The Firth of Forth – Touring Edinburgh’s Historic Estuary
Edinburgh is one of my (Peggy) absolute favourite cities to visit. With world-class museums, unique shops and cozy pubs, this vibrant city offers endless opportunities for culture, food and fun.
So many choices can prove challenging, but for a unique experience that seamlessly blends adventure with nature and history, look no further than the Firth of Forth. This picturesque estuary serves as the entrance to Edinburgh’s port and is inextricably linked to the region’s fascinating history. The waterway is dotted with a number of small islands that played an important role in the defense of the region, protecting the coast from Vikings, pirates and invading armies. The small islands are also home to various birds, small animals and sea life.
A boat tour on the Firth of Forth is a fantastic way to get up close to the islands of Inchgarvie, Inchmickery and Inchcolm as well as view the world famous Forth bridges. Filled with spectacular scenery and marine wildlife, a journey along the waters of the Forth is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.
In the spring and summer months, boat tours leave from the town of South Queensferry on a regular basis. A charming town with a variety of shops and restaurants and a wander up the High Street is a delightful way to spend an afternoon.
The Forth Bridges
The construction of a bridge across the expansive Firth of Forth was a massive undertaking and not attempted until Victorian times. Today, three bridges span the Forth and have the unique distinction of being built in three consecutive centuries.
Built in 1890, the Forth Rail Bridge was the world’s first major steel structure, representing a milestone of Victorian engineering. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was constructed with 53,000 tonnes of steel and stands 110 metres above the water. The Forth Road Bridge is a long-span suspension bridge with a length of 2.5 km. When it opened in 1964, it was the first bridge of its kind in the UK and the fourth longest in the world.
Recently opened in August 2017, the Queensferry Crossing is the latest addition to the Firth of Forth. Bearing a striking resemblance to a ship’s sails, this impressive example of modern design is currently the longest three-tower cable-stayed bridge in the world. Viewing the bridges from the level of the water is an excellent way to appreciate the scale and workmanship of these incredible structures.
Inchmickery comes from the Scottish Gaelic Innis Nam Bhiocaire, translating to Isle of the Vicar and was thought to have been an early ecclesiastical settlement. In later centuries, Inchmickery was an important defensive location, used to ward off attacks from Viking ships and Oliver Cromwell’s forces.
Fortified in both World Wars, it played an important role in Scotland’s 20th century coastal defenses. Abandoned since WWII, the island now functions as nature reserve and is home to a colony of common seals and nesting sea birds that include puffins, cormorants, and kittiwakes.
Inchgarvie comes from the Scottish Gaelic Innis Garbhach, translating to Rough Island. Located directly under the Forth Rail Bridge, this strategically important island has had a number of different uses over the centuries.
In 1491, James IV granted John Dundas permission to build a fortress on the island for protection against pirates. Between 1519 and 1671, the Island was used as a prison and in 1580, it was also used to house recovering plague victims. It was occupied by Royalist Troops during the Civil War and updated with canons during the Napoleonic Wars.
During WWII, the ancient fortress was incorporated into the new defenses that included an anti-aircraft gun battery. Today, the island has been abandoned to the nesting seabirds, but the remaining fortifications give the island the striking appearance of a battleship.
Incholm Island comes from the Scottish Gaelic Innis Choluim translating to Columba’s Island. This 22-acre island is named after St. Columba who is said to have visited the island in 567AD. Serving as an early Christian settlement, it was inhabited by hermits when Alexander I found himself marooned on the Island in 1123. In appreciation for the aid he received, he promised to found an Augustinian Monastery. The island monastery was a frequent target for raiders.
In 1338, an English raiding party stole all the abbey’s treasures including a statue of St. Columba. According to legend, the ship was nearly wrecked by a storm and fearing God’s wrath, the English sailed back to the island to return their plunder.
Inchcolm Island was also fortified in both World Wars, making this island a unique blend of ancient and 20th century architecture.
Today, Inchcolm Abbey is one of the best-preserved monastic buildings in Scotland. Run by Historic Scotland, its facilities include an informative visitor centre and a gift shop. Visitors can explore the ancient rooms of the medieval buildings or investigate the imposing remnants of the War era.
What To Explore
Located on a 22-acre island in the Firth of Forth. This 13th century abbey is one of the best-preserved monasteries in Scotland. Visitors learn about monastic life while wandering ancient corridors or exploring the picturesque grounds of the abbey.
When Best To Visit: April – October
Directions: Ferries to Inchcolm Abbey leaves from Hawes Pier, South Queensferry. Maid of the Forth; Forth Tours
For more information, please visit: https://www.historicenvironment.scot
Maid of the Forth
Leaving from Hawes Pier in South Queensferry, the Maid of the Forth offers a variety of sightseeing tours on the Firth of Forth. Most sailings stop at Inchcolm Island giving visitors the chance to explore Inchcolm Abbey.
What To Visit: Tours commence Easter 2018
Directions: Located at Hawes Pier, South Queensferry 14km (9 miles) from Edinburgh City Centre.
By train: Edinburgh Waverley to Dalmeny Station (South Queensferry), Then it is a short walk down the path from the station to the Hawes Pier under the Forth Rail Bridge.
For more information, please visit: https://www.maidoftheforth.co.uk
Additional boat tours available from Forth Boat Tours.
What To See
- The bridges (train, rail, foot or bicycle)
- Nature: birds, small animals, sea life
- 12th century Abbey
- Military encampments
Regular ferry trips run from South Queensferry to the Islands. South Queensferry is easy to reach from Edinburgh.
There are regular trains from Edinburgh Waverley, or Edinburgh Haymarket train station. Get off at ‘Dalmeny’ train station. The journey takes 15 minutes. From Dalmeny station it is a short walk from the station down to the shore where you can catch the ferry.
Check out Edinburgh City Guide via Booking.com for great rates on accommodations.