Natural Resources and Industry
The Firth of Forth has been an important feature in the Scottish landscape since the earliest times. The early settlers lived entirely off what they could scavenge from the wild, such as fish and oysters. The discovery of 6000 year old middens which contain millions of oyster shells, shows just how extensive the oyster beds in the Forth were at this time. Unfortunately, these were wiped out in the Victorian era as a result of over-exploitation of these resources.
Fishing in the Forth Estuary was a huge industry and supported the growth of towns and villages in the East Neuk of Fife and East Lothian for centuries. After the oyster and mussel beds had been wiped out by the Victorians, line fishing for haddock and cod thrived in their place. Change and diversity was ever present in this industry, as haddock and cod were then replaced by salmon and sea trout, which in turn were replaced by white fish and herring fishing. However, the waters of the Firth of Forth were over-fished and, as a result, the fisheries along its coast were wiped out. Today there is nothing left to catch commercially except for shellfish, such as prawns, crabs and lobsters.
For hundreds of years the Firth of Forth was also home to the major salt industry. This process of extracting the salt from sea water by simmering the water in pans, known as “salt pans”, was first started in the 12th Century. However, between the 16th and 18th Centuries it had grown to be one of the largest commercial industries in Scotland. Many places in Fife became major players in this industry, and you can still see the remnants of this industry in street names such as “Salt Pans” in Fife villages like Charlestown. Indeed, the stunning Culross Palace was the home of Sir George Bruce who was a prosperous salt pan owner. The Scottish salt industry was largely wiped out in the 1820’s following a repeal of salt duty, which resulted in salt from the Continent flooding the market.
The largest industry in Fife, and indeed Scotland, from the 19th to the 20th Century was coal mining. The Forth Estuary was essential to this industry due to the coal seams which ran under the river; indeed, miners actually built a tunnel 500m below the river to connect the Kinneil and Valleyfield collieries. Longannet was the biggest of all the coal mines on the banks of the River Forth. It was established in the 1960s and linked together the Bogside, Castlehill and Solsgirth mines to provide the coal for the nearby Longannet Power Station. In 2002 it was flooded by millions of gallons of water, leaving it blocked and inaccessible: its closure effectively ended the underground coal mining industry in Scotland.
The Firth of Forth was hugely important to the industries of Scotland, particularly in terms of being able to transport their produce around the country and even to export it to other parts of the world. One such industry that relied on the river to transport its produce was the limestone quarrying industry. The village of Charlestown on the banks of the Forth was a planned village especially created by Charles Bruce, 5th Earl of Elgin, in the 1750’s to make effective use of his estate’s main asset: the limestone that lay under it. Kilns were built in to the cliffs that overlooked the river, and a harbour was built opposite them to carry the quicklime to the rest of the world. At the time, Charlestown was own of the biggest and most important industrial areas in Scotland; although it is difficult to imagine this today. However, from the 1930’s the production of the lime diminished and in 1956 the lime kilns in Charlestown were closed.
The Forth during Wartime
The Battle of Bannockburn
In 1314, one of the River Forth’s tributaries played a hugely significant part in the defining battle of the War of Independence. The Battle of Bannockburn takes its name from the small stream that the English army became trapped against as the Scottish army advanced. As the English were hemmed in between the Scots schiltrons, their own army, and the burn, they found it hard to deploy their archers. This resulted in Robert the Bruce’s decisive victory and the Battle of Bannockburn has cemented its place in Scottish history.
World War I
In 1918, 10 days after the Armistice, the British Navy celebrated its most decisive victory as the German Navy surrendered in the Firth of Forth. This was a prearranged rendezvous where the entire German High Seas Fleet was handed over to the Allied forces.
World War II
On 16 October 1939 the first bomber raid by the Luftwaffe over British skies was carried out over the Firth of Forth. Known as the Forth Bridge Raid this was the first occasion that an enemy plane was shot down by a Spitfire and it was also the first time that German personnel became prisoners of war on British soil.
WWII War Effort
During WWII many towns and industrial areas on the Forth became crucial to the war effort. The firm of Thomson & Balfour at Boness was granted a contract to build motor launches and motor torpedo boats. Boness Dock was taken over by the Navy and it became a secure area known as HMS Stopford, where armaments were fitted and crews of landing craft trained. Grangemouth provided fuel via a pipeline to Boness Harbour, which was in turn shipped abroad to help fuel the war effort. Grangemouth Dockyard built 34 merchant ships, whilst also maintaining the British and Dutch submarine fleet. Falkirk was responsible for storing a large number of shells in a temporary munitions depot in an old railway siding. Rosyth Dockyard was of course the most important area on the Forth Estuary during WWII and it was heavily protected with gun emplacements and barrage balloons all the way up the Forth in order to prevent a German attack.