From its source in Loch Ard in the Trossachs, to its broad Firth and the North Sea, the River Forth drives a wide wedge deep into the heart of Scotland, creating a barrier to travellers. At Queensferry, the river narrows, and the island of Inchgarvie provides a mid-stream stepping stone, making this the first point for a reliable crossing place.
Today it is the site of two gigantic bridges, with a third under construction – all taking advantage of the local geography.
The Firth of Forth was created by the action of glaciers in the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.
As the ice retreated people followed and set up home along the banks of the river.
In 2012, the site of one of these homes was uncovered as workmen dug out the foundations of the new road bridge.
They found the post holes for the timbers that probably supported walls and a turf roof. Inside it was apparently cosy, with several hearths, while the discovery of flint arrowheads and charred shells suggests a diet which included meat and roasted hazelnuts.
Stone-age dug-out canoes were found buried in a beach North Queensferry. So there is compelling evidence that boatmen have been crossing here for thousands of years.
When Christianity came to Scotland, the crossing was a vital link in the important pilgrimage route between Edinburgh and the holy sites of Dunfermline and St Andrews. Around 1070, Queen Margaret of Scotland bequeathed the income from a tract of land to provide free passage to pilgrims, and thus she gave the name of Queensferry to the passage and the towns on either shore.
In the following centuries, there were many attempts to regulate and control the crossing, with the local boatmen jealously guarding the rights that they were granted. The era of private boatmen ended in 1809, when the government declared “the irregularity of the service and the want of any control over the conduct of the boatmen at the Queensferry Passage (the great line of communication to the north of Scotland) made it necessary to take measures for its regulation and improvement.”
An Act of Parliament brought the ferry into a public-private partnership. The government matched the capital raised by private investors who the benefited from a share of the revenues generated by ferry fees. These private investors were the Trustees of the Queensferry Passage.
1809 – The Trustees
The trustees appointed a management committee to take over the operation of the ferry, by buying the existing boats and employing the local boatmen.
They then embarked on an ambitious plan to improve the passage, and commissioned the civil engineer John Rennie, to oversee the work.
Here is his plan.
He built new roads on both sides, houses for the boatmen at South Queensferry, a house for the Superintendent and a combined waiting room and office in North Queensferry (this is Signal House, opposite the light tower.)
And of course he commissioned Robert Stevenson to provide guiding lights at the Town Pier in North Queensferry, and on the New Halls Pier (now the Hawes Pier) in South Queensferry.
Rennie's plan was based on a line of four piers spread along the shore at South Queensferry, and a set of three piers on the peninsula at North Queensferry. This would allow sailing boats to cross directly in either direction, without tacking, regardless of the direction of the wind. It was a wonderful plan, but it failed to anticipate the impact of the new technology – the steam ship.
Within a few years, the rival crossing between Newhaven and Burntisland was using a steam ship and taking revenue from the Queensferry Passage.
The first Superintendent of the Passage was ex-Royal Navy Captain Scott.
He had recognized the limitations of the existing sailing boats and pressed the trustees to embrace the new technology of a steam ship. The initial capital had been exhausted by the original improvements, but in 1820 the trustees experimented with a rented a steam-ship – The "Lady of the Lake."
These experiments showed that Rennie’s sloping piers, designed for small sailing boats of shallow draught, were unsuitable for the standard design of steam-ship, which could only operate at high tide. Captain Scott therefore designed a shallow-draught steam-ship the "Queen Margaret." She entered service in 1821.
1820 - 1860 The Post Office, Competition, The Railways
One of the government departments which had pushed for the 1809 improvements, was the army, the other was the Post Office, because the ferry carried mail on the route from Edinburgh to Perth, and the Highlands.
In exchange for the government contribution of half the capital cost, no charge was to be made for carrying members of the armed forces, or military goods and equipment, and no charge was to be made for carrying mail, or mail coaches, horses or riders, carrying mail or returning from delivery.
At first this seemed a reasonable request, as mail could easily be accommodated in the regular ferry schedule. But that all changed in 1821, when the Post Office decided that the last mail should leave Edinburgh at midnight, to arrive in Perth by 6.00 am (with a corresponding return service leaving Perth at midnight to arrive in Edinburgh by 6.00 am.) This meant a ferry crossing heading north at 1.00 am (when the mail coach reached the Hawes Pier), and a southward crossing at about 4.30 am, well outside the normal operation which was restricted to the hours of daylight. Arguments over the clause in the 1809 Act raged back and forward between the Post Office and the Trustees for thirty years.
The Trustees had to keep a crew on permanent night-shift, just to handle the mail. In return the Post Office grudgingly paid an annual fee of £200 to defray costs.
They then demanded that mail be carried by steam ship, as this was would be more reliable, especially in bad weather. The trustees retorted that it was not possible to navigate a steam-ship at night. They did however win a minor concession in the form of an eight-year lump-sum advance of the Post Office annual fee.
With this sum of £1,600 they were able to extend the Town Pier in North Queensferry, and to purchase a larger sailing ship, which allowed carriages to run on and off to the pier, whereas formerly they were hoisted on and off!
It was also able to carry larger herds of cattle and horses, which formed a major part of the ferry traffic.
Meantime the "Queen Margaret" carried passengers and freight during daylight hours, and towed one two or even three barges; but she had been build using unseasoned timbers, which gradually soaked up water, reducing her buoyancy, increasing her draught, and slowing her down. At low tide she was restricted to using the Longcraig Pier at South Queensferry.
Captain Scott came to the rescue again.
In 1828, he took her out of service, and lengthened her bows by seven feet (about 2 metres). This reduced her draught by 8 inches (200 mm) and she sailed on until 1838, when she was replaced by the "William Adam" (named after one of the original trustees.)
The rival Broad Ferry crossing from Newhaven to Burntisland was always a threat to the Queensferry Passage, and in 1848 it gained a serious advantage when a railway connection was established to each end of the crossing. This caused a disastrous collapse in revenues, and by the early 1860s, the Trustees were in debt to the tune of £12,000.
The Trustees pleaded with the various railway companies to build connections to North and South Queensferry. The rival companies – North British, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Edinburgh Perth and Dundee – argued among themselves as to the best route, while the trustees slipped deeper and deeper into debt.
By 1863, they could not afford to re-boiler the "William Adam" and so could not continue operations. They leased the passage to John Croall, a stagecoach operator, and sold "William Adam" to the North British Railway.
1863 - 1883 Private Hands
John Croall began his service with a single steamer – the "Benwell."
In 1865 Croall added an antiquated Mersey ferry – the "Nymph." It became the sole ferry, when the "Benwell" caught fire in 1867 and was completely destroyed.
"The Nymph" was the only steamer on the Queensferry Passage for the next twelve years, carrying Croall’s "Antiquary” stage coach on its daily run to Dunfermline, until his death in 1873.
By 1867 the trustees were bankrupt, and agreed to sell the right to the passage to the North British Railway company, for £4,500. The NB had built a branch line from Ratho to Dalmeny in 1866, and they now extended this to Port Edgar. They tried running the ferry using boats brought from the Clyde ("Dandie Dinmont") and the Solway Firth ("Carham") but they were too large for the passage, so the lease was returned to John Croall.
The railway company pressed ahead with a link from Dunfermline to a new pier (the Railway Pier) at North Queensferry. This was opened in 1873, with "Nymph" - now owned by the railway company - providing the connection. She was reaching the end of her life and was replaced by a new ship, the "John Beaumont" in 1877. But this double-sterned, shallow-draught, screw steamer was unmanageable, and "Nymph" was pressed back into service. After several accidents "John Beaumont" was redesigned as a paddle-steamer and resumed service in 1879.
John Beaumont" at North Queensferry in 1881 (rebuilt with paddle wheels)
1890 to 1920 - Impact of the Rail Bridge
Despite all the money spent by the railway companies, the Queensferry Passage failed to regain its status as a major north-south route. The railway connections served the immediate area, with long-distance traffic crossing either on the ferry from Granton to Burntisland, or by a railway bridge at Alloa.
In 1883, work started on the Forth Bridge, and tourists flocked to see the bridge works.
In 1887, Captain Arthur started sight-seeing excursions using the "John Beaumont" and two other ships "Dalmeny Castle" and "New Undaunted."
This photo from the late 1880s shows "John Beaumont" "Dalmeny Castle" and "New Undaunted" and the bridge works at South Queensferry.
When the bridge opened on 4th March 1890, the North British had no further use for the Passage, and leased it to Captain Arthur, selling him "John Beaumont."
He moved his operation to Port Edgar, and ran sight-seeing operations with occasional ferry crossings - subsidised by the railway - to provide the minimal legal requirement. When Captain Arthur retired in 1893, the passage was leased to John S. Wilson of Bo’ness.
He purchased a thirty-two year old Tay ferry, the "Forfarshire", and used it to provide bridge cruises and ferry crossings.
As the 20th century started, road traffic began to increase, and in 1908 Wilson added an eighteen-year old Thames ferry, the "Woolwich." Road traffic could now be carried all year round, but only at high water!
The Woolwich at North Queensferry Town Pier
The outbreak of World War I brought a surge in road traffic because of the Naval Base at Rosyth, and for a time Wilson was able to operate without a subsidy, but this was restored when the Admiralty began to operate its own service to Rosyth in 1917.
1920 to 1947
John Wilson died in 1919, and after unsuccessful attempts to lease the passage, the North British Railway reluctantly took over operations. "Forfarshire" had been sold by Wilson’s executors so the North British purchased another ex-Tay ferry, the "Dundee."
She had been recently modernised, and was larger than previous vessels, carrying 997 passengers, and then motor cars, or three lorries and two cars.
She also had a deeper draught so could only operate from the by then disused Railway Pier at North Queensferry. Despite a public outcry, fares were increased, for the first time in sixty years, and the ferry made a profit for the first time in thirty years.
By 1930, road traffic had increased and was out-stripping "Dundee’s" capacity.
William Denny Brothers – shipbuilders of Dumbarton – approached the railway with designs for two new ferries. The railway company countered by offering Denny the lease of the ferry, if they built the ships themselves.
Denny seized the opportunity for work in the depression-hit era, and in 1934 took over the passage with two new ferries – "Queen Margaret" and "Robert the Bruce."
These were double-bowed, with clearance for a furniture van under the bridge, a clear car-deck with a turntable, and were paddle-driven for manoeuvrability. Propulsion was by twin diesel generators powering electric motors – one per paddle wheel, through a chain drive reduction-gear.
"Queen Margaret" was of conventional riveted construction, while "Robert the Bruce" was entirely welded – the first all-welded passenger ship.
Along with a repainted "Dundee," the ferries offered an efficient half-hourly service.
1947 to 1964, The End
By the end of World War II, "Dundee" was seventy year’s old, and looked her age. Her engines were worn out, and she could no longer cope with the complex tides across the river. In 1947 Denny ordered a new boat – "Mary Queen of Scots."
She was meant to have the same propulsion system as "Queen Margaret" and "Robert the Bruce" but electric motors were in short supply after the war, so she began life with marine diesels driving the paddles through hydraulic couplings and chains. She arrived at Queensferry in 1950, and "Dundee" was scrapped.
With three modern vessels, Denny operated a twenty-minute service – one vessel at each pier with the third in transit.
But once again competition loomed: Parliament passed a Forth Road Bridge order.
Meantime, traffic increased rapidly, with the growth in private car ownership, and long queues for the ferry became common-place.
Denny responded by resurfacing the Hawes Pier, adding a new slip to the Railway Pier, dredging both terminals, and ordering a new ship – "William Wallace." She arrived in 1956, and allowed 15-minute operation. The Wallace was of similar design to the other three boats, but was ten feet longer, and proportionally broader. This allowed her to carry a few more cars, but loading took longer, and she was a little slower than the others.
As the crossing became busier and busier the formal timetable was abandoned, and all four ships ran as fast as they could be loaded.
All four ferries, berthed overnight at North Queensferry
Wallace was the weak link: her longer loading time and slower speed, dictated the overall speed of the service. Denny was on the point of commissioning a fifth vessel, when plans for the Forth Road Bridge were finally approved. The days of the ferry were numbered.
On a misty 4th September 1964, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth opened the Forth Road Bridge.
She crossed from south to north by car, then sailed back on the "Queen Margaret," which was decorated for the occasion.
After running a normal service for the rest of the day, the ferry service finally closed as "Robert the Bruce" left the Hawes Pier at 7.45 pm.
Two days later, "Queen Margaret" made a final crossing and a service was held on board in remembrance of that Queen who had started regular ferry operations eight centuries earlier.