The forgotten history of the Firth of Forth islands

From Viking massacres to Jacobite prisons, the often overlooked islands of the Firth of Forth have a rich history.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 10th July 2017, 5:34 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 11:29 am
Inchkeith Island - Jon Savage Photography
Inchkeith Island - Jon Savage Photography

There are few areas of the world which possess magic and mystery like the seas surrounding Scotland.

Their remoteness and rugged beauty have intrigued travellers throughout the ages.

For centuries, parts of Scotland’s crinkled western coastline and many of the nearby isles were controlled by ‘Lords of The Isles’ - Viking and Gaelic rulers who acted completely independently of the ruling sovereign further south.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

May Isle, Firth of forth.

As a result much of island history focuses on the west coast and Orkney & Shetland groups which make up the vast bulk of Scotland’s 790 offshore islands, leaving a string of forgotten outcrops on the nation’s east coast.

“It is remarkable that over the entire length of the east coast of mainland Scotland, from John O’ Groats to Berwick-upon-Tweed there is only one island which has an area of forty hectares or more,” says island explorer and author Hamish Haswell-Smith in his book ‘The Scottish islands’.

Indeed compared to the jagged coastline of the west with its hidden inlets and multitude of watery enclaves the east coast may seem barren.

But this is not the case in the Firth of Forth estuary, which contains a collection of small islands which have their own unique history.

The abbey on Inchcolm Island. Douglas Pike.

With the exception of a few, small, lonely rocks dotted along the eastern coast, “we have to look to the Firth of Forth to find every other islet on the east coast,” says Mr Haswell-Smith.

“Yet these little islands have a fascinating history.”

Here, we take a look at 10 isles and atolls in the Firth of Forth.

Isle of May

Bass Rock from Canty Bay. Picture by Brian Casey

Anchored on the northern edge of the Forth, five miles off from the Anstruther shoreline, the Isle of May is the biggest island in the Forth and is home to a particularly horrific episode of history.

The island was once a celebrated place of pilgrimage after the first Bishop of St Andrew, St Adrian was discovered there and murdered by rampaging Danes around 870 AD. The bishop was buried on the island but local legend has it that half of his coffin (which was made of stone) miraculously floated to shore so he could be put to rest on the mainland in Anstruther Wester churchyard.

The marauding Norsemen are said to have slaughtered over 6,000 Fife Christians during the attack and the island remained desolate for generations.

May remained in the hands of churchmen for many centuries, surviving English incursions during the Scottish war of independence in the 12th century before being sold to a wealthy Fife family in the 1500s.

May Isle, Firth of forth.

In modern times it was the scene of more death during the ‘Battle’ of May Island which took place nearby on January 1918. A series of accidental collisions between warships occurred over an hour which saw two submarines sunk and 104 deaths.The accident was kept quiet by the government of the time and only in 2002 - 84 years later - a memorial plaque was placed in Anstruther harbour.

Today the island is known for its diverse birdlife.


Like the Isle of May, the little island of Inchcolm was an important religious isle.

Further west in the Forth estuary and just south of Aberdour, Fife, the island literally means ‘Island of St Columba’ in Scottish Gaelic due to the fact the Irish Saint - who is credited with spreading Christianity across what is today Scotland - visited the island around 567 AD.

Its monastery, which can be visited today, was founded in 1123 by Alexander I and was a frequent target of plunder for opportunistic raiders. In 1355 the English swept onto the island and stole all the islands treasure including a much venerated image of St Columba himself.

The abbey on Inchcolm Island. Douglas Pike.

Yet before the before the English sailors could return home with their booty a storm almost wrecked the ship and the sailors, fearing the wrath of God, duly returned the image to the monks and sailed for home with the remaining treasure.

It was believed that divine powers kept a watchful eye on the tiny islet. In 1384 when the English returned, this time to burn down the monastery, a sudden change of wind direction saved the building.


Approximately equal distance from Edinburgh and Fife, the island likely takes its name from Robert de Keth of the Catti (Chattan) clan from (Caithness (Cattiness). In 1010 Malcolm II rewarded the nobleman for his assistance in repelling the Danes and gave him large estates which included Dalkeith and Inchkeith.

Rich in history, the island served as a quarantine zone on several occasions. In 1497 sufferers from a contagious disease called ‘grandgore’ were sent to Inchkeith Hospital from Edinburgh. Plague victims were also dispatched to the island in 1580 and 1609 while in 1799 Russian sailors were buried on the island after dying from an unknown disease.

Inchkeith was visited by Mary, Queen of Scots in 1549, the day after a combined force of French and Scottish soldiers recaptured the island from Italian mercenaries who were occupying it for the English. Mary is said to have landed and seen ‘three and four hundred of her dead foes still unburied’.

A castle was then built to house the Queen’s French troops, but was later turned into a prison and, finally, a lighthouse in 1808.

The island is now owned by Edinburgh businessman and founder of garage chain Kwik Fit, Sir Tom Farmer.


The battleship-shaped island beneath the Forth (Rail) Bridge, Inchgarvie was used as fortification just of the coast of South Queensferry throughout Scotland’s past.

It too was used as a prison and during the Second World War gun emplacements were installed to defend the bridge from German attacks.

Bass Rock

An outcrop not far from North Berwick, Bass Rock’s colour is an indication of the massive gannet population of 150,000 that reside there whose droppings have turned the isle white.

Now uninhabited the island’s first inhabitant was said to be St Baldred, an Irish hermit who died in 606 AD.

During Scotland’s many conflicts the island has housed many notable prisoners and exiles.

In the early 15th century Prince James, later to become James I of Scotland, was sent here for safety by his father Robert III as the King’s brother the Duke of Albany plotted to seize the throne. The young James was due to be whisked away to France but his uncle Albany tipped of the English who intercepted James and imprisoned the Prince for nineteen years in Windsor Castle. James eventually was ransomed back to Scotland and got his own back by capturing his cousin, the Duke of Albany’s son, and imprisoning him on Bass Rock.

In 1691, four remarkable Jacobite prisoners captured the Rock and defeated the entire garrison with only the help of a gunner and 16 friends from Lothian. They heroically held the island for three years before surrendering after securing amnesty.It is now owned by the Dalrymple family.


A tiny island perched between Inchcolm and Edinburgh’s Cramond area, Inchmickery plays host to one of the more bizarre legends of the Firth of Forth.

The story goes that James IV, who was fascinated by science, wanted to discover the ‘Original Language’ of mankind. The best way to do this, he decided was to send two newborn babies to live on Inchmickery with a mute nurse. According to historical records, after a year or two, James and his court agreed that the children ‘spak extremely guid Ebrew’.

Cramond Island

A land bridge connects Cramond Island to the mainland when the Forth is at low-tide. Occasionally unsuspecting visitors get stranded on the island by the unforgiving waters that swallow the land bridge.

There are stone burials on the island that hint at its possible use by Romans, who used the adjacent Cramond village as an outpost.


Four miles off the coast of North Berwick lies Fidra. A broken reef, The Briggs off Figra, lie between the island and the shore. the Briggs house the remains of a Cistercian hermitage, an order of the Catholic faith. The hermitage was founded in in the 12th century and by 1561 housed 11 nuns at the time of its dissolution.

Lamb and Craigleith

Two of the smallest islets in the Forth, situated between Fidra and the Bass Rock. The Lamb is said to have two ‘dogs’ - that are actually skerries - guarding each side.

Craigleith, meaning ‘Rock of Leith’ was once a rabbit warren where the animals were bred for food. Around a mile as the crow flies from Edinburgh’s centre the isle is now the home of the Scottish Seabird Centre’s SOS Puffin Project - which protects the island’s indigenous puffin population.

Bass Rock from Canty Bay. Picture by Brian Casey