River Forth

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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Forth, a river and an estuary flowing through or between Stirlingshire, Perthshire, Clackmannanshire, Fife, and the Lothians. The river is formed by two head-streams, Duchray Water and the Avondhu ('black water'), rising 2¾ miles distant from one another, and effecting a confluence at a point 1 mile W of the hamlet of Aberfoyle. Duchray Water, rising, at an altitude of 3000 feet, on the N side of Ben Lomond (3192), 1¾ mile E of the shore of the loch, winds 13¾ miles north-north-eastward, south-eastward, and east-north-eastward through the interior or along the borders of Buchanan, Drymen, and Aberfoyle parishes, for 6¾ miles tracing the boundary between Stirling and Perth shires. The Avondhu, rising, on the western border of Aberfoyle parish, at an altitude of 1900 feet, flows 9 miles east-south-eastward, and expands, in its progress, into Loch Chon (1¾ x 3/8. mile; 290 feet) and the famous Loch Ard (2¼ miles x ¾ mile; 103 feet). Both of the head-streams traverse a grandly mountainous country, and abound in imposing and romantic scenery. From their confluence, 80 feet above sea-level, the united stream winds east-south-eastward to Stirling, through or along the borders of the parishes of Aberfoyle, Drymen, Port of Monteith, Kippen, Gargunnock, Kincardine, St Ninians, Lecroft, and Logie, during greater part of this course forming the boundary between Stirlingshire and Perthshire. At Stirling the river, from the confluence of its head-streams, has made a direct distance of about 18½ miles, but measures 39 along the curves and meanderings of its bed. It flows principally through low, flat, alluvial grounds, but is overlooked everywhere, at near distances, by picturesque hills, and exhibits great wealth of scenery, embracing the softly beautiful as well as the brilliant and the grand. Two important and beautiful tributaries, the 'arrowy' Teith and Allan Water, join the Forth 33/8. and 1¾ miles above Stirling. From Stirling to Alloa the river separates Stirlingshire from Perthshire and Clackmannanshire; and while the direct line measures only 55/8. miles, the windings of the river, popularly called the Links of Forth, are 125/8. miles long. The stream is flanked by broad carse lands, of such value that, according to the old rhyme,

'A crook o' the. Forth
Is worth an earldom o' the north.'

Below Alloa the river becomes less remarkable for its sinuosity of movement, and, losing partly its freshwater character, begins to expand slowly into a fine estuary, reaching the German Ocean at a distance of 51¼ miles from Alloa. The Firth of Forth, as it is now called, divides Clackmannanshire, part of Perthshire, and Fife from Stirlingshire, Linlithgowshire, Edinburghshire, and Haddingtonshire; and has a width of ¼ mile at Alloa, ½ mile at Kincardine ferry, and 3 miles just above Borrowstounness. At Queensferry, in consequence of a peninsula on the N side, the basin suddenly contracts to a width of 1¼ mile; but below Queensferry it again expands to 51/8. miles at Granton and Burntisland ferry, and between Prestonpans and Leven to a maximum width of 17 miles. The Firth again contracts, between Dirleton and Elie Ness, to 8¼ miles; and enters the ocean, between Fife Ness and the mouth of the river Tyne, with a width of 17½ miles. The islands, with the exception of Inchgarvie and two or three other rocky islets in the vicinity of Queensferry, are in the wider parts of the Firth, comprising Inchcolm, Cramond island, and Inchkeith. The last, measuring 5 by 1½ furlongs, is crowned with a lighthouse, and in 1881 was rendered defensible by the erection of three batteries with heavy guns. Half a dozen small islands (Fidra, Craigleith, etc.) lie off the Haddingtonshire coast; while the entrance is flanked by the romantic Bass Rock on the S and the Isle of May on the N. The estuary in mid channel has a maximum depth of 37 fathoms; opposite Queensferry the soundings are in 9 fathoms; on the expanse known as Leith Roads, they vary from 3 to 16 fathoms; opposite Elie Ness they reach 28 fathoms; and, in the vicinity of the Isle of May, run from 14 to 15 fathoms. The tides are so affected by conflicting currents, by islands and shallows, and by the irregularities of the shores, as to vary much both in respect of velocity and time. The flowing tide, over the sands of Leith, runs 1½ knot an hour, and appears to flow for only four hours, while the ebbing tide continues for eight hours. The tides on the N shore, opposite these Roads, run from 3 to 3½ knots an hour, and have an equal duration in flow and in ebb. The flowing tide, from Kinghorn Ness to the promontory W of Aberdour, runs at the rate of 3½ knots an hour; through the contraction at Queensferry, it runs at the rate of 5 knots an hour, and, 6 miles above that contraction, at from 2 to 2¼ miles an hour. The ebb tide, at about 6 miles above Queensferry, runs at the same rate as the flow tide; but, through the contraction at Queensferry, it runs at the rate of 6 knots an hour; and, in Inverkeithing Bay, immediately E of that contraction, turns for two hours to the W at the rate of 1¼ knot an hour. The estuary presents safe roadsteads at Elie Roads, Leith Roads, Burntisland Roads, Inverkeithing Bay, St Margaret's Hope immediately above Queensferry, and various other localities. It has good docks at Leith, Granton, Borrowstounness, Grangemouth, and Burntisland; good harbours at Dunbar, Anstruther, Cockenzie, and Fisherrow; and numerous harbours of varying character and capacity along the N shore from Crail to Alloa. The navigation was long regarded as dangerous; but, though shoally in various localities, and somewhat obstructed by sandbanks, it is now, with the aid of lighthouses on the islands of May and Inchkeith and of accurately drawn and minute charts, so signally safe as rarely to be marked with a shipwreck. Seven vessels, however, were stranded on the Carr reef, off Fife Ness, during 1870-81; and the gale of 14 Oct. 1881 did dreadful havoc to the fishing boats of Newhaven and Fisherrow. Numerous industrial works are on the shores, from Alloa and Borrowstounness downward; vast repositories of coal, limestone, and ironstone are so near it, on both shores and westward from its head, as to send down much of their output to it for shipment; and all these, along with the extensive and productive fisheries of Leith and Anstruther districts, attract large numbers of vessels of all sizes.

The basin of the Forth is estimated at 645 square miles. The length of the river and its estuary, measured in a direct line from the Duchray's source on Ben Lomond to the entrance, is only 80 miles; but, following the bends of river and estuary, is 116½ miles, viz., 52¾ to Stirling, 12 thence to Alloa, and 51¼ thence to the German Ocean. The chief tributaries above Alloa are, on the right bank, Kelty Water, Boquhan Burn, and Bannock Burn; on the left bank, Goodie Water, the Teith, Allan Water, and the Devon; and the chief streams flowing into the estuary are, on the right side, the Carron, the Avon, the Almond, the Water of Leith, and the Esk; on the left side, the Leven. The river contains salmon, grilse, sea-trout, trout, pike, perch, and eels; and its salmon are large and delicate. Several good salmon casts for the angler occur about the influx of the Teith; but all the salmon fisheries below that point are held strictly as private property, and are let under stringent conditions. The estuary abounds with white fish of all kinds; and large fleets of fishing-boats from Newhaven, Fisherrow, Buckhaven, Anstruther, and other places procure abundant supplies for the daily markets of neighbouring and distant towns. Of late years the use of steam trawlers has been introduced, and, while the catch is thus increased, the older style of fishers allege that the spawn and spawning beds are injured by the trawl nets. Herrings generally shoal into the Firth once a year, and have in some years yielded a prodigious produce; but they are esteemed in some respects inferior in quality to the herrings of the western coast. The extensive sand beds, together with immense quantities of seaweed, are favourable to the deposit of the spawn of fishes; and mussels, contributing so largely to the support of the finny tribes, are very abundant. Oysters formerly lay in beds adjacent to Cramond and Inch Mickery, as well as near Prestonpans; but they ere over-fished, almost to comparative exhaustion; and they are now inferior, both in quality and in size, to the oysters obtained in many other parts of the British coasts.

An ancient ferry crosses the river at Queensferry, and connects on the S side with a branch from the Edinburgh and Glasgow section of the North British railway at Ratho station, and with a line to Dunfermline on the N. A still more important ferry is that from Granton to Burntisland, which, in the meantime, forms the link between the southern and the northern portions of thc North British railway system. Both of the ferries named are now in the hands of the North British Railway Company, and are maintained under certain statutory obligations as to the fare to be charged, and the minimum number of passages to be made daily. In former times the Queensferry was on the line of the Great North Road, the mails crossing here en route for Kinross, Perth, and the North. The ferry between Leith or Newhaven and Kirkcaldy or Pettycur has long since been abandoned, as has also the 'Earl's Ferry,' from a place in Fife still bearing that name to the nearest point in East Lothian. Many projects have been made to bridge the Forth or to tunnel it, the latter proposal being described in several pamphlets published early in the present century. Although there are, with the railway bridges, several structures now spanning the Forth there, the bridge of Stirling was at one time an important because almost solitary access to the North. A bridge is known to have existed here six centuries ago, and some remains of it, about ½ mile above the existing 'old bridge,' are still, it is said, to be seen. Below Stirling, a bridge has been erected (1882-83) by the Alloa Railway Company, to connect with the South Alloa Branch of the Caledonian railway. The main feature of this bridge is a swing-opening by which the river, at high water, remains navigable by steamers and small vessels to Stirling as heretofore. Several plans have been drawn up for improving the crossing at Queensferry and below. In 1851 Sir Thomas Bouch perfected the 'floating railway' between Granton and Burntisland, a plan in which by the use of adjustible loading apparatus, and of large flat steamers, the railway company was enabled to carry goods trains over the ferry without breaking bulk. This system has remained in constant operation for upwards of thirty years. In 1861 a railway from Edinburgh to Perth was projected by Bouch, the proposal being at that time to carry the trains over by 'floating railways' similar to those used at Burntisland. Three years later the first design for a bridge over the Forth was proposed by him. The bridge was to be 3 miles long, crossing the shallower part of the river a mile above Charleston, with a height of 125 feet above the river, and 5 spans of 500 feet each in the fairway. In 1873, after the Tay Bridge had been begun, the bolder design of crossing at Queensferry, using the island of Inchgarvie as the central support for 2 spans of 1600 feet each, was put forward by Sir Thomas Bouch. This scheme was eagerly taken up, despite the fact that it was to be partly on the suspension principle, and required piers of 600 feet high to bear the chains. It was reported on, in its scientific aspects, by Hawkshaw, Barlow, Bidder, and other engineers, and, as regards wind pressure, by Dr Pole and Sir George Airey, the astronomer royal. But the fall of the Tay Bridge disparaged the project, and it was abandoned. In 1882, however, under an absolute guarantee for the interest on the capital by the North British, Midland, Great Northern, and North Eastern railways, the Forth Bridge proposal at Queensferry has been renewed, and statutory powers for its erection have been obtained.

The Firth of Forth has played a not unimportant part in the troublous history of Scotland, having been visited by hostile fleets at various times from 83 A.d. downwards. In 1549, the island of Inchkeith was seized and fortified by the English under the Duke of Somerset, from whom it was taken by the French commander, then in alliance with the Scots. In 1567, an act was passed for the demolition of the fort on Inchkeith, and though this was not fully carried out (since Johnson and Boswell found the fort in fair preservation in 1773), the Firth for three centuries remained defenceless. At the entrance to Leith harbour a Martello tower was erected, and there is, nominally, a fort in that town, but the former is disused, and both are inadequate for defence against modern ordnance. After many years' agitation, steps were in 1880-81 taken for the construction of three batteries on Inchkeith, and one on King horn Ness, which, mounted with heavy guns, completely command the channels N and S of the island.—Ord. Sur., shs. 38, 39, 31, 32, 40, 33, 41, 1857-71. See David M. Home's Estuary of the Forth and adjoining Districts viewed geologically (Edinb. 1871), and works cited under Fife and Stirlingshire.

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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