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Issue 62 - The Mighty Forth

Scotland Magazine Issue 62
April 2012


This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Mighty Forth

John Hannavy explores Scotland's history along the shores of her great rivers

Some geographer has, at some time, probably drawn a line on a map to show where the Firth of Forth ends and the North Sea starts, but it is not on my map. If such a line has ever been drawn, it would probably run from somewhere near North Berwick, north-west to somewhere near Earlsferry on the Fife coast – indeed a ferry between those two places is believed to have operated in mediaeval times. At that point, the Firth is a little over ten miles wide, so that mediaeval ferry crossing must have been a journey fraught with danger. The waters of the Firth can be extremely unpredictable, and they have taken many lives over the centuries.

In tracing the story of Scotland as it has been acted out along the banks of the river, our line has been arbitrarily drawn from the little village and harbour at Elie in Fife, to the ruins of the once-massive fortress of Tantallon just east of North Berwick The fertile coastal lands of East Lothian and Fife, and the plentiful supply of fish in the river have ensured that both shores have provided a good living since early times, and much of Scotland’s history has been played out in the towns, villages and castles which line the river.

But, for most of the several thousands years which have passed since man first arrived on the banks of the Forth, hardly anyone would have travelled more than a day’s walk from wherever they lived. So until travel started to become easier in the 16th and 17th centuries, few would have ever considered that this huge river began life as a trickling burn well inland – in a place, the location of which, they would never either imagine or visit.

On a plinth above the front doors of two houses in Lower Largo, Fife, stands a statue of Alexander Selkirk – long feted as the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but perhaps not – whose travels took him thousands of miles from home, but even he probably never stopped to think about where the great river rose.

More than 60 miles away as the crow flies, but nearly twice as far as the river flows, a tiny burn, the Avondhu – also known as the Laggan Water – flows out of Loch Ard, to be met near Aberfoyle by another stream, the Duchray Water, the source of which lies high up in the Trossachs hills.

Lord Ard is fed from Loch Chon, but the point at which the Laggan leaves Loch Ard is marked as the source of the Forth.

For its first few miles, the stream meanders south before turning east and crossing Flanders Moss, one of the bleakest stretches of countryside in central Scotland. There was once a dense oak forest there, but it decayed in prehistoric times, leaving a covering of peat, in places 12 feet deep.

250 years ago, Lord Kames of Blair Drummond hatched a plan to strip off the peat, sell it, and return the Moss to agriculture. Over a 50 year period he and his successors did reclaim 500 acres, and created a thousand jobs, but the rest of the Moss remains largely as it has done for millennia.

As it makes its meandering way across the Moss, the Forth is swelled by numerous burns and small rivers, before meeting the Goodie Water from the Lake of Menteith and, just as it approaches Stirling, the River Teith and the Allan Water. At the point of their confluence, the Teith is actually a bigger river than the Forth!

By the time it gets to Stirling, the Forth is already tidal. Indeed, a century ago, regular paddle steamer services linked Stirling with Leith and several of the Fife ports, but even shallow-draught passenger and cargo steamers had to time their arrivals and departures very carefully to fit in with tidal highs.

The City of Stirling is a tourist magnet, so deeply is it steeped in the country’s history.

Dominated by the castle, Stirling also boasts the only surviving mediaeval Coronation church in the country, a host of superb 16th and 17th century buildings and, by the river’s side at Cambuskenneth, the fragmentary remains of a once-rich Augustinian Abbey. Why the abbey ruins are so sparse is explained by the remains of a richly decorated mansion – Mar’s Wark – build out of stone from the abbey by the Earl of Mar following the suppression of Scotland’s monasteries at the Reformation. The shell of Mar’s Wark stands on the castle hill, itself having been used as a quarry for subsequent buildings.

Nearby is that Coronation church – the 15th century Church of the Holy Rude, where the infant King James VI was crowned on July 29th 1567, at the age of only 14 months. Once one of Scotland mediaeval Collegiate Churches, the Holy Rude is a marriage of late Romanesque and early Scottish Gothic architecture.

Although little remains of Cambuskenneth Abbey today, it was once a powerful and important centre for both religion and politics – indeed the Scottish Parliament met in the abbey on several occasions in the 14th century. All that stands to any extent today is the detached bell-tower – the Campanile – from the top of which visitors can see the foundations of the abbey buildings marked out in the grass.

Nearby, the National Wallace Monument sits atop Abbey Craig, and from the top of that, fantastic views of the carse and the meanderings of the river can be seen. The monument, in honour of Scotland’s national hero William Wallace, looks down on the site of the 13th century Battle of Stirling Bridge at which Wallace imposed a major defeat on the English in 1297. The monument was erected in the 1860s, and a statue of Wallace looks down from a niche high up on its walls.

From Stirling, the journey east by car along the A907 and A985 on the north shore is dotted with survivals from Scotland’s often-turbulent social, religious and industrial past – from castles, palaces and abbeys to limekilns. On the south shore, the A905 and A904 offer just as rich an assortment of attractions before both routes arrive at the Forth Road Bridge.

The Forth is crossed by three bridges at Stirling: a 19th century railway bridge, Robert Stevenson’s 1833 road bridge, and the Old Bridge, dating in part back to around 1500. Until the 19th century, the Old Bridge was the last crossing of the river – all other crossings had to be done by ferry.

In the 1880s, a new stone and cast iron railway bridge across the river was opened near Alloa, with a central steam-powered swing section in the middle to allow shipping to pass through, but that line closed to passenger traffic after Beeching, and to freight a few years later. By the early 1970s, the bridge had been stripped of its superstructure, and today just the forty stone piers survive.

Before then, in 1936, a new vehicle bridge had been opened at Kincardine, and for the next 70 years, traffic through the little village of the same name steadily increased. The new Clackmannanshire Bridge, opened in 2008, is said to have reduced traffic through the village by an astonishing 12,000 vehicles a day! At the time of writing, the Kincardine Bridge, now a Category A listed structure, is scheduled to close for more than a year for refurbishment.

Moving east along the south shore, the huge petrochemical refinery at Grangemouth dominates the skyline before we arrive at Bo’ness – once a busy port – where that most nostalgic of tourist attractions, a steam railway, brings visitors in their thousands. Unlike most heritage steam railways, Bo’ness is not a preserved line in the normal sense of the term. It is a relatively recent creation, but bringing together key aspects of Scotland’s steam railway heritage. The station building once stood at Wormit at the south end of the Tay Bridge, while the covered canopy was rescued from Edinburgh Haymarket. We visited on ‘Thomas the Tank Engine day’, and the trains and platforms were all crowded with families enjoying a lovely sunny day out.

Three miles due north across the Firth sits the village of Culross – featured recently in our Thomas Pennant series – the National Trust for Scotland’s showcase Scottish village. In addition to the Palace, the Study and the Town house, the streets are lined with beautifully restored and maintained 17th and 18th century domestic properties while, at the top of the hill, the ruins of Culross’s Cistercian Abbey survive. Like Cambuskenneth Abbey and a host of other mediaeval religious settlements along the shores of the Forth, the monks of Culross depended on the fruits of both the land and the river for their survival. After the Reformation, coal mines and salt pans would be added to the range of activities on which the villagers depended for their livelihoods.

Sir George Bruce, who owned the coal mines and salt pans and built Culross Palace – no more than a large mansion, really – once entertained King James VI who, according to legend, was given a guided tour not only of the house, but also of Bruce’s mine workings. Leading his monarch along underground passages, tradition has it that they ascended back up to the surface only for the king to find he was on a man-made structure well out into the Firth of Forth – for by this time we are well into the river’s estuary. The king, horrified that he had been walking not underground as he thought, but under water, was even less pleased to realise he probably had to walk back again!

He is alleged to have told Sir George that such actions amounted to treason! It was only when Bruce promised a short boat journey back to shore, rather than returning by the tunnel, that the King relented! He took the boat!.

Not far from Culross, the sadly neglected remains of the huge 18th century limekilns at Charlestown are just one of many reminders of how heavily industrialised the Forth once was.

Not far from Bo’ness, and another reminder of Scotland’s turbulent history, the austere and imposing Blackness Castle was built to protect the harbour which gave access to the royal palace at Linlithgow less than four miles south-west.

Despite being more than five centuries old, Blackness Castle – shaped like a ship’s prow as it juts out into the river – is intact. And that is because, after the Act of Union, it was one of four designated garrison castles in Scotland which had to be kept in a constant state of military readiness in case of invasion. The other three were at Dumbarton, Stirling, and Edinburgh.

A few miles further east, and reflecting a much more peaceful and pampered lifestyle, the magnificent Hopetoun House overlooks the river.

Built in the closing years of the 17th century by William Bruce – responsible for rebuilding the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh – the interior of the house was created by John and Robert Adam in the early 18th century.

Just across the river, the port of Rosyth was once the Scottish base for the Home Fleet, and generations saw Britain’s great warships moored close to and under the railway bridge. Nowadays Rosyth is little more than a repair facility.

For some miles, along either shore, the tall piers of the Forth Road Bridge have been visible, but for the last few miles from Hopetoun, it is not so much the height of the towers which impresses, as the improbable upwards curve of the carriageway.

Nearly 50 years ago, kitted out in a hard hat, I walked out part way across the river from South Queensferry along the partially-completed carriageway, and looked down in awe at the drop to the water. As I write, work has already started on the approach roads for a replacement bridge: the snappily-named ‘Forth Replacement Crossing’, to be completed by 2017. The present bridge will, once the new crossing is opened, be used exclusively by pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, with a future optional use for a tramway.

Then there’s the Forth Bridge itself, 122 years old and still good for many years to come. It was designed by Benjamin Baker and built by William Arrol, but that was not how it was meant to be.

Originally it was going to be built to a design by Thomas Bouch, who had a vision of bridging the Forth, the Tay, and the Esk, the three rivers which stood in the way of a fast rail route from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, and by the time the Forth Bridge foundations were being laid in the mid 1870s, Bouch looked likely to achieve his grand plan. All that went pear-shaped on December 28th 1879, when the Tay Bridge collapsed. But that, as they say, is another story.

Until the Road Bridge opened in 1964, a ferry linked North and South Queensferry, and for former ferry slipway on the south shore is now used for the little boat which takes visitors out to Inchcolm Abbey on its island in the Firth, two miles off Aberdour on the north shore – passing beneath the iconic bridge as it makes the crossing.

The Augustinian Canons built their Abbey on Inchcolm both for security and its relative isolation. That meant that only the church was destroyed at the Reformation, the other buildings remaining in secular use for centuries. It is, without a doubt, the most complete monastic site in Scotland. Looking at the ruins of Aberdour Castle, and of other castles and monasteries along either shore, the wisdom of selecting such a remote location is only too apparent!

As the river flows past the near-abandoned little port of Newhaven, and Edinburgh’s great docks at Leith, our journey from source to sea is almost at an end. On the north bank, the river passes Burntisland, Kirkcaldy and Methil before reaching the first of the many charming villages which line the shores of East Fife. On the south shore, Seaton Collegiate Church and the scant remains of Luffness Friary point to the religious importance of the area.

Our final stop, the huge fortress of Tantallon Castle, looks out over the mouth of the Firth as it has done for centuries. It has one of the most dramatic settings of any castle in Britain, and on a clear day, the views from high on its walls are truly breathtaking. The walkway is narrow, and the buffeting winds coming in off the north sea can be daunting, but it really is worth the effort. Out to sea is the Bass Rock, and the coast of Fife, now more than 12 miles away, just peeks above the horizon.

The mighty Forth has reached the North Sea.

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