History of the Forth

The Forth has a long and varied history, having been used by man since earliest times.  On this page, experts tell us about events that have shaped the Forth and its communities.

From earliest times, man and nature have interacted in the Firth of Forth, in recent centuries with largely catastrophic consequences for the natural world. Settlement began on the shore some 10,500 years ago.

The first Mesolithic people were hunter gatherers who lived entirely from what they could find in the wild: Neolithic people who followed them introduced herding, and eventually cultivation, but still depended to a large extent on what they could find, as demonstrated by 6,000 year old middens containing millions of oyster shells, often well inland from the modern shore line of the upper estuary.

Early people, however, lacked the technology to make much of an impact on the biodiversity of the Forth. Probably the first notable modification of nature occurred on the islands in the Middle Ages, when the introduction of sheep and rabbits wiped out the original scrub cover, and the culling of seabirds and their eggs made gulls and puffins a rarity. However, there was still plenty of fish and shellfish to provide a living for the coastal burghs and to feed the towns.

The first bad effects of over-exploitation of these resources were felt in Victorian times, when the immense oyster beds around Edinburgh were wiped out and the Lammas Drave herring fishery, which had supported the East Neuk and East Lothian towns for centuries, was also destroyed by over-fishing. At the same time there was severe pollution from sewage and industrial waste, which was not brought under control until the late twentieth century. Developments in trawling for haddock and cod, and the coming of steam drifters and echo location of the herring shoals off the May, wiped out the remaining fisheries in the Firth of Forth in the twentieth century.

Today nothing is caught commercially except for prawns, a few scallops, crabs and lobsters. On the other hand, the rise of wildlife protection has led to a surge in the numbers of seabirds like puffins and gannets, and grey seals, assisted by the growing quantities of small fish that multiplied when the large ones were fished out. Today the Forth is cleaner than it has been for centuries, but the vast natural resources of the past are unlikely ever to return.

Chris Smout

See T C Smout and Mairi Stewart, The Firth of Forth, an Environmental History (Edinburgh; Birlinn 2012) £14.99

The historic importance of water traffic in the upper reaches of the Firth of Forth cannot be underestimated. For centuries the Inner Forth waterway played host to vessels of various sizes, which carried people, commodities and goods not only to and from Europe and beyond, but also between the north and south shores.

Historically, no less than four official ferry routes operated within the Inner Forth: Cambuskenneth to Stirling; Alloa to South Alloa; Kincardine to Higgins Neuk; and Charlestown to Bo’ness.

The ferry at Alloa was first mentioned in charters dating back to the 14th century. By the early 19th century there was a demand for quicker and more reliable transport between the north and south shores of the Forth, particularly to service the local coal industry and glassworks. This led to debates about whether to build a bridge or invest in a steam ferry. It was the latter option that won in the end, with local investors hopeful that the route would become the ‘principal point of communication between north and south Scotland.’ The new steam ferry cost the princely sum of £1400, with the upgrading of the piers on either side of the river costing an additional £1000.

In the later 19th century, the demand for even speedier transportation for both people and goods was met by the construction of the Alloa Swing Bridge. Of course, this rail bridge would have reduced the amount of river traffic. In its current state only the vertical stilts remain, posing something of a barrier to navigation.

A bit further down the river, the construction of the Kincardine Bridge in the 1930s further reduced the need for ferry transportation across the river. The ferry between Kincardine and Higgins Neuk had until then been a regular sight for well over a century, with sailings once an hour. Having found the Alloa ferry too expensive, from the 1820s cattle drovers from the Highlands began to make greater use of the crossing route at Kincardine when on their way to the celebrated Falkirk Tryst to sell their black cattle. At key points in the year – namely, August, September and October – the volume of drovers and cattle was such that enterprising local boat owners were able to capitalise by offering passage across the Forth in their sail boats!

Kirsty McAlister

Take a look at the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative website to find out more about projects that are exploring the history of the area.


Falkirk district made a significant contribution to the war effort, often in unexpected ways. At Carriden, near Bo’ness, the firm of Thomson & Balfour made doors and windows. In 1940 it got a contract from the Fairmile Marine Co to build motor launches. It did so well that a further contract was awarded for motor torpedo boats. After launch the vessels were taken the short distance to Bo’ness Dock for fitting with armaments.

The Dock had been taken over by the Navy for the Special Operations Executive with the purpose of training the crews of landing craft. It became a secure area named HMS Stopford. On the other side of the town Satellite Factory Number 1 was constructed to produce petrol cans, including jerry cans, for the army.

A pipeline from Grangemouth provided fuel and the full cans were shipped abroad from Bo’ness Harbour. The refinery had closed for the duration, but the storage facilities were extensively used, notably to supply the navy at Rosyth. Small tankers also made the dangerous east coast journey to London to keep it going at the height of the Blitz. Grangemouth was busy – there was also a mining depot, transit sheds, airfield, docks and dockyard.

The Dockyard built three flower class corvettes and 34 merchant ships (small oil tankers, colliers and large cargo vessels) with a gross tonnage of 53,000 tons. One of the tankers, the Empire Pym, was the first into Cherbourg Harbour after D-Day. Indeed, one fifth of the massive invasion fleet had been through Grangemouth in the preceding two years for repair, conversion or augmentation. At the same time the Dockyard was maintaining the Dutch and British submarine fleet. As well as storing oil and provisions for the ships at Rosyth, Falkirk also had a large temporary munitions depot in an old railway siding at Muiravonside.

The shells were stored in railway wagons and could move at a moment’s notice. A safe distance away, over at Letham Moss, was a night decoy for Rosyth. In the event of a heavy bombing raid the peat fires at the decoy were to distract the enemy. For more see the book published by the Falkirk Local History Society in 2013 and appropriately called The Forth Front.

Geoff Bailey

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