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  • Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History by Carol McNeill

    The three-masted Lord Gambier, built in Newcastle, was one of the Kirkcaldy whaling ships. (c. Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    Kirkcaldy harbour has a long and fascinating history, and as a local history researcher and author I’m surprised at myself for taking so long to start tracing its background!

    Its recorded history goes all the way back to the 16th century when James V of Scotland sailed from Kirkcaldy to France with seven ships to collect his French teenage bride, Madeleine de Valois, in 1536. It was also the last place that the Marquis of Montrose saw before he was taken to Edinburgh to be executed for treason in 1650.

    Kirkcaldy captains and seafarers led adventurous and dangerous lives; it seemed to be all in a day’s work to sail to the continent and indeed as far as Russia on trade missions.

    Elise Schulte was one of the huge ships to transport grain in the 1950s to what was then Hutchison's flour mill. (c.Tom Mutch, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    There was also a whaling fleet of several ships which sailed to the Arctic for the lucrative trade in whale oil and meat: an uncomfortable period to read about now but it was of its time, and has to be recorded. It was also a dangerous business for the captains and crew, when the whaling ships became stuck in the polar ice for weeks on end until the spring came. With the extreme conditions and rations fast running out, there was a high mortality rate and no opportunity even to bury the men whose bodies could only be placed overboard on the thick ice.

    But there were easier aspects to research; in particular, the grand houses belonging to ships’ captains and owners which overlooked the harbour – three of which have escaped the developers and have been restored to their former glory with intricate panelling and plasterwork revealed.

    Nairn's canvas factory was built right opposite the harbour. (c. Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    I had a tremendous stroke of good fortune and unlooked for assistance in writing this book, when I was handed the copy of a memoir with first hand reminiscences of life at Kirkcaldy harbour in the early 18th century. It contained interviews with ship owners and captains and included actual eye witness accounts of John Paul Jones’ American ships threatening Kirkcaldy: The ships were so close to the shore that we could see they were Dutch built, and that those on board were wearing red shirts.  The local minister prayed for the wind to change direction; it did, and the ships were blown off course and away from Fife.  It also recorded the time when a local ship sailed to Russia, probably for the flax trade, which was a fairly regular occurrence. On this occasion however, the captain was met on the quayside and told that since he had left his home port, their two countries were at war, and he and his crew were put under house arrest. The captain had been prepared to give the Russian officers some liquor which he had brought specially from Scotland: but when he was met with this news, he promptly asked the officers for his bottles back!

    Now the only ships which come into our harbour are the long low grain ships servicing the huge flour mill; if it weren’t for that very welcome commerce, no doubt the harbour would now have been completely shut down and remain just a fond memory.

    Carol McNeill's new book Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

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