Book review: The Firth Of Forth: An Environmental History by TC Smout and Mairi Stewart

The Bass Rock is home to one in ten of the world's gannet population. Picture: Jane Barlow
The Bass Rock is home to one in ten of the world's gannet population. Picture: Jane Barlow
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‘IT’S AN unco place the Bass,” as one of the characters in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Catriona remarks of the 350ft high basalt plug that rears from the Firth of Forth, and on which the main protagonist, Davie Balfour, has been imprisoned.

The Firth Of Forth: An Environmental History by TC Smout and Mairi Stewart

Birlinn, 306pp, £14.99

The Bass Rock is indeed an unco – a strange – place, even without the supernatural overtones with which Stevenson endowed it.

The Bass is a vertiginous place resounding with the calls of 11.5 per cent of the world’s gannet population, as well as myriad other seabirds. It seems to have figured in the Anglo-Saxon visionary poem “The Seafarer” – a poem which, some speculate, may have been written by the hermit St Baldred who lived on the Bass, while in the 1580s its gannets were the subject of one of the first pieces of conservation legislation in Britain, when the Scottish parliament ratified an act forbidding the killing of adult gannets from the rock, as they were vital to the “common weill of this realme”.

No other seabird colony, Smout and 
Stewart tell us, has attracted so much study and interest over so long a historical period as the Bass, but one might take this extraordinary place as a microcosm of the subject of their fine book, the broader estuary which has from earliest recorded, and even prehistoric, times been subject to the interaction between man and his natural environment.

Smout, who did most of the writing, is well known as Historiographer Royal in Scotland and Emeritus Professor of Scottish History at St Andrews University. In recent years he has taken an increasing interest in environmental history, while Stewart, who shared the research, is an environmental historian at the University of the Highlands and Islands, specialising in Scottish 
woodland history. Between them they have compiled a painstakingly researched and deeply engrossing chronicle of the Firth of Forth, from the Mesolithic hunter gatherers whose flint tools and burnt hazelnut shells have been found at Fife Ness to today’s widely industrialised estuarine shorescapes, overfished waters and surprisingly resilient wildlife.

Despite the seemingly constant nature of the silver estuary upon which Smout, who lives in Anstruther, gazes daily (as does this Portobello-based reviewer), nothing is immune from change, and as he states in his preface, the nub of the book is “the relationship in the Firth of Forth between human social and economic history on the one hand and natural habitat and biodiversity on the other”.

That relationship extends from early coal mining and salt-panning to today’s power stations, petrochemical refineries and other industrial installations, not to mention a catchment area of feeder streams containing some 1.3 million people – a quarter of Scotland’s population, almost all of whose sewage until around 30 years ago entered the Firth virtually untreated and mingled with industrial waste. Over-exploitation there has certainly been – witness the vanished herring and the long dredged-out but once renowned oyster beds; yet, as the authors show, the Firth of Forth remains astonishingly rich in biodiversity, with hugely expanded seabird populations and among the largest grey seal colonies on east-coast Britain.

These shores have never been static. In Mesolithic times, the sea penetrated much further in than today, with a 200,000-hectare tidal lagoon at the head of the present estuary, well above Stirling – witness the skeletons of 16 great whales found in the area, one as far up as Flanders Moss.

The book traces the development of “wrack and wair” – the practice of using seaweed as manure, as far back as the 15th century.

Daniel Defoe admiringly recorded its effective use in East Lothian in 1726, and it lingered in some parts of Fife as late as 1970, when the amount of associated plastic detritus rendered it potentially dangerous for livestock.

The roaming Defoe also admired “the great herring trade”, and the book chronicles the boom and bust of the Firth’s great seasonal herring fisheries – the Lammas Drave and the Winter Herrin’ – and of other once abundant fish, prefiguring what would soon happen to the entire North Sea. Similarly vanished – amid sometimes violent “oyster wars”, territorial lawsuits and ineffectual legislation – are the Firth’s oyster beds, which during the 18th century may have yielded an annual catch of more than 30 million.

Documenting the rise of riparian industries, from paper-making to distilling and paraffin shale works, and their impact on the Forth’s tributaries, the book recalls how, in the mid-19th century, the Almond was so defiled that its oil-slicked surface could be set on fire, while the Devon below Dollar was described as “a seething mass of polluted and disgusting corruption”.

The mass of human waste pouring into the sea from Edinburgh alone meant that by the mid-20th century the Firth and its beaches were grossly polluted. Since the 1970s, however, major remedial treatment works and other measures have led to what by the late 1980s was “a rapidly recovering ecosystem”.

There is, of course, no pleasing all of the population – human or otherwise – all of the time. The elimination of much of the raw human waste being pumped into the sea made for cleaner waters and beaches, but also dispersed the once huge winter populations of sea ducks such as scaup and pochard which formerly gathered to feed on the “opportunistic” marine worms which throve in the sewage-enriched mud. “Environmental history,” we are told, “shows us a world of conundrums and a morass of unintended consequences” .

Elimination of pollution, however, fails to explain entirely the unprecedented population explosion among the Firth’s seabirds such as gannets, puffins and kittiwakes during the second half of the 20th century, some of which might, ironically, also be attributable to overfishing reducing the numbers of larger fish which preyed on the smaller species on which the birds also depended. There are no grounds for complacency, however, with fluctuating sand-eel populations reflecting the impact of climate change, and bird species such as guillemots and kittiwakes suffering breeding failures in recent years.

While offering plenty of hard documentation, the book also includes much piquant anecdote, such as how, in 1836, the Firth’s sprats were investigated by none other than Dr Robert Knox – he of Burke and Hare notoriety; then there was the period, the 1990s, when East Neuk fishing boats flew the Greenpeace flag in protest at Danish incursions on the sand eel stocks of the “Wee Bankie”.

As wrangling over fish stocks continues and as successive governments pay little more than lip service to “sustainability”, the spectre of global climate change looms large and its consequences for the Forth’s seabirds “could be totally catastrophic”.

Today, however, the Firth, as the book concludes, remains “as wonderful for wildlife and natural beauty as ever it was, albeit as an ecosystem profoundly changed by human activity”.

“Perhaps,” state the authors, “if we understand and appreciate its past, we shall be the more empowered to protect its future.” This book is a persuasive aid towards that end.