I live on the banks of the Firth of Forth and admit that I’m guilty of taking it for granted. I love the trio of world-class bridges at South Queensferry – including the epic new Queensferry Crossing. But I’d never really thought about how many historic sites grace the Forth’s picturesque shores. Until now that is. Join me as I explore an estuary that many people think they know well, but that is actually awash with maritime secrets and surprises.
My first stop took me deep into Outlander territory at Aberdour Castle and Gardens. Scenes from the cult TV series were filmed here and it is easy to see what first attracted its producers to this dramatic ruin. Aberdour Castle was once the home of one of the nation’s most powerful men, Regent Morton. The remains of the early 17th-century lavish painted ceiling, meanwhile, speak eloquently of the wealth of one of his successors. Its oldest parts date back to the twelfth century, making it one of the oldest stone castles left standing in Scotland. You can see work here from various time periods, so it really is a historical Aladdin’s Cave.
Heading West Along the Forth
I moved west now following the Forth as it started to narrow. It still looked an impenetrable barrier that I wouldn’t fancy tackling without a bridge. This is key to its importance over the centuries. If you wanted to get between the Highlands and Edinburgh you had to cross its waters or work your way round. Hence why epic battles such as Bannockburn and the Battle of Stirling Bridge were fought around the Forth’s narrower banks.
After crossing at Kincardine I pushed on, ignoring the inland charms of Historic Scotland sites like Cairnpapple Hill and Linlithgow Palace. I say ignoring, but my destination was Blackness Castle, located at the one-time port for the royal court at the aforementioned palace. You keep unravelling more and more layers of Scotland’s history as you work your way around the estuary.
Blackness Castle has a distinctive maritime flavour to its appearance. It looks like a giant ship stranded at low tide on the banks of the Forth. Or maybe that should be a giant leviathan that has hauled itself up from the depths of the Forth to stand proudly where it does today? Either way it’s a remarkable castle, so sturdy and solid that it was used as a state prison and (centuries later) as an ammunition store by the Royal Navy.
Fittingly Blackness was built in the 1400s as the bulwark of Sir George Crichton, Admiral of Scotland. Again Blackness Castle swirls in Outlander connections and fans of the TV series will recognise it instantly. It has in fact stared in many TV programmes and films such Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet.
Cramond and Eagle Rock
Pushing further east along the Forth, I was within a day’s march of Edinburgh. Before I got within the old medieval walls, however, I had another stop. This time to explore the Forth’s Roman heritage. Always wondered why the Romans only built the Antonine Wall between the Clyde and West Lothian, never bringing its protection further east? Well they didn’t need to, as they had already fortified the Edinburgh Forthside suburb of Cramond.
You can still make out the layout of Cramond Fort, but more interesting for me is the Roman carving that remarkably has survived within the bucolic escape of the Dalmeny Estate. Hike in from South Queensferry – enjoying sweeping views of the Forth bridges as you go – and there it is. You can easily make out the impressive shape of an eagle on a rock down by the beach. It may be a little weather beaten, but as Eagle Rock has been here from as early as the second century I reckon we can forgive it that!
It’s time now to do what many would be invaders and pillagers over the years couldn’t manage and forge from the banks of the Forth into Edinburgh. And what better place to learn about the Forth’s remarkable maritime history of Leith than Trinity House Maritime Museum? This is a real hidden gem that many of my friends living in the city have not visited. They should. Not only does it intriguingly explore the Forth’s rich maritime heritage, but it is also home to a French tricolour captured during the Battle of Trafalgar and four portraits by celebrated Scottish artist Sir Henry Raeburn.
If you love all things maritime one feature that makes visiting the grand Georgian dame of Trinity House worth it alone is the display of ship models from down the ages. This is a fascinating place to visit for kids and big kids alike and really deepens your knowledge of the Forth.
I ended my navigation of the Firth of Forth at as striking a castle as I’ve found anywhere in the world. Tantallon is the sort of grandiose, daunting proper castle that must have sent a shiver through anyone daft enough to try and breach its sturdy defences.
Tantallon Castle’s grand façade may be reason enough to visit, but delve inside this ruin and you can climb up its mysterious dark staircases in search of even better views. From this lofty perch I gazed out over to Bass Rock, that sturdy rock sentinel that has presided over the Firth of Forth since long before man arrived on its shores. I thought of Romans, swishing kilt clad Jacobite warriors, rich castle owning gentry and marvelled at the treasure trove of maritime sites and secrets that lie around this seriously underrated river estuary.
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*This blog comes in association with Historic Environment Scotland
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