Insight: Queensferry's last ferryman can't wait for new crossing

Stephen Reid will complete a remarkable challenge when he joins thousands of ticket holders to walk over the newly opened Queensferry Crossing in the coming weeks.

View at dusk of the Queensferry Crossing bridge from Port Edgar, South Queensferry. Picture: Ian Rutherford

When Reid began work as a deckhand on the distinctive black-and-white boats in 1950, few people had cars and those needing to reach Edinburgh from Fife or beyond mostly took the train. It was a time long before Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy had become dormitory towns for the capital. For those living in the shadow of the Forth Bridge in the post-war era, the idea that not one but two road crossings would be built to handle the increasing volume of traffic would have seemed far-fetched in the extreme.

“On a winter’s day in the early 1950s, the boat could arrive at North Queensferry, sit at the pier for 15 minutes, and then leave with no passengers and without a single car,” Reid recalls, sitting in a conservatory overlooking the village’s West Bay and the two road bridges beyond. Born and raised in North Queensferry, he has witnessed the transformation of the area over the past 60 years. What was once a small, close-knit community of sailors, dockyard workers and quarrymen is now one of the most desirable footholds in the Fife commuting belt.

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Similar changes have taken place across the water in the larger settlement of South Queensferry. The official opening of the new bridge on 4 September is the latest chapter in the long and colourful histories of two communities facing each other over the battleship grey Forth. People have crossed the water here for as long as the area has been inhabited. Legend has it that regular ferry sailings were introduced by St Margaret, wife of King Malcolm Canmore, in the late 11th century to aid pilgrims making the journey to St Andrews. But it’s likely boatmen were working the narrows for centuries before that. In 2012, preparatory works for the new bridge in South Queensferry uncovered the remains of homes dating from the Mesolithic period around 10,000 years ago.

Cars queue up at South Queensferry to join the ferry on the Firth of Forth in 1956

Crossing from Lothian to Fife could be a dangerous business. It’s no coincidence the tribes of the distant past found the narrowest point of the Forth before pushing their primitive vessels into the unforgiving water. While boats have been replaced with cars and trains, commuters remain preoccupied with the question of how best to cross the expanse of water that divides the eastern coast of Scotland.

The opening of the Forth Bridge in 1890 was meant to settle the issue. Direct rail services linked Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and beyond. A skeleton ferry service was maintained by the railway companies for what little vehicle traffic passed between North and South Queensferry. When Reid was employed on the boats in 1950, he thought he had secured a job for life.

“It was the best job I ever had,” he explains. “You weren’t allowed to be a ferryman unless you stayed in North Queensferry. You had to run a crew of six. If you had stayed in South Queensferry, the boat would have to leave with a crew of five to pick you up. There were piermen on the southside, of course. But they couldn’t work on the boats.”

What passed for traffic in the early 1950s were lorries, vans and commercial travellers. “Cars were six shillings,” Reid recalls. “Hearses were 10 shillings – if they had a body in them.” The ferry was viewed by some passengers as a novelty. But then the age of the car accelerated into view. “Things had changed by the mid-50s,” Reid continues. “We couldn’t cope with the cars in the end, from 1960 onwards. There could be four queues of cars on the pier and a line stretching two miles on either side.

Stephen Reid, former skipper on the Queensferry Passage, holds the bell of the Robert the Bruce, one of the last ferry boats

“The boats could take about 30 cars. In the busiest times you didn’t worry about a timetable. You loaded up and buggered off. The queues on the north could be so bad you would be quicker going via the Kincardine Bridge. But people enjoyed their trip on the ferry. Commercial travellers used to sit and catch up with their paperwork while waiting – sometimes they’d fall asleep while on the boat. You’d shake their car to wake them, then say: “Remember where you are!’”

The opening of the Forth Road Bridge on 4 September, 1964, put an end to eight centuries of the Queensferry Passage. The boatmen of North Queensferry looked elsewhere for work. Yet barely 30 years later there were reports that a second bridge was required. The Scottish Government backed the idea in 2007, a bill was passed three years later and work began on what was then known as the Forth Replacement Crossing in 2011.

Reaction to the announcement was mixed. The Scottish Greens dubbed the scheme a vanity project. Cycling groups objected to the news there would be no bike lanes on the new crossing, as it would be classed a motorway. Engineers speculated that a tunnel should be built, not a bridge. Yet walk through South Queensferry in the weeks before the opening and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a local who believes the project should never have been started.

“People have questioned the need for a new bridge,” says Jenni Meldrum, chairwoman of the Queensferry History Group. “But I think we have to accept that the first road bridge was not built to handle as much traffic as it does now. There was a need for a new crossing.

Cars queue up at South Queensferry to join the ferry on the Firth of Forth in 1956

“The new bridge complements the other two very well, and I feel very privileged to have watched it being built. What we have is very special – where else in the world can you see three iconic structures of this size, side by side? People should take ownership of the bridge. This is living history – we are lucky to be living in the moment of its opening.”

The construction of the new bridge has been closely watched by Lesley-Anne Cronin and her mother Anna. Family connections to the bridges are plentiful in South Queensferry, but the Cronins have more than most. “My aunt, Jemima Walker, deputised for the Queen at the dress rehearsal of the Forth Road Bridge opening,” explains Lesley-Anne. “She was even the same shoe size.

“The bridges have had quite an impact on our family. My uncle worked as a deep-sea diver on the building of the first road bridge – and my mum’s former family home at 10 Stewart Terrace was demolished to make way for it in 1958.”

Despite the latter event, the Cronins view the 1964 suspension bridge – often dismissed as the poor relation when compared with the Victorian grandeur of the Forth Bridge – with fondness. “It became our weekly family walk,” says Lesley-Anne, who has since moved across the estuary to Burntisland but still returns to her hometown most days. “Every Sunday we would go across.”

Stephen Reid, former skipper on the Queensferry Passage, holds the bell of the Robert the Bruce, one of the last ferry boats

The pair will join 50,0000 other ticket holders to walk across the new bridge next Saturday and Sunday. “It means a lot to my mum. She’s been up the Forth bridge. Now she can complete the set.”

When the Queen cuts the ribbon on the Queensferry Crossing on 4 September, it will be 53 years to the day that she performed the same duty on what was then Europe’s longest suspension bridge. The weather that day was “terrible”, recalls Laura Ellis, then a nine-year-old pupil at North Queensferry Primary. A thick haar had descended and covered the star attraction. Yet the excitement of the occasion was undiminished. “We all stood waving our wee flags,” she says. “I can remember the big car with the Queen so vividly.”

Her Majesty was driven across the new bridge before taking the ferry back to South Queensferry, an act that officially marked the end for the ferries. But in reality the boats carried on running for several hours longer. “We were told the Queen was coming to open the bridge and that would be that,” says Reid, recalling his final day as a skipper. “She crossed over the bridge, then took the ferry back. But there was a lot of stuff lying on the road bridge so they closed it again to clear it before it was opened to the public. So we had to keep running. We were supposed to finish around 2pm or 3pm but we didn’t get away until 8pm.”

A small party was held by the ferry crews at Hawes Pier. Reid went home with the bell of the Robert the Bruce, one of the four ferry boats, under his arm to begin a new life on land. He was one of 30 ferrymen who found jobs on the road bridge collecting tolls. But within a few months he was back at sea taking discarded naval ammunition to be dumped at sea. It was a dangerous job, but one he enjoyed more than being stuck in “a wee boat breathing fumes from lorries”.

Reid was not surprised when a second road bridge was announced. “They botched the design of the first one,” he believes. “It should never have been two lanes with no hard shoulder. Anytime there was an accident, it was chaos.” What does he think of the new bridge? “I like the look of it – but my wife isn’t so keen.”

Stand at North Queensferry railway station and you can’t help but notice the north tower of the new bridge looming over the village school and the houses beyond. The station’s former ticket office, recently reopened as a heritage centre, tells the story of the area. Among the volunteers is Garry Irvine. “The new bridge offers something unique,” he says. “Here we have three bridges built in three different centuries.”

Irvine and fellow members of the North Queensferry Heritage Trust have researched the colossal level of manpower required to build the original Forth Bridge. “The new crossing was almost built by stealth in comparison,” he says. “The construction was very quiet and very efficient.”

Hawes Pier may no longer offer a ferry service to Fife but it remains busy with other river traffic. At the pierhead stands the RNLI Queensferry lifeboat station, which has been staffed by volunteers since its opening in 1967. Among them is Richard Bisset, a trainee helmsman and full crew member who joined up four years ago. Like many others in the town, he returned to Queensferry to raise a family after enjoying his own childhood in the area.

“The bridges are a huge part of the Queensferry identity,” he says. “I, like many people here, have lots of family and friends who have worked on the road bridge. Its opening totally changed how people got around in Scotland. It made the journey a lot smoother. It offered employment opportunities and became a base for working across Scotland. You just need to look at the number of local groups who have adopted the bridges as their logos to see the impact they have made locally.”

Bisset insists other locals he speaks to are thrilled at the opening of the new bridge. “I commute by bus to Edinburgh and all it takes is one accident to shut down the entire north-bound carriageway for hours,” he adds. “It’s obviously even worse for those getting over from the Fife side. I was hugely in favour of the new bridge being built. I know there was a slight scepticism at first, I think in part as both the existing bridges are so iconic. But when the plans came out it seemed to win people round. Visually, the Queensferry Crossing looks different enough to stand out on its own.”