UPPER FORTH LONGSHORE ACTIVITIES PAST AND PRESENT
Traditionally, when boats were laid up for the winter, with the first hard frosts many yachtsmen would turn to wildfowling. Indeed many took their guns aboard during the sailing season as Davis’ request to Curruthers in ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ (1) suggests. “Bring your gun and a good lot of Number 4’s; and would you mind calling at Lancaster’s and asking for mine, and bringing it too?”
John Guille Millais (2) tells how in the 1880s there were four professional punt gunners, possibly more, on the Forth above Blackness. Two of these met their deaths by drowning, one below the ramparts of Blackness Castle in 1887 when Millais was staying there with his regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders. In those days punt gunning was also carried out on the River Eden, Fife now a nature reserve. Millais relates a narrow escape of him and his man on the Eden when the gun punt was swamped. He also shot in Orkney for eight winters from local boats under sail. In the same period, of the four professional puntsmen on the Moray Firth two were drowned and one was crippled by rheumatism.
Punt gunning, paddling lying prone within range of flocks of waterfowl with a deck mounted swivel gun depended for success on a craft with a very low silhouette, hence the vulnerability of precious little free board. Descriptions of it make fascinating reading for the coastwise cruising man. After taking a shot and gathering any quarry the punt was sometimes sailed home.
Influenced by Sir Peter Scott (3) who stopped wildfowling and turned to full-time conservation I enjoy watching birds but few describe coastal bird life better than the wildfowling authors Millais, Niall (4), Wentworth Day (5) and Willock (6 ). Their accounts are mines of wildlife lore and yacht cruising with a purpose. Dr Richard Shelton also tells a wonderful story in his more recent book ‘The Longshoreman’ published in 2004 (7).
Locally, loss of habitat from land reclamation and industrialisation has put unfair pressure on the birds. The new sea wall at Bo’ness hides traffic above the beach, bringing flocks of waders closer inshore but it is clear from early accounts that wildfowl were once much more numerous. However fewer spent cartridge cases above the shore indicate the birds may be getting a break.
Land reclamation on the upper Forth first proposed by Sibbald in 1720 began in 1821. Its successive phases have been described by local landowner H.M. Cadell (8) of Grange. Dykes were constructed with culverts in them covered by hinged flaps weighted to close against the incoming tide. Much of the work was done by Dutchmen. The seaward of two dykes at Kinneil still functions in this way, rainwater leaching the salt from the landward side behind the dyke and young birch trees demonstrating ecological succession marching on. On the south shore reclamation is drawing to a close but it is still in progress on the north because the ash from Longannet Power Station has to go somewhere. The one time Preston Island is now land locked, surrounded by settlement lagoons for ash slurry pumped from the Power Station.
Managed retreat, letting the sea reclaim land as salt marsh, is giving the birds some habitat back at the Skinflats RSPB reserve west of Grangemouth. Next to it exclusion of the public from the refinery river frontage of rip-rap provides safe nesting for duck, free of the menace of pet dogs. Immediately to the east, the hide at Kinneil Kerse permits viewing over the mud flats in comfort from the vantage point of the crest of the dyke.
In the present big freeze activity is seasonally domestic. Whilst the Boat Club has gas central heating, sub zero temperatures prompt a return to solid fuel to supplement it and reduce the gas bill. From time to time shore coal is plentiful. “There is something nice about going for coal” said the sage at the club. I knew what he meant. The previous afternoon, just before high water, setting off with wheelbarrow, plastic sacks and coal shovel it was a peaceful scene. The bay was very cold, misty and flat calm. A dozen mallard were snoozing in line afloat at the water’s edge, heads under their wings. They swam away very slowly and reluctantly, a solitary curlew, one of the wariest of birds, taking flight. I was sorry to disturb them but with a day time air temperature of -5 0C the club needed coal. A few oyster catchers and herring gulls, moved 20 metres further away round the bay. Ordinarily they would have been off; the cold weather changing their behaviour so it is just as well that wildfowling has been temporarily suspended. The second year running this has happened.
Hard weather has made the boat yard fox bold rather than lethargic. We studied each other ten metres apart for a full minute before he sauntered off, looking very festive in his red coat with white chest and tail tip.
Scraping away snow and seaweed I soon filled four bags with walnut size coal and lifted one onto my shoulder to carry it up the shore to the barrow. Looking around my feet I spotted a dunlin on the water’s edge just two metres away, behaving as if perfectly tame. The same bird kept me company the next day, like a robin in the garden. Perhaps it knew I keep the fox away. Wentworth Day who wrote so wonderfully of coastal wildfowl summed up dunlin as ‘charming, confiding little birds’ (9 ), an aspect of them the distant birder with telescope doesn’t experience.
We need a fresh north easterly to bring in the coal. It is washed out of mine spoil used for land reclamation and also came from the bunkers of ships broken at P&W McLellan, Grangepans. Wave action separates the lighter coal from stones and sorts it by particle size, larger pieces accumulating higher up the beach. At “The Ship Breaking” fine granular coal locally known as “coal culm” can be skimmed off the surface of the mud. It is excellent for keeping a stove in overnight. Small holes poked in the bottom of the polythene sacks allow seawater to drain out.
Before it was flattened by the Local Authority the base of the frames of the steam drifter Acquisition was a marvellous place to collect coal. The vessel had been used as a breakwater at The Ship Breaking until accidentally burned to the waterline. Waves lapping over the frames worked as a grader and separator. Close by I found a large copper fastening that probably fell from the vessel when she burned. Care is needed along this shore as the place is littered with asbestos insulation and gland packing from bygone days when its health hazards were less appreciated.
I have not had competition for shore coal but many Bo’ness residents tell of times when gathering it for household use was a common activity. Today, when most have gas central heating, few would recognise it or know when and where to find it.
Beach combing has universal appeal, combining the thrill of the chase with fresh air, exercise, familiarity with ones locality and time on the shore with wildlife. It is the next best thing to being afloat. The tidal range of the Upper Forth and the rivers flowing into it mean constant deposition of curiosities and treasures on the strand line.
Round timber including large tree trunks comes down the river in quantity and club members cut it up with a chain saw, splitting logs with a felling axe. All manner of sawn timber can also be found, railway sleepers, scaffolding boards, boat parts, joinery off cuts and pieces of pier, manna from heaven for a boatyard. Scaffolders don’t seem to realise that when the tide comes in their boards will float away. Jet ski users would realise how dangerous their speed is if they saw some of the objects that have floated down the river. Fly tipping is also responsible for a good deal of wood on the shore. Time lapse photography of one fast disappearing pile would have made an interesting sequence.
A shore walk to the Midhope Burn, Hopetoun often yields another fuel element, butane and propane cylinders which provide a pointer to tidal currents, the essence of local knowledge afloat. Occasionally the authorities enquire of us as to where a lost dinghy or drowning victim may be stranded, there being little inshore detail on tidal stream atlases as big ships don’t go there. The large red 47 Kg propane bottles are too big and heavy to carry but can be floated home. This is useful recycling, clearing away an unsightly danger from the shore. Here too I found a tub of thick grease, perhaps originating from the dockyard over the water. The grease bore the marks of the user’s first three fingers that scooped from it. Thankfully he had put the lid back on before it went into the sea and it has greased our winch wire.
Aluminium alloy washes out of waste from the Grangepans smelter and the odd hardy soul can be seen collecting it. With the price of aluminium nudging £10,000 a ton this residue is worth a pound a pound. The Boat Club has no interest in collecting scrap but salvages ferrous metal in the process of beach cleaning. When wooden boats were burnt on the shore copper fastenings were reclaimed, ready annealed, for re-use. Grangepans moorings are sorely tried in a north easterly and many a boat has gone ashore in the bay, one this winter (2010). The cast iron keel of a Folk Boat high up on the beach awaiting recovery bears silent testimony.
Fossil hunting on the shore is another activity arising from the area’s coal mining past (10). I have a lump of fossilised tree bark ( Lepidodendron Sp.) and an impression of plant material in coal. Fossilised ripples in mud are very common in coal mine shale. Cadell gives more detail, including photographs. On the north side of the Forth Robert Dick (1811-1866), geologist and botanist (11) who contributed so much to our knowledge of the natural history of the Caithness coast was born in Tullibody. He learned from rocks and minerals collected in the Ochills, some originating from the non-ferrous metal mines. More is being heard of him as the bicentenary of his birth is celebrated.
A new chapter on the Bo’ness potteries has come from sherds dug from the sea wall foundation trenches, bringing artists and pottery enthusiasts to collect them. Unglazed (biscuit) sherds didn’t travel. They were from defective, unfinished wares disposed of as conveniently nearby as possible. Fewer glazed sherds are readily identifiable as Bo’ness but there are clues to local origin. For instance, a stack of plate rims accidentally stuck together by glaze being of no further use was obviously dumped close to where it was fired. Sherds are a wonderful resource for attributing unmarked wares. Bo’ness pottery is now highly collectible but sherds tell more of its story than cheque book collecting (12&13). Another danger lurks for the unwary picking up things on the beach. When focussed on the ground it is easy to miss wire sticking up that can catch you in the face, why metal workers bend over the end of a brazing wire.
The potteries burned three tons of coal for each kiln firing. An earlier industry also dependent on coal was salt panning. Little remains of this on the south shore but it is a different story on Preston Island (14) opposite Bo’ness. There the pit head and substantial buildings remain from the C18th salt works. Both industries were convenient consumers of the lowest grades of coal and the ash generated made a substantial contribution to land reclamation. The smooth level perimeter path from Low Valleyfield round Preston Island makes a fine walk or bike ride. There are interpretation boards on the salt works site. For access from seaward one has to avoid the fencing round the ash slurry settlement lagoons.
At Grangepans, named after salt panning, the headland, ‘The Point of the Bing’ causes the current in the bay to run clockwise regardless of ebb and flow of the tide. It is evident from rowing a dinghy and the tendency of a cable laid mooring strop to unlay, forming a ‘bunch of grapes’, and its splices drop out. To prevent this one doubles the strop and uses swivels. The current drives long shore drift covering the slipway with sand and shingle in spite of deflection by the pier. During the season constant work is needed to keep it clear, the more so as the new sea wall has moved the beach a couple of metres to seaward with no elevation of the slip. The material cleared is being used to raise the level of the car park so one can see over the new sea wall, regaining the sea view we once enjoyed. When rained on and the salt leached out it quickly sprouts tomato plants, a classic sewage indicator.
Going onto the tidal mudflats to maintain ones mooring employs techniques from wildfowling and mud horse fishing. From wild fowling comes the use of mud boards, sometimes called mud pattens, to stop boots from sinking into the mud. ‘Shooting (Moor and Marsh)’ in the Badminton Library (15) gives one design and ‘Wildfowling’ in The Lonsdale Library provides two more (16). I use a similar design from an old friend, former Royal Marine Richard Leavesly, which he used for bait digging in the mud of Langstone harbour, Portsmouth. Care is needed not to make the boards too big or the suction underfoot hinders movement.
Leaning on the rail of a mud horse further spreads ones weight and enables mooring components and shuttering for excavation of the mooring sinker to be transported over the mud. My mud horse is a traditional shape like that of the Sellick family (17 and see the internet), mud horse fishermen of the Bristol Channel, but it has shallow sides to keep mud from coming aboard and contain tools and chain. Equipped in this fashion one can explore the mud and mussel scalps and reach the boat when dried out. Having ballasted a boat down by the head one can go out to it at low water to clear a fouled propeller. In time these techniques may be useful for native oyster restoration, 30 million of which were harvested from the Forth annually until 1870.
There is not a lot of sea angling locally in part due to the suspended solids in the water from the dumping of dredging spoil from the Grangemouth approach channel off Bo’ness but there are fish and improving runs of salmon in the Rivers Carron and Forth. I once found a sea trout in the cockpit when the boat was on the mooring at Grangepans. Unfortunately it was too high to eat by the time I found it. The boat yard fox sniffed it but even he left it alone. I wouldn’t be tempted to eat shellfish from the Upper Forth but people do collect winkles. Gastropods do not accumulate algal toxins like molluscan shellfish but sewage indicators and polyethylene beads on the shore warn of industrial contamination. Two oil spills from the refinery in recent years are part of the picture.
Further up the shore blackberry picking does not carry the same level of contamination risk. Staining of boat decks by birds eating them reminds of the berry season and hastens covering boats for the winter.
Coastal footpaths have had investment in recent years and one is likely to meet walkers and cyclists. The Sustrans Round The Forth Cycle Routes Map (18) shows long sections following the shore. National Cycle Route 76 is the main one and is nearing completion. By kind permission of the trustees, a new section goes through the Hopetoun Estate joining Blackness and South Queensferry and spares cyclists from having to dice with death on the A904. The shore section goes past a wildfowl Mecca, the mouth of the Midhope Burn, and the Admiralty battle practice target barge, a safe roost surrounded by soft mud or water.
It is pleasing to see conservation and leisure activity getting funding and planning support. Coastal birdlife adds interest to time afloat, the boat serving as a floating hide when lying quietly at anchor or dried out on the mud, the long guns of ones forbears replaced by long lenses.
1. The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers, 1903, Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd.
2. The Wildfowler in Scotland, John Guille Millais, 1901, facsimile by Tideline Books, Rhyl, Flintshire, 1974, ISBN 0903270 06 4.
3. The Eye of the Wind, Peter Scott, Hodder and Stoughton, 1961.
4. A Fowler’s World, Ian Niall, William Heineman Ltd, 1968, new edition White Lion Books, 1994.
5. Coastal Adventure, J. Wentworth Day, George G. Harrap and Co. Ltd., 1949.
6. The Bedside Wildfowler, edited by Colin Willock, Andre Deutsch, 1966.
7. The Longshoreman, A Life at the Water’s Edge, Richard Shelton, Atlantic Books, 2004, ISBN 1 84354 161 0.
8. The Story of the Forth, H.M. Cadell, James Maclehose and Sons, Glasgow, 1913.
9. Wild Wings and Some Footsteps, J. Wentworth Day, Blandford Press, 1948.
10. Bo’ness Coal Pits, DC Kerr, 2008, Publisher N/K, ISBN 0 9528381 4 1.
11. Robert Dick, Geologist and Botanist, Samuel Smiles LLD, 1878, John Murray.
12. Bo’ness Potteries, an illustrated history, JM Sanderson, Falkirk Museums Publications, Falkirk District Council,1977, ISBN 0 9502250 8 8.
13. Local Ceramics, a potted history of ceramics in the Falkirk District, Geoff B Bailey, 2002, Falkirk Museums, ISBN 0954 045319.
14. Preston Island- many web based sources including:
15. Shooting (Moor and Marsh), The Badminton Library, Longmans Green and Co, London, 1896.
16. Wildfowling, The Lonsdale Library Volume XXIV, Seeley Service and Co. Limited, London, 1950.
17. Last of the Mud Horse Fishing Line, The Times, 4th October1997.
18. Sustrans Round the Forth Cycle Routes Map, 1:100,000.
Yacht Blue Spindrift
January 2011 revised October 2011
Boness Pottery Sherds
Lepidodendron SP Fossil
Mud board (top)
Mud board (underside)