Sunday 2 April 2023

B is for Burntisland - Day 2

B is for Burntisland

Day 2 of my April A to Z Blog Challenge


Burntisland was known to me from my childhood as a Fife coastal town which was popular for holidays in the 1950s, especially if you lived in Glasgow near the west coast and wanted to go east but not to Edinburgh, which was regarded as a taboo tourist destination for a Glaswegian! (Friendly, fun rivalry) Apart from that, I knew little about Burntisland till recently when I needed to get the main character in my current writing in progress from the Fife town of Milnathort to Edinburgh, in 1851. Off I went to research the shortest and cheapest way for her to travel. She’s still only twelve at this date, and not rich enough to be a train passenger, yet she needs to get to Edinburgh by the fastest, cheapest method!

Burntisland is a coastal town on the Fife shoreline of the Firth of Forth. It’s a former Royal Burgh which, since regionalisation in 1975, is nominally allowed to retain its Royal Burgh status, though it has none of the traditional privileges Royal Burghs once had.

No-one really knows where the name comes from but the Reverend James Wemyss, Minister of Burntisland, in the 'Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799' says:

"It is difficult to ascertain the origin of the name. The traditional story is that it arose from the burning of a few fishermen's huts, upon a small island on the west side of the harbour, which induced them to take up their residence where the town now stands."

There are a number of theories, one of which I’m naturally drawn to as it refers to my other favourite period of history i.e. Roman Scotland.

I’m quoting a little bit from this site below to whet the appetite, since this blog post is meant to be shortish, but the whole article about Burntisland is worth a look!

“Sibbald refers to the legendary burning of fishermen's huts on the island, and a supposed attempt of the Romans to destroy the town by fire, and quotes the lines of a 'native poet':

Brave ancient isle, thy praise if I should sing,

The habitation of a Pictish King,

Dreftus, who made against the Roman strokes,

Forth's snakie arms thee to enclose with rocks,

They often pressed to vanquish thee with fire,

As Macedon did the sea embordering Tyre,

But thou didst scorn Rome's captive for to be,

And kept thyself from Roman legions free.

Roman history has some references to the fact that Emperor Severus may have made a bridge of sorts across the Firth of Forth during his invasion of approximately AD 208 - AD 210. This bridge might have been of lashed-together flat-bottomed boats, a technique used by the Roman Army /Navy in other areas of the Roman empire. It’s not unthinkable that the shoreline of the present Burntisland was involved as there was a Roman Fort across the waters at Cramond, near present-day Edinburgh, that was improved and used in the time of Emperor Severus. (It’s unknown if Roman General Agricola did something similar re: crossing the Forth in approx. AD 83)

However, my theme for this April of 2023 is Victorian Scotland and Burntisland became pretty famous in 1850 for something historically definite. It became the very first place in the world to have a railway ‘roll on-roll off’ ferry crossing! (It’s in the Guinness Book of Records)


There had been different passenger ferry crossings across the Forth between Fife and the Lothians for many centuries, but by the time railways began to sneak their way across mainland Scotland, it was important to find a way to circumvent long train journeys going north of the central belt, and from Edinburgh in particular. The first railway routes left Edinburgh and headed for Stirling and Perth, different train operators then heading off to destinations across the north, and east towards Fife.

Although the technology for a reliable railway bridge across the Forth had not yet been invented/developed, it was evident that a short crossing over the River Forth would considerably reduce travel times to destinations in the north-east, and more immediately to towns in the Kingdom of Fife. A different solution was sought and it was decided a train ferry would be a suitable interim measure. In Scotland, there was some precedent for a rail ferry crossing since rivers and canals had already been crossed by rails. The Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway (mining freight) had already established a rail crossing over the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1833, so the concept of traversing the Forth was not new, though the distance sailed across was going to be considerably greater.

In 1849, the ferry systems were designed by Thomas Bouche, the engineer employed to not only design the ferry boats but also the harbour infrastructure needed to load and unload the wagons at the ports. By 1850, the Leviathan, the first roll-on roll-off railway freight-only ferry built by Thomas Grainger, began to operate between Burntisland on the Fife coast to Granton, which lies on the southern coast of the Firth of Forth north of the city of Edinburgh. The railway engines remained on shore; it was the wagons which were manoeuvred on and off the 'Leviathan' ferry.

Granton ferry teminal

Railway passengers got ‘off and on’ the train at each side of the forth and were ferried across the waters of the Forth by a passenger ferry. My main character sees the ‘Leviathan’ at Burntisland and is awed by all the hustle and bustle around her as she makes her way to a much smaller passenger ferry!

The distance plied by the ‘Leviathan’ ferry across the Forth Estuary was 5 miles (8km).

Till my next April A to Z post...

SlĂ inte

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