A harbouring treasure trove of history in Kirkcaldy

Author Carol McNeill who has published a book on the history of Kirkcaldy's harbour. Pic: George McLuskie.
Author Carol McNeill who has published a book on the history of Kirkcaldy's harbour. Pic: George McLuskie.

First-hand memories of the famous sighting of American ships in the Forth in 1778; the Kirkcaldy captain on a trade mission to Russia in 1801 and a whaling captain’s ship being frozen in an Arctic winter all feature in a new book about the history of Kirkcaldy harbour.

The publication, written by local author Carol McNeill, traces the story of the town’s harbour from its 16th century royal connections through the boom years of commercial shipping to its rescue in recent years from dereliction by the international grain ships servicing the huge Carr’s flour mill.

Coal was delivered from local collieries and tipped directly onto the ships by conveyor belts. Pic: Kirkcaldy Civic Society.

Coal was delivered from local collieries and tipped directly onto the ships by conveyor belts. Pic: Kirkcaldy Civic Society.

The six, fully-illustrated chapters cover the early days in 1536 when King James V of Scotland and a fleet of seven magnificent ships left from Kirkcaldy harbour for France to claim a French princess as his bride; to the numerous repairs and extensions including plans for two new harbours which were never completed.

The book also covers the 19th century whaling industry, wealthy shipowners and their grand houses; imports, such as tobacco, oils, paints, chemicals and resin for the linoleum trade and exports, including coal and pottery, right up to the present day.

One of the harbour’s most well-known incidents in 1782 – when John Paul Jones sailed three of his American warships from Leith to Kirkcaldy, causing great alarm – is recounted by an eyewitness. The Reverend Shirra, the first minister of what is now Linktown Church, on being told of the threat, prayed the wind would change and the ships would be blown out of the Forth and away from the Fife coast.

Carol revealed where she first got the idea for the new book: “It all started when friends who used to work in the building industry told me about the regular shipments of cement which came into the harbour, and how the only large ships which now used the harbour were the regular grain ships for Carr’s flour mill.

A shipment of cork for the linoleum trade. Pic: Kirkcaldy Civic Society.

A shipment of cork for the linoleum trade. Pic: Kirkcaldy Civic Society.

“That made me realise how little I knew about the harbour even though I had lived in Kirkcaldy for many years. It probably took the best part of a year to get the information, images and put the book together.”

She found much of the information for her research in the historical records in the Local History Department of Kirkcaldy Library which has a fantastic resource of books and records, mostly now out of print.

She explained: “A very helpful staff guided me through their collection with patience. I was also given a unique typed manuscript which had been handed down through the years giving first hand accounts of the wealthy shipowners, the 19th century whaling industry, and some of the conditions on board the sailing ships – that was an amazing stroke of good fortune which added a lot to the first-hand accounts.”

The former journalist added: “I had no idea that the harbour played such a large part in history, with James V of Scotland, the Marquis of Montrose, and John Paul Jones all featuring in the early years.

Items being lifted on board the ship at Kirkcaldy harbour. Pic: TSPL.

Items being lifted on board the ship at Kirkcaldy harbour. Pic: TSPL.

“It was a fascinating book to research and although it was hard work, I enjoyed it.”

She added: “I suppose you would call it the thrill of the chase when another nugget of unknown history came to light.”

Royal connections ...and a thriving whale industry

Kirkcaldy harbour has a very colourful history.

In her new book, Carol McNeill uncovers many interesting facts about the port which many locals might not be aware of – particularly its connections to royalty.

When Charles I was executed in 1649 and Charles II proclaimed King of Scotland, a deputation sailed from Kirkcaldy in John Gillespie’s ship to see him, but returned unsatisfied.

The following year Cromwell visited the town.

And the importance of Kirkcaldy harbour was also noted in 1650. Carol wrote: “The Marquis of Montrose – who initially led the Covenanters against the Royalists in the First Bishops’ War in 1639 but later changed sides to support King Charles – was charged with treason and taken prisoner after his last battle.

“He was put aboard a ship at Kirkcaldy on May 18, 1650 and sailed to Leith.”

He was tried in Edinburgh and executed the next day.

Kirkcaldy also had a thriving whale industry in the first half of the 19th century with nine ships registered in the port in 1828.

The first Kirkcaldy whaler was Earl Percy, which set sail in 1813, followed by Triad, Rambler, Majestic, Chieftain, Caledonia, Viewforth, Ravenscraig, Regalia, Abram and Lord Gambier – which now has a street named after it on the housing development at the harbour.

The port also has a long history of importing goods and exporting manufactured items.

Carol writes: “By the end of the 17th century there were 14 vessels in coal trade with Holland and London.

“A record from 1619 also shows the Kirkcaldy ship Jennet was carrying hatbands embroidered in gold and silver. Kirkcaldy was also the landing port for the timber for Falkland Palace.”

Kirkcaldy Harbour An Illustrated History is available to buy from Waterstone’s or online from the website: www.amberley-books.com