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Parish of Burntisland

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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1791-99: Burntisland
1834-45: Burntisland

Burntisland, a town and a parish of S Fife, on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. The town adjoins the steamboat ferry station (1848) of the Edinburgh, Perth, and Dundee section of the North British railway, being 51/8 miles N by W of Granton, 9¼ NNW of Edinburgh, 5¾ NNW of Leith, and 5¾ SW of Kirkcaldy. Its old name, Wester Kinghorn, was changed about 300 years ago to Bertyland, Bertland, or Bruntiland, of dubious etymology. A royal and parliamentary burgh, an important coaling port, a place of great railway thoroughfare, a seat of considerable local trade, and a resort of summer visitors for recreation and sea-bathing, it stands on low ground, partly peninsular, and screened along the N by a chain of wooded hills, the highest of which, the Bin (632 feet), commands a magnificent view. Rossend Castle, on an eminence at the W end of the town overlooking the harbour, is said to have been built in 1382 by Durie of Durie; figured long as a military strength; belonged to Kirkcaldy of Grange (executed 1573); served, at another time, as the headquarters of the armed Covenanters of the S of Fife; passed through the hands of many different proprietors; and, greatly altered by modern additions, is now the residence of Mr Jas. Shepherd, manufacturer, Kirkcaldy. Colinswell, Greenmount, and Starley Hall, all handsome modern mansions, are in the vicinity. The hamlet of Kirkton, with the quaint churchyard of the old parish church, St Adamnan's (1243), and the hamlet of Grange, with an extensive distillery, lie respectively ¼ and ½ mile to the N, but are now included within the municipal boundary. A spacious common, called the Links, adjoins the town on the E, and is half encircled by pleasant seaward-looking villas. One of these, Craigholm Cottage, near the extremity of the Links, was for several years the summer residence of Dr Chalmers (1780-1847); and in a house near the Forth Hotel Mrs Mary Somerville (1780-1872) passed much of her early childhood. A wall was built round the town in the reign of Charles I.; and part of it, at the E end, is standing still. The Music Hall (400 seats), lying off the E end of High Street, was built in 1857 at a cost of nearly £2000, all defrayed by Messrs John and Joseph Young of Dunearn; and, given by their representatives in 1869 to the town, serves both for entertainments and public meetings. The parish church, built in 1592-94, on the model of the North Church of Amsterdam, is a curious square edifice, surmounted by a squat, vane-capped tower, and contains 900 sittings; other places of worship are a Free church (1860), a U.P. church, and St Serf's Episcopal chapel. There are also a town-hall (1846), a fever hospital (1880), an institution for science and art classes, a railway mechanics' reading-room and library, a total abstinence society, a masonic lodge, a golf club, and several miscellaneous institutions. New board schools, erected (1876) in Elizabethan style at a cost of £6000, and an Episcopal school, with respective accommodation for 600 and 150 children, had in 1879 an average attendance of 411 and 130, and grants of £370,10s. and £90,8s. The most prominent structures of the town are those connected with the harbour and the railway. The harbour, called -Portus Gratiœ or Portus Salutis in old burgh charters, long bore the character of being the best on the Firth of Forth, as large, well sheltered, and easy of access. Formerly only a tidal haven, it has been greatly improved, under acts of 1870,1875, and 1881, by the construction of a wet dock, a sea-wall, and other works, at a cost of £150,000, advanced by the North British Company. Up to 1881 it was managed as part of the burgh property by the town council, but by the latest Act it is vested in 8 commissioners, 4 of them appointed by that company, and 4 by the town council. The wet dock, opened on 1 Dec. 1876, covers 5½ acres, and has about 630 yards of quayage, a depth of from 19¾ to 22¾ feet, an entrance 50 feet wide, railway connections, and three hydraulic loading machines; the sea-wall, starting from the island at the S end of Cromwell Dyke, is thence to be carried in a westerly and a northerly direction, including several acres of the foreshore. How great already has been the effect of the improvements, may be seen in the growth of the harbour revenue from £197 in 1860 and £1622 in 1875, to £16,519 in 1879, £14,785 in 1880, and £11,000 in the first 7 months of 1881. The quantity, too, of coal exported has risen from 190,061 tons in 1876 to 230,132 in 1877,368,480 in 1878,450,636 in 1879, 460,664 in 1880, and 296,694 in the first 7 months of 1881. The railway station adjoins the steamboat pier, and combines elegance of architecture with commodiousness of arrangement; whilst the neighbouring Forth Hotel is a handsome edifice, with all the convenience of a city establishment. The railway between the sea and the town passes first through deep rock-cuts, and next along a beach devoted to bathing. A little way down the line is a large railway-carriage and engine depot. Encroachments by the sea have been made and are menaced to the E of the railway works; and Sibbald's History of Fife (1710) says that towns-folk not long dead 'did remember the grassy Links reach to the Black Craigs, near a mile into the sea now.' In 1656 Burntisland had 7 vessels of from 12 to 150 tons; like other ports of Fife, it is said to have suffered greatly from the Union. The boats of the Forth and East Coast fisheries long made its harbour their principal rendezvous, but were eventually drawn to Anstruther and other places. A herring fishery, with Burntisland for its headquarters, began about 1793, was vigorously prosecuted for many years, and produced from 16,000 to 18,000 barrels annually; but even that declined into little more than curing and coopering the cargoes of boats from other ports. Whale fishing sent out two vessels of respectively 311 and 377 tons in 1830 and some following years; but that likewise failed and was relinquished. The town has a post office, with money order, savings' bank, and insurance departments, a railway telegraph office, branches of the Commercial and National Banks, a savings' bank, and a fair on the third Friday of July. New waterworks, costing £25,000, were opened in 1878. The distributing reservoir at Kilmundy lies, 1 mile NW of the town, at 200 feet above sea-level; the principal reservoir is at Cullalo, 1½ mile NE of Aberdour, and covers 40 acres; and the total storage capacity is 100,000,000 gallons, or 140 days, supply, at the rate a day of 70 gallons per head of the present population. Another great improvement was effected in 1880, by granolithic paving at the East End, a handsome and almost unbroken promenade being formed thus of 2020 feet. Burntisland belonged anciently to Dunfermline Abbey, and was exchanged by James V., in 1541, for some lands in the neighbourhood, that he might erect it into a royal burgh. It dates as a royal burgh from that year, and it got new charters in 1587 and 1632. It is now governed by a provost, 2 bailies, a dean of guild, a treasurer, and 7 councillors; and it unites with Kirkcaldy, Kinghorn, and Dysart, in sending a member to parliament. Its police affairs are managed by the magistrates and town council as commissioners of police; and its municipal, police, and parliamentary boundaries were made identical in 1876. The corporation revenue in 1865 was £548, in 1880, £764. The annual value of real property-£8846 in 1843-was £23,904,7s. 3d. in 1881, inclusive of the railway. The parliamentary and municipal constituency in 1881 was 642. Pop. of Burgh (1831) 1873, (1841) 1959, (1861) 3143, (1871) 3265, (1881) 4096. Houses (1881) 829 inhabited, 61 vacant, 22 building. Agricola, the Roman general, on crossing the Forth into Fife (83 a.d.), is thought, by some writers, to have landed at Burntisland, and to have encamped his army on Dunearn Hill, 2 miles to the NNW. On its summit is a plateau, surrounded with an immense number of loose stones, and known as Agricola's Garrison. In 1563, at Rossend Castle, where Queen Mary was spending the night on her way to St Andrews, the hapless Chastelard Burst into her chamber-the offence for which he was brought to the block. A meeting of the General Assembly was held in the parish church in 1601, being summoned from Edinburgh by James VI., who durst not trust himself to the stormy Firth, and who here re-swore the Solemn League and Covenant, and suggested to the Assembly the propriety of revising the English translation of the Scriptures. In April 1615, the serving by the Queen's chamberlain of certain writs gave rise to an eviction riot of 'a multitude of women, above ane hundred, of the bangster Amazon kind, who maist uncourteously dung him [the Earl of Dunfermline] off his feet and his witnesses with him, they all hurt and blooded, all his letters and precepts reft fra him, riven, and cast away, and sae stoned and chased out of the town.' The minister, Master Watson, a man of no calm port, would seem to have roused the townsfolk's hot humours, and the bailie's wife was leader of the Amazons. The inhabitants of Burntisland were zealous Covenanters, and made a powerful stand against Cromwell; eventually compelled to surrender the town to him, they exacted from him the stipulation that he would repair its streets and harbour. A letter of 29 July 1651, from the Protector to the Speaker of the House of Commons, describes the town as 'well seated, pretty strong, but marvellous capable of further improvement in that respect without great charge;' the harbour as 'near a fathom deeper than at Leith at a high springtide, and not commanded by any ground without the town.' In April 1667, a fleet of 30 Dutch sail appeared at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, and some of the Burntisland privateers taking their cannon ashore, and raising a battery to defend the harbour, the Dutch ships lashed out with their ordnance against the town, and knocked a few chimneys down, but did no further harm. The town was occupied, in 1715, by the Earl of Mar's troops; and a spot adjacent to it was the camping ground, in 1746, of a large body of Hessians. Lord Burntisland was a life-title conferred in 1672 on Sir Jas. Wemyss of Caskieberry, husband of Margaret, Countess of Wemyss. The parish of Burntisland, originally called Wester Kinghorn, is bounded N and E by Kinghorn, S by the Firth of Forth, and W by Aberdour. Its length from E to W varies between 15/8 and 2¾ miles; its greatest breadth from N to S is 23/8 miles; and its area is 2950¾ acres, of which 386 are foreshore. The coast, inclusive of sinuosities, is 3½ miles long, the shore being sandy to the E and rocky to the W of the town. A small headland, called Ross Point, lies about 3 furlongs W of the harbour; and a creek strikes inland from that point, is ¼ mile wide at the entrance and ¾ mile long, and has been bisected by a stone wall 12 feet high and 9 feet broad, pierced with two flood -gates, and has, through the flood-gates, such an influx and efflux of tidal current as drives a corn-mill. The seaboard, to the width of ½ mile, appears, in a rough view, a hillflanked plain, but really has considerable diversity of elevation, being traversed from E to W by a series of ridges, parallel to one another, and of different heights. The first ascends gently from the sea; the next, called School Hill or Mount Pleasant, rises on the northern outskirts of the town; and the third, is that on which Kirkton village stands, but all three are of very inconsiderable elevation. The fourth is the Bin, truly and conspicuously a hill, rising abruptly to an altitude of 632 feet above sea-level. The surface northward thence presents an interesting variety of hill and dale; has eminences somewhat irregularly scattered, and considerably diverse in height and aspect, and culminates in Dunearn Hill (671 feet), 2 miles NNW of the town. Dunearn Hill looks very like an extinct volcano, and it commands a magnificent panoramic view, embracing portions of 14 counties. Starley Burn descends from the western hills, falls over a high rock into the sea, making there a very picturesque cascade, and holds so much carbonate of lime in solution as to petrify moss and wood. The rocks are carboniferous and eruptive, and they exhibit constituents and juxtapositions highly interesting to geologists. Sandstone and limestone are quarried; coal is known to exist; ironstone, bituminous shale (extensively worked by the Burntisland Oil Company), slate clay, and various kinds of trap abound; and natrolite, zeolite, amethyst, chalcedony, agates, and other scarce minerals are found. Numerous kinds of fossils, some of them of rare character, are in the limestone; and basaltic columns, in beautiful arrangement, occur on Orrock Hill and on the northern side of Dunearn Hill. The soil between the town and the Bin is mostly a rich, deep, very fertile loam; that to the N of the Bin is of lighter character, yet mostly well cultivated and productive. Numerous tumuli were formerly in the N; a small baronial fortalice was formerly at Balbee; and ruins of the small fort or castle of Knockdavie, which belonged to one Douglas, a persecutor of the Covenanters, crown a small eminence at Stenhouse. Seven proprietors hold each an annual value of £500 and upwards, 21 of between £100 and £500,29 of from £50 to £100, and 60 of from £20 to £50. Burntisland is in the presbytery of Kirkcaldy and synod of Fife; the living is worth £263. Valuation of landward portion (1881) £9490,19s. 8d. Pop. of entire parish (1801) 1530, (1831) 2366, (1841) 2210, (1861) 3670, (1871) 3872, (1881) 4614.—Ord. Sur., sh. 40,1867. See J. C. R. Buckner's Rambles in and around Aberdour and Burntisland (1881).

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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