Ferry, rail, road: The history of crossing the fearsome Forth

A car carrying Queen Elizabeth II passing through cheering crowds as she travels over the Forth Road Bridge after performing the opening ceremony. Picture: PA Wire
A car carrying Queen Elizabeth II passing through cheering crowds as she travels over the Forth Road Bridge after performing the opening ceremony. Picture: PA Wire
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It could have been written this morning – but instead, the passage was published almost 130 years ago ahead of the opening of the new bridge across the Firth of Forth.

“In these days of high pressure of living and working and eating and drinking at top speed, the saving of an hour or two for the thousands of struggling men every day is a point of the greatest importance, and every delay is fatal to enterprise,” wrote Wilhelm Wetholfen in Engineering Magazine in 1890. Wetholfen was assistant engineer on the Forth Bridge, which officially opened that year with the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, famously banging in the last rivet – which was plated in gold – to the bold new superstructure.

The Scotsman hailed a “brilliant” opening ceremony on a day of high winds, fast-moving clouds and “rampaging” white horses on the water.

The “sea rupture” of the Firth of Forth had finally been “annihilated,” the correspondent wrote.

Before 1890, travel between the eastern parts of Scotland had been at a minimum, according to Weltholfen, given the “unpleasant” sea crossings or the long rail journeys via Stirling or Alloa – where a bridge already crossed the Forth – that were required.

Trips of 18 miles as the crow flew could end in rail journeys measuring some 130 miles more, according to accounts.

But for centuries the obstacle of the vast estuary simply had to be overcome, whether it be on sailboat, paddle-steamer or hot air balloon, as was the case when adventurer Vicenzo Lunardi, in October 1785, took flight from George Heriot’s School and landed in a field near Ceres in Fife.

St Margaret, second wife of Malcolm III, had made freq­uent pious pilgrimages by boat between Edinburgh, Linlithgow and Dunfermline in the 1100s with a collection of harbours and the village of Queensferry springing up for her convenience.

The church later set up crossings to allow pilgrims from across the Continent to visit St Andrews and pay homage to the relics of Scotland’s patron saint.

Sailing from North Berwick to Earlsferry, more than 15,000 people made the trip 
in 1412 alone – with a handsome sum raised by the enterprise.

However, no doubt all who had made this crossing had yearned for something a little safer.

The first serious proposal for a crossing came in 1805 from a group of noblemen who planned to build a double tunnel under the water.

Nothing materialised and a plan for a chain bridge emerged in 1818.

Wetholfen was stinging of the proposal for the light and slender structure and wrote: “On a dull day it would hardly have been visible and, after a heavy gale, probably no longer to be seen on a clear day either.”

For another 40 years the public “put up” with what was on offer, he added.

During this period, ferry services from Granton to Burntisland started to take off. The arrival of rail in Fife during the 1870s led to integrated journeys but the gales that blasted through the estuary made getting on and off boats for connecting train services particularly unpleasant, according to accounts.

Larger paddle-steamer ferries such as Auld Reekie, the Thane of Fife and the Express were then launched by North British Rail.

The world’s first train ferry was introduced in 1850 between Granton and Burntisland – a distance of five miles – with engineer Thomas Bouch devising special vessels that were fitted with railway lines on decks that matched with equipment on the harbourside that allowed wagons to run directly on and off the boats.

Bouch went on to design a suspension bridge over the Forth from 1872 but the devastating failure of his design for the Tay Bridge, which collapsed in 1879 killing 76 people, ended his involvement in the major new crossing.

New designs for a cantilever bridge were submitted by engineers John Fowler and Benjamin Baker with construction authorised by Parliament in July, 1882.

More than 5,000 men worked on its construction over the next seven years, led by Sir William Arrol, with a consortium of train companies footing the £3 million bill.

Despite rail being considered the future of travel, the steam ships and paddle-steamers which criss-crossed the Firth of Forth continued to sail. Journeys were stopped at the outbreak of the First World War when the water became a controlled military area.

As the motor car became more common, demand for water crossings increased again and The Queensferry Passage, which linked North and South Queensferry, started to pick up.

Under the ownership of Clyde shipbuilders William Denny, two custom-built ferries, the Queen Margaret and the Robert the Bruce, were launched in 1934.

Each could carry 500 passengers and 28 cars.

Calls for a new road bridge intensified as car ownership became the new norm.

The Kincardine Bridge opened in 1936, but a structure further east was a long way off.

Even by the early 1950s, the government thought building a new bridge would cripple the efforts to balance the country’s books with competition on the public purse coming from the Tay Road Bridge, the Clyde Tunnel and road improvements in the Highlands. Improvements to the ferry service were instead promised

A plan for the bridge was accepted in 1958, with construction of the bridge and associated roads costing £19.5 million – and the lives of 7 men.

“During its construction, it was a tourist attraction, especially for Edinburgh residents.

“The cable spinning, new to Europe, was a fascinating site with a training school being set up to train the spinners,” noted author and historian Michael Meighan.

The bridge was opened by the Queen on 4 September, 1964 and ferries on The Queensferry Passage stopped on the very same day.

The popularity of the road bridge has been its undoing, given the growing need for travel.

Around 60,000 vehicles cross it on more than half of the days of the year, with its 120-year-lifespan seriously undermined.

This week, the Queensferry Crossing will strengthen the links between north and south of Scotland once again.

The name also connects those first, hazardous crossing taken by St Margaret more than 900 years ago to a new era of travel over the Firth of Forth.