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Inchkeith

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Inchkeith, an island of Kinghorn parish, Fife, in the Firth of Forth, 2 ¾ miles SE by S of Kinghorn Ness, 5 ¼ SSE of Kirkcaldy, 3 ¼ ESE of Burntisland, 4 ¼ NNE of Leith, and 5½ N by W of Portobello. In shape resembling an irregular triangle with south-south-eastward apex, it has an utmost length and breadth of 6 ¾ and 2 furlongs, and a summit altitude of 182 feet. Carlyle describes it in his Reminiscences, having rowed over from Kirkcaldy in 1817 with Edward Irving and one Donaldson :- 'We prosperously reached Inchkeith, ran ourselves into a wild, stony little bay (W end of the island towards the lighthouse), and stept ashore. Bay in miniature was prettily savage, every stone in it, big or little, lying just as the deluges had left them in ages long gone. Whole island was prettily savage. Grass on it mostly wild and scraggy, but equal to the keep of seven cows. Some patches (little bed-quilts as it were) of weak dishevelled barley trying to grow under difficulties; these, except perhaps a square yard or two of potatoes equally ill off, were the only attempt at crop. Inhabitants none except these seven cows, and the lighthouse-keeper and his family. Conies probably abounded, but these were feræ naturæ, and didn't show face. In a slight hollow about the centre of the island (which island I think is traversed by a kind of hollow of which our little bay was the western end) were still traceable some ghastly remains of "Russian graves," graves from a Russian squadron which had wintered thereabouts in 1799, and had there buried its dead. . . . The lighthouse was curious to us, the only one I ever saw before or since. . . . Lighthouse-keeper, too, in another sphere of enquiry was to me quite new; by far the most life-weary looking mortal I ever saw. Surely no lover of the picturesque, for in nature there was nowhere a more glorious view. A shrewd healthy Aberdeen native, a kindly man withal, yet in every feature of face and voice you, "Behold the victim of unspeakable ennui." We got from him down below refection of the best, biscuits and new milk I think almost better in both kinds than I have tasted since. A man not greedy of money either. We left him almost sorrowfully, and never heard of him more. The scene in our little bay, as we were about proceeding to launch our boat, seemed to me the beautifullest I had ever beheld. Sun about setting just in face of us, behind Ben Lomond far away. Edinburgh with its towers; the great silver mirror of the Firth girt by such a framework of mountains; cities, rocks, and fields, and wavy landscapes on all hands of us; and reaching right under foot, as I remember, came a broad pillar as of gold from the just sinking sun; burning axle as it were going down to the centre of the world! ' The geology of Inchkeith is highly interesting; and, when the tide is low, the beds around its northern extremity and part of its easterly side are as well displayed, as if pictured and sectioned on a geological map. The new roads, too, in connection with the fortifications cut the strata diagonally, exposing fine sections by which the observations around the coast can be checked. Five-sixths or more of the island are great sheets of igneous rocks, between which are thinner bands of sedimentary deposits, including shales, two thin seams of coal, some highly calcareous shales, and at least one band of limestone. Many of the shales are literally crammed with fossil ostracodes and minute phyllopods, amongst which estheria are abundant. The flora is rich, henbane and sinapis nigra being specially plentiful. A prehistoric kitchen-midden was discovered in 1872; and on Inchkeith Skene places Alauna, a town of the Otadeni, mentioned by Ptolemy in the 2d century A.D.This he further identifies with Bede's insular city of Giudi, which in 650 Osuiu, King of Northumbria, was forced by Penda, the pagan Mercian king, to ransom with all the riches in it and the neighbouring region. Under James IV., in 1497, many plague-smitten townsfolk of Edinburgh were conveyed 'to the Inch, there to remain till God provide for their health;' and James IV. it was who had a dumb woman transported to the island, where, being properly lodged and provisioned, two infants were entrusted to her care, in order to discover, by the language they should adopt, what was man's primitive speech. The result proved highly satisfactory, as, after allowing them a sufficient time, it was found that 'they spak very guid Ebrew'! In 1547, after the battle of Pinkie, the English erected fortifications on Inchkeith, and left there a strong garrison, composed in part of a troop of Italian mercenaries; but on Corpus Christi Day, 1549, a combined force of French and Scotch, under the Sieur D'Essé, embarked from Leith at break of day in presence of the Queen Dowager, and, after a fierce contest, expelled the enemy from their stronghold, and compelled them to surrender at discretion, with the loss of their leader and above 300 slain. From then till 1560 the island was garrisoned by the French; but James VI.'s first parliament (156768) ordained 'that the fort of Inchkeith be demolished and cast down utterly to the ground, and destroyed in such wise that no fundament thereof be occasion to build thereupon in time coming' None the less, on 18 Aug. 1773 Dr Johnson here found a fort, * whose remains were only removed when the lighthouse was built in 1803. Rising to an elevation of 235 feet above sea-level, and visible at a distance of 21 nautical miles, the light of this lighthouse at first was stationary, but in 1815 was changed to a revolving light, to distinguish it from the fixed light on the Isle of May. In 1835, again, it changed its reflecting for a dioptric character; and now it consists of seven annular lenses, which circulate round a lamp of three concentric wicks, and produce bright flashes once in every minute, and of five rows of curved fixed mirrors, which serve to prolong the duration of the flashes from the lenses. After twenty years of suggestions and representations, the Government resolved to fortify lnchkeith and Kinghorn Ness; so, the island having been taken over from the Duke of Buccleuch, three polygonal batteries were built in 187881 on the three headlands. Connected one with the other by a military road 1½ mile long, they are yet entirely isolated by ditches 20 feet deep and almost as many broad, whilst their massive parapet walls rise 4 ½ feet above the floor of the interior. They are mounted with four 18-ton guns, two for the S battery, and one each for the N and NW batteries. The guns are fired over the parapet, and not through embrasures or loopholes, being placed on a raised turret-shaped concrete platform on the Moncrieff principle, and run round on swivels.—Ord. Sur., sh. 32, 1857.

* 'In crossing the Firth,' says Boswell. ' Dr Johnson determined that we should land upon Inchkeith. On approaching it, we first observed a high rocky shore. we coasted about. and put into a little bay on the NW. we clambered up a very steep ascent. on which was very good grass, but rather a profusion of thistles. There were sixteen head of black cattle grazing upon the island. Lord Hailes observed to me that Brantôme calls it L'isle des Chevaux, and that it was probably "a safer stable" than many others in his time. The fort, with an inscription on it, Maria Re: 1564. is strongly built. Dr Johnson examined it with much attention. There are three wells in the island. but we could not find one in the fort. . . . Dr Johnson said, "I'd have this island; I'd build a house. make a good landing-place, have a garden and vines and all sorts of trees. A rich man of a hospitable turn here Would have many visitors from Edinburgh." '

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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