Saturday, 8 January 2022

The Ferry to Leith


From the Caledonian Mercury, 4th July 1814
From the Caledonian Mercury, 4th July 1814

As some people know, I’ve spent a lot of lockdown researching family history, with results which some day I may be brave enough to publish. It’s full of surprises, one of which was finding that my ancestors had a connection with Tulliallan, where Angus Kennedy and his wife Katherine had arrived around 1785. They had an enormous number of children, the eldest, John, born when she was about 22 and the last one, Alexander, when she was about 43. Angus died in 1811 and was buried there, but John kept the family home going until 1850.
From the early 1800s John was working as a cabinetmaker based in Nicolson Street in the Old Town of Edinburgh, which made me assume at first that he had moved there, but as we all know it was an extremely dangerous and unhealthy place, full of disease. There was no sanitation in the old tenements, which still relied on daily collections of waste. The stink and smoke would have been overwhelming and comparison with the clean air and open environment of Tulliallan compelling. I’m now reasonably sure that John was an early commuter, staying in his workshop during the week, which raised the question, how easy would that have been?
Road transport would not have appealed at all. Tulliallan was a fair distance from the Old Town. From the earliest times there were numerous ferries across the Forth, including a cattle ferry from Kincardine for drovers heading to the Falkirk Tryst, but the Southern terminus at Higgins Neuk was about thirty miles from Edinburgh. The roads were extremely poor and there don’t seem to have been any established coaches.
Until the arrival of the paddle steamers the preferred mode of transport was by way of a trading smack, or a yawl dedicated to passenger transport. There were several such vessels providing a service between Stirling and the Capital, with stops along the way at Alloa and Kincardine. The timetables would have taken advantage of the tidal streams up and down the Forth and the passage would have been relatively trouble free in reasonable weather.
There are indications that towards the end of the Century commuter traffic by way of these boats was increasing. Under the powers believed to have been granted to the Magistrates of Edinburgh under the “Golden Charter” of James VI they had traditionally levied landing dues from all vessels coming into the harbours of Leith and Newhaven, which by 1775 had entitled them to promulgate a table of charges providing that “all passage-boats, ferry-boats and pinnaces shall pay of beaconage and anchorage, each time they come into the harbour, two shillings Scots…” The Magistrates had this updated with new legislation in 1788, with rates expressed in Sterling, presumably to take advantage of the increase in traffic.
It’s interesting to note in passing that in the years that followed sailing ships plying out of the Forth were occasionally attacked by French privateers. The crews on the regular sailings of commuter vessels between Edinburgh and London were heavily armed and there were reports of them occasionally seeing off the enemy. That would have added a frisson to the weekly commute.
A few years later travel suddenly became more convenient and faster with the arrival of the paddle steamers. As we all know, the first seagoing steamer in the World was Bell’s Comet, launched, if we take the word of her engine builder John Robertson and her master Captain William Mackenzie, in July or August 1812. (It seems that Bell’s claimed date of 1811 was optimistic and related to the placing of the order at the shipyard.) We know for sure that in the early Summer of 1813 Bell took his new ship through the canal to the Forth on a promotional voyage to Leith. For a time that summer he ran excursions from Leith to Bo’ness at a fare of 7/6d (37.5p). This probably inspired the same John Robertson to build the Tay, specifically for service on the East coast, that year.
In 1815 the Alloa Steamship Company was formed and commissioned the Morning Star of Alloa from Ralph Rae of Kincardine. Described as a “ferry excursion pleasure vessel”, she was a substantial ship, eighty one feet six inches in length overall and sixteen feet two inches beam, ninetyseven tons displacement. That’s about twice the overall length of the Comet and one and a half times the beam. As Joseph Colin Bain reports in his doctoral thesis:
“The introduction on the Forth, was the Morning Star. She was placed in service between Alloa and Newhaven, as the "Alloa and Kincardine Steamboat", from 14th August, 1815. She undertook a daily round trip, with departure times varying according to the tide. She seems to have generally gone up river in the morning, and back down in the afternoon, but completed two upstream trips on Saturdays, spent Sundays at Alloa, and made only a down river journey on Mondays. This vessel reportedly suffered a bizarre accidental stoppage in September, 1819. It was discovered that a salmon had blocked the condenser pipe.
Only ten days after the introduction of Morning Star, the previously announced sister for the Stirling was introduced. She was the Lady of the Lake, and was noticeably faster than her partner, taking only five hours for the voyage, albeit at the higher fares of seven and five shillings for the best and second cabins respectively. Passengers were to be uplifted and put ashore by boat at the intermediate points of Alloa, Kincardine, Bo'ness and Queensferry. All three vessels appear to have not been exposed to the mid winter weather, but to have resumed in the springtime.”
In March 1820 a Dr Lucas notes in his diary
“Two Steam boats continue to run betwixt Stirling and Leith viz the Lady of the Lake of Stirling and the Morning Star of Alloa.”
Competition meant that the ferry companies vied to make passengers comfortable, with cabins and provisions. In his “Strange Letter of a Lunatic” James Hogg describes his character James Beatman taking “my seat on one of the sofas in the elegant cabin of the Morning Star” and being served ginger beer mixed with brandy. The Ettrick Shepherd was much taken with the ship and even wrote a poem dedicated to The Steamboat of Alloa:
“Oh blessed thing of calm delight,
Art thou a phantom of the night …”
The journey would have taken about two hours and became quicker after The Morning Star was re-engined by Napier in 1818. Thereafter she continued in service on the Forth under various owners for at least another twenty years and was only broken up in 1855.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water