Of Scotland, Burntisland
is a coastal town in Fife,
on the Firth of Forth 10 miles east of the Forth
Rail Bridge. Occupying a natural harbor, Burntisland is said
to have been chosen by Agricola as a Roman naval base as early
as AD 83. Given to Dunfermline
Abbey in the 12th century, a castle, church and 'kirkton'
were established close to the harbor. The town was granted a royal
charter by James V in 1541 and developed as a naval base and a
port trading initially in fish and later in coal.
In 1850 the first rail ferry in the world, the Leviathan, came
into operation, linking Burntisland and Granton on the opposite
side of the Firth of Forth. It was the concept of Thomas Bouch
who was later to be responsible for the design of the ill-fated
Tay Railway Bridge.
In addition to brewing and distilling, which was carried on from
1786 to 1916, Burntisland was a center of ship building for half
a century between 1918 and 1968. The aluminum works founded in
1917 is still a major employer in addition to marine service industries.
Local landmarks include Rossend Castle, now restored and converted
into offices, which dates from the 12th century; the Burgh Chambers
(1843); Burntisland Library and Museum; Mary Somerville's
house (1595), once the home (1786-1817) of a daughter of one of
Lord Nelson's captains and pioneer of women's education
who gave her name to Oxford's first college for women founded
in 1879; and the octagonal-towered St Columba's Church, said
to be the first church built after the Reformation and where the
General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, meeting in 1601, decided
to publish the new authorized or 'King James' version
of the Bible. On the Binn Hill just above Burntisland James 'Paraffin'
Young started shale oil production and founded a village in 1878.
Annual events in Burntisland include a Fair, Highland Games and
the crowning of a 'Summer Queen' on the Links. A popular
summer resort, Burntisland has a caravan site, bowling green,
soccer ground and 18-hole golf course.
links with the sea have long been recognized. The Roman commander,
Agricola, set up camp on Dunearn Hill, probably lured there by
the natural harbor. He did not remain long in the area, however,
and little more is known of Burntisland until King David 1 granted
the lands for a church at Kirkton in 1130, though this assumes
that there was a settlement in place here at the time. Rossend
castle was built in 1119, and a settlement grew around the church,
controlled by the Abbots of Dunfermline, known as Wester Kinghorn.
The Bishop of St. Andrews consecrated the church in 1243. The
castle was the residence of the Duries, who were the Abbots of
Dunfemline, and remained in their care until the Reformation.
Mary Queen of Scots stayed in 1563, and a French poet, Chastellard,
was discovered hiding in her bedchamber, for which he was executed
at St.Andrews (this was his second offence, the first occurred
A Royal Charter was granted by James V in 1541, to form a burgh
and utilize the harbor as a naval port. The Charter remained unconfirmed
until granted by James VI in 1586. Burntisland flourished in this
period, becoming the second most important seaport in the Forth
after Leith. The harbor area prospered and expanded, to the detriment
of the older Kirkton. Shipbuilding became a major industry, and
would remain so for nearly 400 years. Due to the expansion of
this area, and the running down of Kirkton, it was proposed to
build a new church, started in 1592 and completed in 1595. The
Reformation of 1559 may have influenced the design, as there is
certainly a Dutch flavor with the square layout and central bell
tower. The pulpit is also central, to emphasize the equality of
all in the eyes of God. The church is still in a marvelous condition
400 years on, and the Guild seats, sailors loft, and marked pews
for the gentry are all well worth viewing. The church is famous
for having hosted the General Assembly in 1601, where King James
VI (residing at Rossend Castle at the time), was instrumental
in proposing a new translation of the Bible, which when complete
was used for 350 years as the Authorized or King James Version.
There is a carving of an inverted anchor over the main entrance
to the church, symbolic of the sailor's and fishermen's
faith in God to protect them from the sea. A model of the "Great
Michael", a warship built in Burntisland during the late
1500's, hangs in the kirk from one of the pillars. An unusual
feature is the external stairway on the east side which allowed
access to and exit from an upper gallery known as the Sailor's
Loft. This was to allow them to leave during a sermon if the tides
clashed with the service. The church has recently undergone renovation
inside after part of the roof collapsed.
Burntisland, as a naval port, was involved in various wars, French
ships and troops being blockaded in the town by the English in
1560. The port was used as a muster area in 1588 during the threat
of the Spanish Armada, and Charles I lost a large amount of treasure
when the ferry "The Blessing of Burntisland" sank whilst
crossing the Forth during his Royal Tour.
During 1651, when English warships bombarded the town and then
Cromwell's troops took it, the garrison remained for 9 years,
until 1660. They were not popular with the locals, as over the
years several bodies clad in Roundhead equipment have been discovered
under hearths and during harbor renovations. After this period,
in 1666, Letters of Marque were issued to several local ship masters,
acting as privateers against the Dutch, which led to a bombardment
of the town by Dutch warships in 1667. Apparently nearly 500 cannonballs
landed in the town. In 1689 government troops were shipped over
to Burntisland to march to the Highlands against Viscount (Bonnie)
Dundee. Ferry movements across the Forth were restricted during
the 1715 Rebellion.
The herring fleets often anchored in Burntisland to land their
catches, and at its peak around 1800 almost 500 fishing boats
would be in harbor, offloading for the 8 curing factories near
the harbor. The coal industry and the arrival of the railway ensured
continuing prosperity. As an example of the amount of trade passing
through Burntisland in 1894, The Fife Free Press of December
8th that year carried the following : "Harbor Trade"
- Burntisland trade returns for November show that the shipment
of coal is gradually returning to about its normal extent. During
the past month 61 steamers and 17 sailing vessels cleared outwards
with cargo, the total coal shipments amounted to 60,955 tons,
as against 63,891 for the corresponding month last year. The import
trade was fairly steady."
Around 1840 there was proposed a new railway line running
north from Burntisland towards the Firth of Tay. Prince Albert
Pier was constructed in 1844 to enable a regular passenger service
between Burntisland and Granton, on the south side of the Forth.
The railway station was built in 1847, and the first rail ferry
in the world commenced in 1850. Burntisland gained enormously
from this, but the building of the Forth Bridge in 1890 reduced
its status to just another station on the line. Many service buildings
were constructed however, and the North British Railway Company
built and serviced engines, wagons and carriages here for many
Visitors to the town should visit the local library, gifted to
the town in 1906 by Andrew Carnegie, where a small local exhibition
displays some interesting items from the town's history. There
is a good walk to be had by the energetic up and over the Binn,
the 200m high volcanic hill at the back of the town, which affords
a worthwhile view over the Forth, across to Edinburgh and up to
the Bridges. The golf club is the 3rd oldest in Fife, after St.
Andrews and Crail.