Islands of the Forth!

Having grown up just a few miles east of Edinburgh and lived within the city my entire adult life, I’ve always had great views of the Islands of the Forth travelling around. This week whilst gazing out at the great view of Inchkeith Island from the sands of Portobello I wondered what the island had seen throughout it’s history and even whether there was much of a story to tell and boy I was not disappointed. It seems the majority of the islands have a great story to tell and this week we will be having a look into them….



Inchkeith is actually part of the Fife council area but due to it’s proximity to Edinburgh has had one of the most colourful histories of the islands of the Forth.

Not much is known about the earliest history of the island and no mention can be found until around the 12th century. Although it is believed the island would have seen a lot of traffic when travel across the Forth could only be made by boat. When the Scottish wars for Independance were in full swing, in the 14th century, Inchkeith and the nearby Inchcolm and Isle of May were often targeted by English raiders, as the islands were effectively in the route of any supply or raiding vessels and control of them was strategically vital.

1493 saw an extraordinary experiment take place on Inchkeith under the orders of King James IV. The King ordered that a mute woman and 2 infant children were to be transported to the island and to remain there. The experiment took place in order to ascertain what language the infants would grow up to speak, being isolated from the rest of the world and any form of language. it was thought at the time they would learn the ‘original’ language or the language of the Gods, but by all accounts and records they grew up with no language skills whatsoever.

In 1497 the island was put to an important use by the City of Edinburgh as a quarantine zone. A minutes of the Town Council of Edinburgh, recognised something of an epidemic of the ‘grandgor’ known to us today as syphilis and an act was passed in September of that year causing Inchkeith, and other islands of the Forth such as Inchgarvie, to become a place of ‘compulsory retirement’ for people suffering from the illness. They were ordered to board ships from Leith and once there to ‘remain till God provide for their health’. There are no records as to the fate of the people sent off to the islands, but it is likely they all died from the disease.


During the War of the Rough Wooing in the 16th century, the island was fortified by the English. After the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, the Earl of Somerset garrisoned the island, and with the help of a company of Italians built a large square fort on the site of the present day lighthouse. This garrison was ejected a couple of years later in 1549 by a combined Franco-Scottish force under General D’Essé.

After the end of the war of the Rough Wooing, the island was occupied by the French, under Mary of Guise during her period as the Regent of Scotland between 1554 and 1560.[25] The old English fortifications were further strengthened by the Scots and French, who under D’Essé built a larger and stronger fort. Accounts for this rebuilding written in French survive with the names of the Scottish craftsmen and women who worked there in 1555.

Mary, Queen of Scots, inspected the island and it’s French garrison in the 1560s and a stone from the original gateway with “MR”, Maria Regina, and the date still exists, built into a wall below the lighthouse. The guns were used during the rebellion against Mary called the Chaseabout Raid. Lord Darnley was sent to inspect the armaments in August 1565. The English ship, The Aide captained by Anthony Jenkinson arrived in the Forth on 25 September 1565, and was bombarded by the cannon on Inchkeith. Jenkynson had intended to blockade Leith to prevent Lord Seton bringing more munitions for Mary from France. After Mary was deposed in 1567, the fort was ordered to be razed. As her opponents were anti-French they were none too happy with a French garrison so close to the city. The Captain of the garrison, Robert Anstruther, was rewarded with all the ironwork timber and slates to be salvaged, and ownership of the island was given to John Lyon, 8th Lord Glamis. The remaining buildings were later used as a prison.

The construction of Inchkeith Lighthouse began on the island in 1803, and was designed and built by Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson(the grandfather of author Robert Louis Stevenson). The lighthouse, standing 67 metres high, was first operational by 1804, and is now listed as a building of architectural and historic significance.

Inchkeith continued to be fortified over the coming years. From the 1890s until the early 1900s, the fort at Inchkeith underwent a sequence of gun improvements and replacements and the island being made ready in August 1914 for the first world war.

During World War I, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Britannia, at the time a part of the 3rd Battle Squadron in the Grand Fleet, ran aground at Inchkeith on 26 January 1915, suffering considerable bottom damage. She was refloated after 36 hours and was repaired and refitted at Devonport Dockyard.

In 1938, following the Munich Crisis, the island was further mobilised, and had Nissen Huts installed, presumably for equipment and personnel. In that year, during a practice firing of the guns on Inchkeith, a practice shell landed on a building on Salamander Street in Leith.


Inchkeith, along with several other islands in the Forth formed an important part in the defensive strategy of the Firth of Forth and from this point on her defences were continually upgraded, added to and generally improved.

In 1944 Inchkeith was chosen as the site for Operation Fortitude North, part of a wider deception plan known as Operation Bodyguard orchestrated by the Allied forces and carried out as part of the build-up to the Invasion of Normandy. The main objective of the plan was to lead the Germans to believe the the Allied invasion of Northern Europe would be coming at a much later date than that actually planned and was likely to be launched at a much different location. Spoof radio traffic and double agents were used to spread misinformation about the operation and on 3rd March 1944, members of a “Special RS (Royal Signals) Unit” from the British Fourth Army landed on Inchkeith, with a detachment of 22 men and 4 officers, with two radio vans. At the beginning of April, a further 40 men arrived, and proceeded to stage mock attacks of the Inchkeith defences via the cliffs, until their departure in September.

Although Operation Fortitude was a great success, Inchkeith appears not to have been overflown by German Reconnaissance planes until October 7. Examination of the footage taken in 1945 appeared to indicate that the plane flew too high to ascertain anything meaningful.

Following the end of World War II dismantling of the defences was begun in 1945 and by early 1946 only a small number of troops remained stationed on the island and finally in 1957 all military use of the island ceased. Owner ship of the island then passed over to the Northern Lighthouse Board. In 1986 the lightkeepers were withdrawn when the lighthouse was automated and the owners sold the island to the millionaire philanthropist Sir Tom Farmer, best known for founding Kwik-Fit. Under current ownership, permission is needed to land at Inchkeith.


Bass Rock

The beautiful island known as Bass Rock is found just off the coast of the small town of North Berwick. The rock is currently uninhabited, but historically has been settled by an early Christian hermit, St Baldred is said to have lived there in 600 AD, and later was the site of an important castle, which after the Commonwealth period was used as a prison.

The earliest recorded proprietors are the Lauder of the Bass family and according to legend, the island is said to have been a gift from King Malcolm III of Scotland. The crest on their heraldic arms is, appropriately, a gannet standing upon a rock.

In 1497 King James IV visited the Bass and stayed in the castle with a later Sir Robert Lauder of the Bass. George Lauder of the Bass entertained King James VI of Scotland when he visited the Bass in 1581 and the king was so enamoured that he offered to buy the island, a proposition which did not commend itself to George Lauder although the King appears to have accepted the situation with good grace.


James I consigned several of his political enemies to the Bass in the 15th century. Many members of the Clan MacKay ended up here, including, Neil Bhass MacKay, who gained his epithet from being imprisoned there as a fourteen-year-old in 1428. He was kept there as a hostage, after his father, Aonghas Dubh of Strathnaver in Sutherland was released, as security.

After owning the island for almost 600 years, the Lauders lost control of it in 1650, during Cromwell’s invasion, and the castle ended up as notorious prison which for many years held religious and political prisoners, especially Covenanters. The fortress was destroyed by the government in 1701, and on 31 July 1706 the President of the Court of Session, Hew Dalrymple, Lord North Berwick, acquired the Bass by charter (ratified by Parliament in March 1707), for a purely nominal sum, and the island has been ever since in the uninterrupted possession of the Dalrymple family.

Today the island is uninhabited by humans but does play host to over 150,000 gannets and is the largest single rock gannetry in the world and described by Sir David Attenborough as ‘one of the wildlife wonders of the world’. In fact the scientific name for the northern gannet, Sula bassana or Morus bassanus, derives its name from the rock. When viewed from the mainland, large regions of the surface appear white due to the sheer number of birds and their droppings.


The Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick has solar powered cameras located on the island which beam back live close up images of the seabirds to large screens on the mainland, just over a mile away. The images are sharp enough for visitors at the Scottish Seabird Centre to read the ID rings on birds’ feet. The Seabird Centre has a total of 10 cameras located on the islands of the Forth and also broadcasts the images live on the internet. Take a look at their webcams here.


Cramond Island

Cramond is a tidal island about one mile off the coast of Edinburgh. A paved path, exposed at low water, allows easy access, but at high tide the path is covered by several feet of seawater which cuts the island off from the mainland. It is safe to walk along the raised causeway to the island at low tide, but only if visitors ensure that they leave enough time to return to the mainland before the water rises. The speed at which the tide comes in can easily trap the unwary.

There is evidence to suggest that the island may have had special significance to the prehistoric peoples who lived along the coast of the Firth of Forth, as at least one stone burial cist was found.


Cramond island has been used for farming, especially sheep farming, throughout most of it’s history and was at one time famous for it’s oyster beds, although these have now been destroyed due to over fishing.

Cramond island, much like the other islands of the Forth, was fortified at the outbreak of the Second World War to protect the coasts in the event of enemy warships entering the channel. A number of these buildings remain and can be explored. After crossing the causeway, the first structures are the emplacements for a 75 mm gun and its associated searchlight. More buildings are in the north east corner of the island, which include a variety of stores, shelters and gun emplacements, as well as two engine rooms that once contained all the equipment necessary to supply power to the military installations on the island. Further along the northern coast, low concrete stumps protrude from the undergrowth, all that remain of the barracks that housed the garrison on the island. On the western side, perched precariously on the rocky shore, is the ruin of a small square building which was used as an ammunition store during the war, though its stone construction suggests it is much older than either World War.



Inchcolm is located to the north of the Forth, fairly close to the coast of Fife. It’s well known as a tourist destination with people flocking to see, the former Augustinian, Inchcolm Abbey. It was the home of a religious community linked with St Colm or St Columba, the 6th-century Abbot of Iona. King Alexander I was storm-bound on the island for three days in 1123 and in recognition of the shelter given to him by the hermits, promised to establish a monastic settlement in honour of St Columba. Though the king died before the promise could be fulfilled, his brother David I later founded a priory here for monks of the Augustinian order; the priory was erected into an abbey in 1223.

Inchcolm Island was supposedly visited by St Columba in 567, and was thought to have acted as an ‘Iona of the east’. A primitive stone-roofed building survived on the island, preserved and given a vaulted roof by the monks of the later abbey, probably served as a hermit’s oratory and cell in the 12th century, if not earlier. Fragments of carved stonework from the Dark Ages testify to an early Christian presence on the island. A hogback stone, preserved in the abbey’s visitor centre, can be dated to the late 10th century, making it probably Scotland’s earliest type of monument originating among Danish settlers in northern England.

Much like the nearby Inchkeith and Isle of May, Inchcolm was subject to raids by the English during the Scottish Wars of Independence in the 14th century. There was a particularly infamous raid that took place in 1335 when an English ship raided the island. The raiders took treasures from the abbey, along with a statue of Columba. The story goes that as the raiders were making their escape they were nearly wrecked on the shores of Inchkeith, and the sailors being of a religious nature felt it was the wrath of Columba himself, and so returned the treasures to the abbey. From then on they experienced a calm and uneventful journey. In 1384, an English raid attempted to set alight Inchcolm Abbey, but this again was foiled by the weather – in this case a strong wind blew out the flames.


In the 16th century the island was fortified by the English, much like Inchgarvie and was also used as a kind of prison. Archbishop Patrick Graham of St Andrews and Euphemia, mother of Alexander, Lord of the Isles, were two of the most well known persons to be held there.

Inchcolm, much like the other islands of the Forth was fortified during World War I & II, to help defend the Forth against attack.

The island gets a mention in Shakespeare’s Macbeth; “That now Sweno, the Norwayes King,
Craves composition:
Nor would we deigne him buriall of his men,
Till he disbursed, at Saint Colmes ynch,
Ten thousand Dollars, to our generall use”.

The island can be visited today, as two ferry services run regular trips out to the island from South Queensferry.



Inchgarvie is a fairly small island found right next to the Forth Bridge and four caissons that make up the foundations can be found around the island.

Inchgarvie more so than the other islands, was right in the path of any boats crossing the Forth, before any bridges were in place.

King James IV licensed the island to John Dundas in 1491, with the power to build a fort. However this did not come to pass, and James IV ordered the building of a strong tower in 1513. By 1514 the tower was still not complete and Margaret, granddaughter of John Dundas, undertook the task of overseeing the completion of the project started so many years before. The fort was captured by Richard Brooke in the Galley Subtile on 6 May 1544 during an attack on Edinburgh and demolished a week later. The English commander Lord Hertford wrote that it would have been useful to garrison Inchgarvie, but his orders from Henry VIII would not allow it.

On 6 September 1627, the Laird of Dundas was invited to meet the Privy Council at South Queensferry and discuss building a modern fort on the island.


During the reign of Charles II as King of Scots, the island was subject to continued maintenance for defensive purposes. The island was inspected by Charles in 1651 before falling into disrepair after his army was defeated by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester.

In 1707 the island is known to have been rented to Archibald Primrose, 1st Earl of Rosebery. In 1779, however, the island’s fortifications were renewed once more, in response to the threat posed by John Paul Jones, American Naval Commander, who harassed British ships from a base in the Forth.

In 1878 the island became a foundation for Thomas Bouch’s Forth Bridge. It became a construction office for the project, as well as accommodation for the workers. Some of the stone from the former castle was used to help build the caissons of the Forth Bridge.


During the wartime fortifications of the islands it became a primary defence against air and submarine attacks on the Forth Bridge and the Rosyth Dockyard with the gun emplacements being permanently manned throughout war. Like nearby Inchmickery, its profile and colour makes it look like a battleship from a distance which added to it’s defensive nature.

The whale-like outline of Inchmickery island in the Firth of Forth


Inchmickery is a tiny island, only 100 metres by 200 metres, found about two miles north of Edinburgh.

During both World War I and II the island was used as a gun emplacement and the buildings were constructed, much like Inchgarvie, to give the appearance that the island was in fact a battleship. Much of the structures remain to this day, although have been long abandoned.


The island is now an RSPB reserve, and is home to breeding pairs of common eider, Sandwich terns and various gulls. It used to be a nesting site for the very rare roseate tern, but the roseate terns have now moved elsewhere in the Firth of Forth.


Isle of May

The Isle of May is located in the north of the outer Firth of Forth, approximately 8km off the coast of mainland Scotland. It is 1.8 km long and less than half a kilometre wide.

The island was the site of one of the earliest Christian churches in Scotland, founded in the 9th century and built into an unusual mass-burial mound that probably dates from prehistoric times. Although radiocarbon dating of bones reveal them to date from the 7th century to the 10th century, remains of Bronze Age funeral urns suggest that the mound may be older. The current chapel on the site is dedicated to Saint Adrian of May, who was killed on the island by Danish invaders in 875.

The original church was expanded during the 12th century by David I of Scotland. The monks agreed to maintain nine priests on the island to pray for the souls of the Kings Of Scots.

Evidence found on the island suggests it was an important place for pilgrimage during the 12th century. The remains of a 12 seat communal lavatory, which is much larger than necessary for the 9 monks who resided there, give the impression many visitors were seen on the island.

The ownership of the island passed between many hands over the course of time. Bishop Wishart of St Andrews bought the priory in the middle of the 13th century. The priory was finally transferred to the Canons of St Andrews in 1318, and was relocated at Pittenweem. The Prior of Pittenweem passed the island to Patrick Learmonth of Dairsie, Provost of St Andrews in 1549. He sold it to Balfour of Manquhany in 1551, who in turn passed it on to Forret of Fyngask seven years later, who sold it to Allan Lamont, who in turn sold it to John Cunningham of Barnes.

The isle has long been a focal point for local fisherman and their families. It had long been a tradition for the wives and children of the fisherman of the village of Cellardyke to be taken to the isle for a picnic each year.

On the night of January 31st 1918, the Battle of May took place, although it was more of a catastrophic blunder by the navy. A sequence of accidental collisions between Royal Navy warships occurred over little more than an hour which saw two submarines sunk with heavy loss of life, another four damaged along with a light cruiser.

The Navy maintained a control centre on the island to detect U-boats and enemy surface vessels trying to enter the Forth from shortly before the Second World War until 1946.

Since 1956 the isle has been dedicated as a National Nature Reserve and managed by the Nature Conservancy Council, now Scottish Natural Heritage, although until 1989 it was actually owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board.


The isle also features a rather impressive lighthouse, which started life as a simple beacon. The first permanently manned one in Scotland and considered at the time to be one of the best in existence. It used around 400 tons of coal per year, and required three men to look after it. A proper lighthouse was built on the island in 1816 by Robert Stevenson. It is an ornate gothic tower on a castellated stone building designed to resemble a castle, 24 metres high and with accommodation for three light keepers and their families. The new lighthouse started operating on 1 September 1816.



Fidra is an uninhabited island in the Firth of Forth, 4 kilometres north-west of North Berwick, on the east coast of Scotland.

Like the nearby Bass Rock, it has a substantial seabird population, and is now an RSPB reserve. Remotely operated cameras on the island send live pictures to the watching visitors at the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick.

Upon the island are ruins of an old chapel which was dedicated in 1165 to St. Nicholas. In the 12th century, the island formed part of the barony of Dirleton, which was granted to John de Vaux by King David I. The de Vaux family built a stronghold, known as Tarbet Castle, on the island, but in 1220, William de Vaux gifted Fidra to the monks of Dryburgh Abbey, in the Borders. His successor built Dirleton Castle, on the mainland, as a replacement dwelling.

Robert Louis Stevenson often visited the beaches at the area known today as Yellowcraigs and it is said that he based his map of Treasure Island on the shape of Fidra. (This claim is also made about the island of Unst in Shetland.) He also mentioned Fidra in his novel Catriona.

North Berwick and Craigleith (from North Berwick Law)

Alloa Inch, Craigleith, The Lamb and Tullibody Inch

There are four other islands that make up the set, and whilst the beauty of each is undeniable, they don’t have as much going on in their history as the others. So take a look at a couple of wonderful pictures of them instead.



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One thought on “Islands of the Forth!

  1. James Lee

    Dear Sir

    The Battle of Pinkie and the isle of Inchcolm are well documented in a two volumed book on the History of Dunster Castle, Somerset by Sir Hugh Maxwell Lyte, Deputy Keeper of the Records, Tower of London. Published in 1909. The main character in this documented evidence is Sir John Luttrell, Lord of Dunster Castle. This is the castle where I worked for twenty years as education officer and it’s not the first time ‘we’ have been at war with Scotland or Wales.


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