Berry and Mackay : mechanical genius



I glanced up at the old brass ship’s clock in my kitchen and noticed the name on the face plate, Berry and Mackay and wondered who they were.

The clock came out of a long-defunct Aberdeen trawler and like many of the city’s fleet not only its clocks but many of its navigational instruments would have come from the business of Berry and Mackay.

Berry and Mackay were nautical instrument makers servicing the busy port of Aberdeen which was both a major shipbuilder as well as home to Scotland’s largest white fishing fleet for a chunk of its recent past. Up and down the land similar businesses to Berry and Mackay would have flourished where jobs were built around the sea and boats.


Inuit wooden maps would have been carried on boats as navigation aids

It has been a very, very long time since people were content to use boats merely to fish along rivers or travel shortish distances through clinging to familiar coasts to exchange goods with nearby villages knowing where they were and how to get back home. Once they ventured farther away from their homelands life became a whole lot more precarious. You would have to have a pretty strong sense of adventure, or no choice in the matter, to venture forth to discover whatever lay beyond your ken.

When the first boat people sailed away from what we now call Africa some 1.8 million years ago those migrants landed in, well, what we know call Europe. Got a familiar ring about it? Around 7,000 BC the first people to populate Scotland paddled up at our coasts, gradually working their way inland along rivers.  How many died in the attempt we will never know but die they would have for navigating through the unknown was fraught with risks.

Away from familiar land features seafarers depended on plotting their routes by a combination of elementary maps and reading the sun and stars.

Last Receipt for Work Done, Aberdeen, February 1891

A chronometer, compass, barometer, telescope and clock supplied by Berry and Mackay in 1891

Over time sea charts and ships’ instruments became more precise with the development of instruments and one of the oldest, the compass, made it possible to follow a course based on the direction of wind when the sun wasn’t visible. The Chinese invented the first compasses and isn’t it strange that despite this they never set out to become maritime imperialists? As far as the west was concerned elementary compasses came into use many hundreds of years later, around the 1300s.

By the time Berry and Mackay came into being in 1879 when Alexander Spence Mackay became a partner in James Berry’s business (which he started in 1835) the pair were producing all manner of precise instruments – beautifully crafted in brass, bronze and ivory, including telescopes for part of the trade was optical. The company would have been the obvious choice to supply Aberdeen-built ships and vessels with clocks and navigation aids such as for the Orkney and Shetland Steam Coy steamer St Rognvald from Hall, Russell’s yard. Mackay was on board for its trials in May 1901.


More famous than the St Rognvald was the Thermopolae. Actually there were two Thermopolaes built in Aberdeen – the sail tea clipper and a steamer. In November 1891 the steamer’s three compasses were supplied by Brown and Mackay with Mackay again attending to ensure they “swung” as they should and remaining onboard during its trials to Belhelvie at full speed only leaving the vessel before it headed south to London and thereafter Australia.

Berry and Mackay were called as witnesses during inquiries into shipwrecks such as the foundering on rocks of SS Paradox of Aberdeen at Sunderland in the 1890s. Suspicion fell on a failure of her compasses but it was reported they had been in good working order and checked by Berry and Mackay just two years before the incident. Theirs was certainly an occupation that carried responsibility and nothing like as sedentary as it might sound with their fitting into vessels, testing, repairing and maintenance – not only at Aberdeen but anywhere around the country where their equipment was installed.

dials and parts

A collection of Berry and Mackay instrument parts at sale at an auction

The young Mackay attended Ramage’s School in Charlotte Street which focused on practical rather than academic learning and from there he became an apprentice with James Berry. The apprenticeship lasted five years and evidently he passed muster because at the end of it Berry made him a partner in the business, hence Berry and Mackay.

Both men were weel kent faces around Aberdeen. James Berry was a popular speaker on the subject of ship navigation and he participated at a demonstration of equipment at Marischal College when the idea of diverting the River Dee was being explored in 1846. At that same gathering there was a proposal for a time ball to be erected onto the Marischal tower as an aid to shipping.

Time ball at Greenwich

Time ball at Greenwich

A time ball was a large sphere placed on a high tower, so it was visible to ships in port, and raised and then dropped at a particular time, usually 1 pm so sailors could set their chronometers before setting sail. The Marischal time ball did not materialise as the university did not then have a qualified astronomer nor meteorologist needed to operate it.

WANTED, Stout Message Boy, – Apply Berry and Mackay 65 Marischal Street. (May 1893)

Berry, watchmaker cum nautical instrument maker who had various shops including one at 52 Castle Street died at the age of 83 years in 1890. He had been the son of a local shipmaster and married to the daughter of a ship’s captain and together they had five daughters and five sons (none of the daughters survived).  He had been first elected a councillor in 1849 and was re-elected later in his life following a long gap in his civic career and died still a magistrate, at his home at 1 Dee Place following a bout of gastritis. The son of a shipmaster James Berry had been apprenticed to watch and clockmaker William Spark of Craigiepark who had premises at Marischal Street and one of his fellow apprentices was the artist John Philip.



On completing his apprenticeship Brown’s first business as a watchmaker and jeweller was in Stonehaven but he was back in Aberdeen by 1836 with a shop at the top of Marischal street before a move to 29 Union Street and back again into Marischal Street to the shop more familiar with his business making nautical instruments, later in partnership with Mackay.

James Berry was an accomplished technician or “mechanical genius” as his obituary stated who, along with a mathematics teacher, Mr Gray, helped create tide tables. His skill and knowledge were shared with enthusiastic audiences at the many illustrated talks and lectures he gave and he was active within the Seven Incorporated Trades as a member of the Hammermen Incorporation becoming a convener of the Trades – the oldest at that time, responsible for its Widow’s Fund.

Berry involved himself in all areas of town life and aside from being a councillor was also a Commissioner to the Convention of Royal Burghs, on the City Parochial Board, on the board of the Boys’ and Girls’ Hospitals, the Reformatories and Industrial Schools Board and Governor of Gordon’s College.

Berry’s partner Mackay died in 1914. Like Berry he was also much involved with Aberdeen’s Seven Incorporated Trades and like Berry he was a Free Kirker. Berry had abandoned the Established Church at the Disruption for the Free Kirk  (Mackay was too young to have been involved in that.) Mackay died suddenly of heart failure at the age of 57 years while on holiday in London and only six weeks after retiring and his funeral at St Clement’s United Free Church and Allenvale cemetery was attended by a large number of the great and the good of the city.

Berry and Mackay barograph

Berry and Mackay barograph

Their company, Berry and Mackay, had a lot of life left in it when the original two were gone and Walter Murray ran it until January 1940 when at the age of 65 he also died suddenly, while running for a bus in Aberdeen to take him to his Peterculter home. A  year earlier his life had been in danger when amidst a great storm he set out for the Orkney Islands from Aberdeen (just part of the job)  to adjust the compass on the badly damaged Swedish steamer Albania of Gothenburg,  tied up at Kirkwall.

In appalling conditions Murray boarded a train for Inverness and flew from there to Kirkwall. He made it in one piece and having adjusted the ship’s compass stayed on board to make sure everything was working as it should. There was a heavy swell as they rounded Shapinsay  and he had to make a difficult transfer off the ship to a motor pilot boat waiting to take him back to Kirkwall. Two miles from the port the pilot’s engine broke down and they drifted for some time in desperate conditions before power was restored and they got back to Kirkwall. Murray eventually made it home to Peterculter but the Albania was torpedoed off England later that year and two of its crew killed.

Berry and Mackay remained in business until 1975.




Oak cased barograph pic.

trawler clocks that would have been found in fishing boats around the UK.

Octant is a navigational instrument for measuring angles in determining a ship’s position at sea.

5 Comments to “Berry and Mackay : mechanical genius”

  1. Fascinating. The clock still works, with a bit of prodding. Got it from my father-in-law who worked in trawling. Sounds like there’s a story to tell about your grandfather’s coal business. Good to hear from you again.

  2. Walter Murray’s son Walter junior kept the business going until 1975 until he passed away suddenly. The business was closed by his widow. I worked with Walter junior for many years at the Hydro Board Meter Test Room

    • Thank you very much for reading the blog and completing the story. It’s always good to hear from people with first hand knowledge around a topic. I suppose the Hydro Board Meter Test Room was at the premises at the bottom of Crown Street and Millburn Street – also gone. Meters seem such ordinary pieces of equipment but of course it’s vital they are accurately set. Thanks, L.

      • The Hydro Board Meter Test Room was in the old power station building in Millburn Street. The Metering Department closed in 1983 and the building was converted to flats a little later. I left Aberdeen in 1975 and have lived in Canada since then. My grandfather started Robert Taylor and Sons Coal Merchants and had two ships the Alice Taylor and the Redhall. The clock in the picture was not made by Berry and Mackay but by Henry Browne and Sons Barking London and it was sold by many nautical instrument makers who put their own names on the dial.
        The clock model was called the Sestrel, I have the same clock which came out of the Alice Taylor. I worked in the evenings in the basement of 65 Marischal Steet for George Christie who manufactured marine radio equipment that was used in a lot of the Aberdeen trawler fleet.

  3. All this from glancing up at the kitchen clock. Interesting stuff, what will be next, kepp em coming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: