple of old fishing boats that he patched up to make them sufficiently watertight. The end of the sea wall needed replacing after some damage during its first winter, and it was part-finished in 1821. Today it still stands in excellent order, much as James left it. It’s used by half a dozen small fishing boats and is a very pleasant place to spend a quiet hour.

Interestingly, Fresgoe (Sandside) harbour, just west of the nuclear power station at Dounreay, was built by him as late as 1835, but reverts to horizontal stones – maybe because the very narrow entrance is ofrmed by natural rock formations so the swell would never have reached in there.
At home, his family continued to grow; Alexander was born in 1819, David in 1819 and James in 1820. Another four vessels are known to have been completed at the shipyard.

Pulteneytown storm

By 1823, the inner harbour at Pulteneytown had become silted up, and inadequate for the larger vessels that were wanting to use it as a result of the end of the war. A new outer harbour was drawn up by Robert Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis) and approved by Telford. In 1826 James expressed his concern over the height of the outer parapet, but was awarded the contract for the building works. All went well until 10 September 1827, when a storm swept away 100ft of the breakwater extension. James was up throughout the night, as were his boys Alexander, David and James jnr (aged 11, 10 and 8!) supervising the damage limitation exercise, despite being asked eight times to go home and change his clothes! James was of enormous physical strength and endurance and was famously capable of standing up to his knees in the sea for two tides directing operations if necessary. The damage was valued at no less than £5000, but James wasn’t one to give in, and the breakwater was eventually completed in 1834, at the height which he had originally recommended!
James invented a system of transporting stones for this job by making two barrels which were chained to the stone so that it could be floated into position using the tide to do the lifting and lowering.

 Round House

During this time two more daughters (Catherine, 1823 and Isabella, 1825) were born. We don’t know exactly when, but it seems likely that at round about this time he bought the Round House from George Burn and moved in. It was ideally located immediately adjacent to his shipyard (that was producing at least a ship a year at this time) and overlooking the harbour works, and it remained his home for the rest of his life. It’s an unusual design with its double bow front, and is a Group B listed building. The downstairs part is currently a holiday let, and we were able to stay there. Inside it’s been completely remodelled and there are no original fittings, but it’s a real privilege to have been inside.

A giant raft

We don’t know how and when he first became involved in wreck raising, which would provide his most lasting epitaph, but in 1825 he raised the Orion of Pillau which had gone aground on the Orkneys with a cargo of 40,000ft of timber. Using the cargo and the remains of the hull, he made a raft, 450ft x 22ft x 16ft deep, complete with paddles and five pairs of sheer poles with the topsails and courses of the Orion rigged on them. Their tops were joined together by a chain which ran to a winch on the bows so that they could be raised or lowered in five minutes. With this unwieldy contraption he sailed more than 100 miles across the Pentland Frith (he spells it Frith, not Firth) to his own yard at Pulteneytown – and he believed it could have crossed the Atlantic… He claims to have made similar rafts seven times in total.

Reading the Riot Act

By 1826, James has six children at home, a shipyard to run, negotiations and preparations for the extension of Pulteneytown harbour, and a steady business in wreck raising which inevitably requires him to be away from home for long periods.
And if that doesn’t make you weary just thinking about it, he found time to get involved in politics.
At that time, there were only one or two dozen voters in some constituencies, and a local election that year(1826) caused such outcry that the Riot Act had to be read three times, and James was picked on for prosecution. In the eventual trial at Inverness in the Aug 1827 he was so confident of success that he hired the best lawyer and called no less than 30 witnesses, at an expense of £600. There were letters of support from all sorts of worthies, including the Earl of Fife, and the prosecution was withdrawn. A public subscription was raised to cover the cost of the defence.
You wonder what he must have been like to live with. We assume his father, when he eventually retired from the army, retired to Wick, since both his sons were successful businessmen there. Maybe he moved when his wife died in 1813 until he died in 1819. Both are buried in the Established Church in Wick. Brother David was a successful businessman making kippers. He lacked his younger brother’s charisma, but made a solid contribution to the life of the business community. Wife Christina clearly had her hands full looking after all the children, and one can’t help feeling that James himself needed more than his fair share of looking after too!

Scraping the bottom

In 1827, in addition to the calamity with the harbour wall, his youngest daughter, Isabella died at the age of 2. 1828 saw the start of the repairs to Pulteneytown new harbour, and the wreck of the St Nicholay of Petersburgh in Sinclair Bay, where he was brought up. The hull had been broken open and the iron cargo buried under 7 feet of sand and 3 feet of water. Previous efforts to raise it had failed, and in 1829 James devised a sort of triangular scraper which he used in ‘very tempestuous weather’ to move the sand from the wreck. Thus cleared, the triangular machine was hauled just to seaward of the wreck where it acted as a breakwater and base from which hooks could be sent down to recover the iron, by which he managed to recover 57 of the 60 tons.


1829 also saw the birth of his daughter Elizabeth, and a trip to London to advise Marc Brunel – father of the famous Isembard Kingdom Brunel and a celebrated engineer in his own right – about the problems with the construction of the Thames Tunnel, which had flooded in the previous year, drowning 6 men and very nearly drowning Isembard. While there, he also suggested a scheme to the Admiralty on the raising of HMS Royal George, famously sunk in Portsmouth harbour in 1782 with the loss of 800 lives, though they didn’t take up his offer to carry out the work at his own expense.
On this or another trip to London, he was examined before a committee of the House of Lords, and obtained a patent for harbour building.


Throughout this time the shipyard was busy, though it’s not clear how much time James spent there. Ships known to have been built there included the Earl Gower, 95 tons (1828), Margaret and Isabelle, 52 tons (1829) and Belleck Castle, 94 tons (1830). Also in 1830 they launched the largest known product of the yard – the Glen Huntley of 421 tons. The Jessie, 90 tons (90 tons) and Scotia (96 tons) date from 1831 and 1832 respectively.
Their youngest daughter, Sarah, was born in 1831, and in 1833 he was back up at Keiss, completing that delightful harbour with money from the British Fisheries Society.

Formal recognition

1833 also saw his induction into the Institution of Civil Engineers, sponsored by his old friend (and Institution founder) Thomas Telford. He submitted several papers to the Institution and received a medal in recognition of them.
Harbour building seems to have occupied his attention a good deal from now on and meant he was away from home a fair amount; Sarclet in 1834-1836 and Castlehill (1835) are fairly local, but Lossiemouth (1836), Banff (before 1840) and Portsoy are in Morayshire while Sandside, Hopeman and Scullomy are on the north coast, and Carnish and Calicat are on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides!
In 1839 he was in London at the Institution of Civil Engineers discussing with other luminaries (including Marc Brunel) the best way to erect Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square.

A clean launch

Back at the shipyard, there’s a wonderful description of the launch of the ‘Hope’, a 131 ton schooner, in an 22 May 1840 edition of the John o Groats Journal.

A beautiful new schooner, named the “Hope”, was launched about 12 o’clock on Monday last, from the building yard of Mr James Bremner of this place. The unpropitious weather prevented there being so many persons present as on former occasions of a similar kind, but all those who were, had reason to be gratified with the truly delightful and animating spectacle. The Hope “took to the water” in very fine style. Indeed, as we gazed on the beautiful craft previous to the signal being given for her going off, it required but a slight stretch of imagination to fancy that we perceived her panting impatiently for “the notice to quit” as if anxious to show off her fair proportions on that element on which, we sincerely hope, she is destined to ride successfully for many years to come. We have no hesitation in saying, that a more beautifully perfect mould of a vessel than the Hope, never before graced Mr Bremner’s yard. To all appearances, she will prove what is significantly termed “ a clipper.” In justice to Mr James Bremner, jun., we have much pleasure in mentioning that the schooner was sketched by him. We may at the same time state, that the only instructions in drafting received by Mr J. B., were from his brother, Mr Alexander Bremner, and that the vessel was built under the joint superintendence of the two brothers, whose activity and knowledge of their business are both justly and generously acknowledged. Their father, Mr James Bremner , has been long known as one of the most enterprising and ablest shipbuilders in Scotland; and it must be truly gratifying to him to perceive that his sons, whose acquaintance of the business was acquired under him, do him much credit, and thus bid fair to follow in his footsteps. The Hope is a schooner of 132 tons register, and was built for an Orkney company, in St Margaret’s Hope. It is almost superfluous to add, that the launching ceremony was conducted in that superior manner which invariably marks the management of such matters in Mr Bremner’s yard, and that not the slightest accident occurred.

This is the first time we come across his talented sons. At this time Alexander and James were 22 and 20, and middle son David had already started a stellar career in engineering, having become resident engineer at the new West Dock at Hartlepool. All three were to go on to become distinguished members of their profession.


In 1841, a whale beached itself just north of Wick, and was promptly killed by the locals. James stepped in to very properly claim the carcase for the Admiralty, and carved a broad arrow on its back. It fetched £80 at auction.
That same year, 1841, saw James moving into another business; he and Stephen Davidson both opened steam-powered sawmills in Pulteneytown. The surplus power from James’ mill was to be used to power a corn grinding machine as well.
In 1844, at the age of 60, he was appointed agent for the Aberdeen, Leith and Clyde Shipping Company in the course of which he was, according to one obituary ‘frequently placed in positions of danger from which he narrowly escaped with his life. Indeed, few men have undergone more constant or more severe exposure than did Mr Bremner in the fulfilment of the duties of that agency, and in his labours about the sea and shipping in one capacity or another.’ He continued in that capacity to within a couple of months of his death.

Into print

He also published a treatise on Pulteneytown harbour which gives fascinating insight into his ability to read the sea and the seashore and understand instinctively the causes and effects of the interaction between the two.
In 1845 he published a longer treatise covering harbour building, wreck raising and a number of his patented inventions. For someone who only learned to write and not to spell, both are very well-written documents, though it’s possible the editor of the John o Groats Journal who published it may have given some assistance in this matter! The treatise says that he had recovered no less than 211 wrecks to that date, though we don’t have the details of most of them, but one he mentions particularly is the appropriately named Uncertain, of Sunderland, which foundered at Broad Bay on the Isle of Lewis. Three previous attempts had been made to refloat her, but by the time James was called in she had been wrecked for two years and was mostly immersed. James used his usual technique of ships (no less than seven in this case) and barrels, with chains around them and under the hull of the wreck, using the rise of the tide to lift her. She was floated to Stornoway and repaired, and James said that it was his most profitable venture, as he made more from the sale of the burst rubber bags left over from another’s attempts at raising her than from the recovery of the Uncertain herself!

The Great Britain

And of course and it doesn’t include the most famous of all—the rescue of Brunel’s famous ship SS Great Britain, the largest ship afloat, from the beach at Dundrum Bay, Northern Ireland, in 1847.
She was stranded there in 1846 due to a navigational error and despite the best efforts of her owners, remained firmly stuck in the sand, gradually sinking to a depth of around 13 ft. At 3400 tons, she was at least 1000 tons larger than any other ship afloat, and shifting her was a prodigious engineering feat.
Eventually Brunel was persuaded to ask the advice of James and his son Alexander. He expressed his gratitude to them in a letter to the Manchester Guardian, dated 3 January 1847 in which he said:

I cannot conclude without doing justice to Mr. Bremner, whom I met on board, and acknowledging the friendly and liberal manner in which he discussed the various means to be adopted, and assisted me with his valuable advice; and although I may have somewhat differed with him as to the advisability of attempting to float the vessel away to sea without first repairing her, yet upon most points we were perfectly agreed, and I firmly believe that if any man could take her off (and if it were prudent to let him do so), that Mr. Bremner’s great experience and sound practical knowledge, and good sense in devising a plan, and his sound energy and skill in carrying it out, would ensure every chance of success which the circumstances admit of.

There is a very detailed explanation of the means employed by James in the Illustrated London News of 21 August 1847.
She finally moved a short distance on Friday 27 August 1847, refloated on the Saturday, taken to Belfast for temporary repairs on the Sunday, and towed across to Liverpool where she was received with great ceremony on the Monday. The Manchester Guardian reported the event in great detail, mentioning ‘… Mr. Bremner, an old and evidently an unassuming man, plainly dressed, who is destined, no doubt, to occupy a highly-favourable position in the public eye during the remaining years of his life, in consequence of the successful efforts made at Dundrum Bay’.

Famous names

By this time he was 63 and at the height of his renown. He was held in the highest regard in his home town, was known and respected nationally, had corresponded with King William IV; the Duke of Wellington; the Earl of Fife; Sir Byam Martin; Sir Charles Napier (from whom he received a massive gold finger ring;) the late Sir John Sinclair, and many others, and held patents for many ingenious ideas associated with civil and marine engineering. His three sons were all pursuing excellent careers in the same profession.
But he was still actively involved in business and public life. That year, there was a riot in which the Sheriff in Wick ordered soldiers to open fire on the crowd. James attended a public meeting and, along with many others, voiced his opinion that the Sheriff had been quite unjustified in doing so.
In 1850, the distinguished geologist and writer Hugh Miller met up with James and clearly admired him greatly. In his book, ‘The Cruise of the Betsey’, Hugh says:
‘I was conscious of a feeling of sadness as, in parting with Mr Bremner, I reflected, that a man so singularly gifted should have been suffered to reach a period of life very considerably advanced, in employments little suited to exert his extraordinary faculties, and which persons of the ordinary type could have performed as well. Napoleon,—himself possessed of great genius,—could have estimated more adequately than our British rulers the value of such a man. Had Mr Bremner been born a Frenchman, he would not now be the mere agent of a steam company, in a third-rate seaport town.’
In 1851 he was asked to exhibit at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace. He brought along plans and models for building harbours and raising vessels together with a patented lifeboat design. This was apparently less than successful; it employed paddlewheels, which were fine in calm water, but a complete liability in any sort of sea!

Decline and fall

In March of the following year, 1852, his middle son David died of congestion of the lungs after being immersed in the Clyde River. After Hartlepool, he had been appointed Chief Engineer to the Clyde Trust six years before at the astonishingly early age of 27 and was regarded in the highest esteem. His obituary in the Northern Mail says that ‘… his urbanity, yet firmness, in the discharge of his multifarious and onerous duties secured him the respect and esteem of all whose duties brought them into contact with him.’ Like his mother, his religion was very important to him, and he’d become an elder in his local Free Church. His body, attended by his parents, was brought by ship to Ackergill, and thence by road to Wick. All shops and businesses in Wick were closed, and the funeral was very well attended. It wasn’t the first if his children to die; the first James Isabella and John had died in infancy, and Elizabeth had died in 1841 aged 12, but this was a huge blow to James and Christina. In December of that year, his older brother David died.
They must have been further devastated when their daughter Catherine died a couple of years later, and in 1856 his beloved wife Christina also died. He himself died a couple of months later at the age of 72. During the day of the funeral all the vessels in the harbour had their flags displayed half-mast high, and other flags were similarly displayed at the South Head and Pilots’ Lookout. All the shops in the line of the procession, and several in other parts of both towns were shut.
In the Civil and Traditional History of Caithness of 1887, he is summarised thus:

Mr Bremner was universally allowed to be a man of more than ordinary genius. His readiness of invention was wonderful. He knew little or nothing of the theory of mathematics, and, as has been well observed, “all his efforts as an engineer were but the bringing out of natural mechanical power.”
‘In person Mr Bremner was rather above the middle size, with a strong and robust frame of body and a thoroughly Scotch cast of countenance. In conversation he appeared occasionally absent, and he was by no means gifted with a fluent or ready utterance. His temper was naturally hasty, but the gust of passion soon passed off.
‘Like most people of quick and hasty temperament, he had great tenderness of heart. In saving the lives of others in cases of shipwreck, he often risked his own; and when any distressing accident took place before his sight, he has been known to shed tears like a woman. He was at the same time remarkable for his generosity and hospitality, especially to strangers. To his board all of respectable character were welcome, and none more so than the cast-away sea captain. His idea of hospitality was that of the genuine old school.

All of which ties in with the family recollections passed on by Donald:
His father (David Bremner, and James’ great nephew) asked him for a penny and got the reply ‘If my arse was a copper mine I’d shit you a cartload of them.’
He used to swear a great deal and one dark night riding home, a flash of lightning showed him that he was off the road and riding over the cliff at the Broch; he then made up his mind never to swear again.
And once, when a ship ran into a lumber barge in Quebec, one of the captains swore terrible oaths at the other, who shouted back ‘Ach, you must have been brought up in James Bremner’s ship yard.’ And he had!
A full length portrait was commissioned some years before his death. It now occupies pride of place at the top of the stairs in Wick Town Hall. It shows him in his prime, with Pulteneytown harbour in the background. When we visited in 2013, one was immediately struck, in a way that no photograph can convey, with his size and presence, which project themselves across the room 157 years after his death.
All in all, an illustrious engineering heritage.


At the time of his death, oldest son Alexander was in Australia, having had a ship built which he sailed there in order to sell it. Youngest son James had recently returned from Australia and was then in Glasgow.
In 1861 Alexander finally got round to publishing the full account of the raising of the SS Great Britain. He had moved to Liverpool after qualifying as a Civil Engineer, and in about 1854 he’d bought a ship and sailed it to Australia where he sold it at a healthy profit. On the death of his father he’d returned to Wick to settle his affairs, and then, being no longer in need of an earned income, he’d settled in Aberdeen with his youngest sister Sarah. They’d travelled on the continent and moved for a while to London, but he’d got itchy feet and had another ship built that he sailed to Shanghai in China. He hadn’t made as much money on this sale, but caught cholera (probably from giving the last rites to a captain of a Dundee ship who’d caught it) and died within eight hours. His sister arranged for an obelisk to be shipped to Shanghai.
At this time James, the only surviving son, was in Constantinople. We know that at some point he returned home and ran a shipyard in Hull, dying in 1896.
There’s an obelisk in James Bremner’s memory at Wick, erected in 1903 by public subscription and commanding a perfect view of Wick and Pulteneytown and the harbour and breakwater he built. On it is a bronze scroll added by Sarah.
Sarah’s own story is interesting. In 1865 she married Richard Wood in Liverpool. He died in 1903, and she died tragically in 1913 in Sydenham in Kent. By this time she was housebound, and her maid had tripped at the top of the stairs, breaking her neck in the fall. Poor Sarah was left on her own in the house with only her dog for company, and was unable to get up or raise the alarm. Eventually she died of starvation.


1829. Aberdeen Journal. Thames Tunnel suggestions.

1833. Induction into Institution of Civil Engineers

1839. Civil Engineers Institute. Nelson’s column erection discussion

1844. Treatise on Pulteneytown Harbour by James Bremner

1845. Treatise on Harbour Building etc., by James Bremner

1846. Guardian Newspaper, SS Great Britain recovery.

1847. Illustrated London News. SS Great Britain Recovery.

1856. Obituaries by the Northern Ensign and others.

1856 Memoir from the Northern Ensign.

1858 Cruise of the Betsy by Hugh Miller

1861 Raising the Great Britain by Alexander Bremner

1887 Civil and Traditional history of Caithness

1956 An Engineering Wizard by John Mowat. John o Groats Journal

1993 The Story of a Master Shipbuilder by Harry Taylor. John o Groats Journal.

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