Bo’ness is well known as the home of the Scottish Railway Preservation Society (SRPS) which runs steam trains to the fireclay mine at Birkhill. There passengers can have an underground tour while the train waits for them. The towns other attractions include Kinneil Museum, the Motor Museum in Grangepans and the Hippodrome in the town centre, the first commercial cinema in Scotland, designed by Matthew Steele. However there is much more to the town than the set piece trail.
The fascination of the Bo’ness foreshore is its wealth of secrets. Here reclaimed land has been used for numerous industrial purposes and littoral erosion is constantly revealing archaeological remains. These exposures have probably reached their zenith as foreshore flood defences, projected to begin construction in 2008, will stabilise the town’s river frontage.
Whilst there have been extensive land reclamation schemes, described by Caddell (1), the continuous production of waste by local industries meant reclamation was an on-going process. In 1900 there were fifty pits within a mile of Bo’ness town centre excavating huge quantities of spoil and foundries, potteries, salt pans, railway locomotives, many trades and dwelling houses all converted coal to ash. High ground behind the town meant industrial land was at a premium and waste found a ready use extending riparian owners’ property to seaward, a process that goes on to this day. Indeed the shore was one long disposal site for artisanal, domestic and industrial waste.
An impression of just how industrial the area was is given by the reprint of the 1896 Ordnance Survey sheet (2).
Bo’ness harbour and dock
For the top of the tide visitor without the time for a shore walk the harbour and dock offer plenty of interest immediately to hand. They are worthy of a section of their own which will be written when the current development has progressed further. Once about twice their present size, an extensive timber basin and around half of the outer harbour have been filled in. On the North side of the east pier pilot steps remain on the once busy river berth. Poured concrete buttresses have been constructed on this face to stabilise the structure.
The size of the customs house on Union Street is indicative of the scale of the trade formerly carried out here. Looking up above street level one sees the crest on the front of the building. Granite capstones that fringing the harbour and dock are another pointer to the wealth once generated here.
The outer harbour originally extended south almost to the cottage by the bus station. Infilling has buried a sluice at the root of the west pier that once provided tidal scour of the outer harbour.
For interest and safety of navigation it is worth a look round to see the few remnants of harbour furniture. The west pier had a timber jetty extension used for warping ships out, timber pile stumps and foundations can still be seen. The present north cardinal mark sits on a concrete plinth that once supported a gantry bearing port entry signs, hence the reason for a north cardinal where ordinarily off the end of a pier one might expect to find safe water and a starboard hand mark.
In the Upper Forth Boat Club yard a member’s boat bogey has been made with the timber of a wooden crane jib from the dock. Second hand timber used in the construction of the club pier also originated from the harbour.
On the east pier the cast iron plates on the walls, terminations of the ties through the structure are worth noting, if only to avoid them. The cast iron lamp standard on the pier head is of interest; see later under “Foundries and smelters”.
The dock entrance and gates give an impression of their operation. The hydraulic mechanism is reported to have been removed but the shafts down to it, now filled in, can be located. The stepped north wall of the dock enabled sailing ships to overlap with their bowsprits sticking over dry land, increasing the number of vessels that could be berthed.
In the dock there are two conical riveted iron mooring buoys, one in position, one now broken free and drifting. Designed for stability and ease of mooring they are thought to have a Robert Stevenson connection.
The hollow cast iron mooring bollards were broken off flush with the ground by scrap metal collectors in the 1960s when the harbour was closed. The hollow bases of these had been filled with sand and the Upper Forth Boat Club dug this out to set timbers in them as mooring posts. The area was once lit by arc lights and stubs of carbon electrodes were found in the sand.
Whilst little remains of the harbour equipment, quite a number of photographs have survived from sailing ship days. Baltic traders were frequent visitors.
Besides ash, the Bo’ness potteries generated large quantities of kiln waste, kiln furniture and wares damaged during decoration and firing. There were large mounds of this material by the kilns and the nearby shore was a very convenient disposal site.
Colourfully decorated pottery sherds, transfer printed, rubber stamped, sprigged, sponged, hand and spray painted are the most attractive remnants of those days to be found on the shore. The open structure of pottery waste meant that besides land reclamation, it found a ready use in ditches for land drainage and being clean ballast mixed well in concrete so it turns up all over the area. At the time of writing it can be seen in the wall of the yacht berth in Bo’ness harbour though this is about to be rendered over.
With a little knowledge of the potting process and the wares produced one can often discriminate definitively between sherds that originated from Bo’ness manufacture and ceramics from elsewhere. Pottery travelled with the people who owned it and the potteries sold their wares as far as the colonies but some half finished and obviously damaged production didn’t travel. Unglazed sherds from the first (biscuit) firing fall into this category. Sometimes one comes across a stack of rims of plates or other items stuck together with glaze, a fault from the second (glost) firing.
Occasionally a potter’s mark on a sherd from the base of an item will turn up. One the author found proved that the popular transfer print Triumphal Car was produced in Bo’ness by J. Jamieson and Co (3). For the amateur to be able to add to the knowledge of those days adds thrill to the chase. Collecting sherds can build a reference collection enabling the attribution unmarked wares – real collecting rather than the cheque book variety.
The link below (4) gives a history of the potteries and there is a wealth of books (5,6,7).
On the shore one has to be careful of steel reinforcing wire sticking up. When looking at the ground it is easily missed. Look wide and if there is any wire sticking up bend the end over so it can’t poke you or others in the face.
Shore walks are best timed for low water. The lower foreshore is mud and higher up the ground is strewn with stones and rubble so yachting wellies are not a good idea. The agricultural variety stands up better to the wear and tear of shoreline exploration. Most pottery is found between the Upper Forth Boat Club Pier and the waste water treatment works at Carriden. Plastic carrier bags are handy for collecting sherds which will need a wash to remove mud and salt.
It is not long before one begins to recognise the commoner shapes of the wares and their decoration. Discriminating between pottery and modern china becomes quite easy. Pottery is relatively rough and opaque. Modern china is smooth, shiny and translucent with a glassy look to it.
Pottery was fired in a rough clay box, the size and shape of a hat box and known as a saggar. Fragments of these litter the shore, usually coated with glaze on the inside. Along with bits of saggar strips of red clay are usually found. These are remnants of what was used to seal the lid to keep smoke and fumes out. Various shapes and sizes of tripod were used to separate plates and stop wares from sticking to the bottom of the saggar. “Elephants feet”, balls of clay squashed between the potters thumb, first and second fingers with an upside down hollow cone of factory made ceramic stuck into it were also used to support wares.
The Grangepans and Bridgeness potteries were closest to the shore. Nothing remains of the Grangepans pottery buildings. At Bridgeness some brickwork probably from the kilns has been pushed onto the shore behind Braemar Alloys. The main site in the town, the pottery of J Jamieson later J Marshall is under Tesco supermarket car park and the new flats along Union Street. The writer was lucky enough to take an interest in the potteries when these sites were being developed, and collected sherds from three metre deep muddy holes being dug for the foundations.
The pier head is one of the few remains of this harbour and it is still possible to bring a boat alongside it at high water. However it is necessary to remain afloat because of large blocks at the foot of the wall. There is nothing to tie warps to but the gaps between the large granite capstones and erosion behind enable warps attached to lengths of timber to be dropped down the gaps to hold a boat.
Bridgeness harbour was essentially a north-south stone pier with enclosed water either side, wide open to the north either side of the pier head. It has its origins in the 1770’s and by the mid 1800s was 500 feet long and carried narrow gauge railway track from a local mine. The facility was mainly used to export coal and salt produced by the Cadell family.
The harbour was filled in during the 1950s, various craft being buried in the process, among them ships boats, a wooden Baltic Trader the Nellie Duff and according to local legend a U boat engine room that had been used as a power plant.
Whilst a few hundred yards inland, this 60 foot stone tower is a prominent sea mark that invites inquiry. The earliest record of it goes back to 1749. It was originally built as a windmill to grind corn and pump water from the mines. The top floor and contrasting brick battlements were added in 1895. In 1989 it was restored as a most elegant town house with a difference, seven floors of it with superb views of the river, distant hills and the bridges.
Almost two towers side by side, the narrower one houses a spiral staircase supported by three lengths of ship’s mast joined together with a rope hand rail providing access. An intercom saves some stair climbing. With a roof top patio and flag pole flying the saltire this is one of the character buildings of the region and fully merits its B-listing status.
Coal mining remains and the staithes
Mines waste varies with the local geology so that at Kinneil Island the rock jumble on the seaward side has obvious drill holes for explosive. At Bridgeness the rock is striated and friable, less revealing of its mode of extraction but more fossiliferous. Commonly fossils are of ripple marked sandstone with worm castings and more rarely tree material such as Lepidodendron bark, remains of hundred foot scale trees (lycopods) illustrated by local estate owner Caddell (1).
In both areas one can see mines relics, pieces of hutch running gear, rolled steel joist, wire rope and scraps of conveyor belt.
To make money the mine owners needed to move coal to where there was most demand for it, the teeming cities. One might imagine that having put the coal into railway wagons it would go that way to market but no, it was moved by sea and the staithes at Bridgeness are one of the coal loading berths. Staithes were short piers that enabled coal to be tipped from railway wagons down chutes into ship’s holds. Coal was loaded in Bo’ness harbour but this was bunkers for steamers. The weight of coal and draft of colliers meant they had to be loaded out of the harbour on river berths.
Walkers on the shore may wonder where the small heaps of steel wire and strips of plastic come from. This is the armouring and insulation from heavy industrial copper cable. To be acceptable to scrap metal merchants it has to have the insulation and armouring removed, hence the piles of waste. The $7,000 a tonne it fetches drives the business. Where the cable comes from is a good question, suffice to say if a camera is produced when this activity is in progress it causes some consternation.
Foundries and smelters
Bo’ness has a long tradition of iron founding, a torch now carried by Ballantine Bo’ness Iron Company Ltd. The now much corroded lamp standard on the east pier head with lion and unicorn crest is an example of the fine quality work produced in Bo’ness. Bo’ness manhole covers can be seen all over the country. The scale of this municipal iron work production has tended to eclipse their top end work, beautiful ornamental ironwork from railings for Saudi palaces to boot scrapers.
Ballantine’s long history has equipped it for an increasingly important aspect of the business, restoration of ornamental iron work. A stock of 250,000 wooden patterns facilitates this.
Lumps of glassy grey slag, refractory bricks and unwanted scrap metal are remnants from smelting as distinct from iron founding. The refractory bricks are usually stamped with the maker’s mark. Unwanted scrap was metal of the wrong type or anything that might have caused a problem when added to a crucible of molten metal, such as scrap that might contain water and live ammunition. Brass cartridge cases were melted down in quantity and the odd squashed case and live round are still found on the shore.
The price of aluminium is now so high as to make collection of the aluminium dross from earlier smelting a paying proposition and occasionally men can be seen collecting this.
There are two particularly striking features of Forth weather, firstly fog. This can cover the upper Forth from well up river, often just reaching Bo’ness and indicative of a temperature inversion (12 ). Sea fog, haar, rolls in from the east and looks like a blanket of cotton wool over the river, the piers of the road bridge sticking up out of it. Wave clouds, lenticular clouds, are the other feature, caused by the hills of Fife setting up a wave form in a northerly airstream.
These are encountered every few hundred yards but now only handle storm water. All sewage goes to the waste water treatment works at Carriden. It is worth noting these pipes as they serve as depth indicators. When the one by the Upper Forth Boat Club is covered one knows there is sufficient water for a dinghy to reach the foot of the slip. Awareness of these outfalls is of increasing importance to shoal water cruisers as their seaward marks are seriously deteriorating.
Outlook towards the north shore
From Bo’ness the hills of Fife, Crombie pier and Preston Island are the most obvious features. Crombie pier is the visible part of an extensive underground weapons and oil storage depot that has been in existence since 1916. The internet has a lot of information on it and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships that use it.
Preston Island ’s surroundings are now a series of settlement lagoons for ash slurry pumped from Longannet power station, serving the dual purpose of land reclamation and disposal of ash. The white on the sea wall is the overflow which runs day and night. A similar scheme operates at Musselburgh for Cockenzie Power station.
Prospecting or beach combing
This is always fun and many useful items and curiosities can be found. Builders and civil engineers do not seem to realise that the tide comes in so there is a regular crop of scaffolding boards that have floated away from construction sites. Wooden ladders and one ton bags come from there too. Other sawn timber includes railway sleepers and fence posts.
Large trees often find their way into the river and the UFBC chain saw cuts them up for firewood. The size of the timber on the river, especially during spring tides, prompts keeping a good lookout. This should be particular food for thought for users of skimming dishes and jet skis. Empty gas cylinders frequently washed ashore are another potential collision hazard.
Boat yard bonfire sites, once washed of ash by the tide, are a source of small chandlery, copper nails, roves and bolts. Unfortunately bonfires often get hot enough to melt brass. The odd handful of this salvage adds greatly to the utility of a workshop but one needs to be aware of the influence of heat on metallurgy. Generally it takes the temper out of steel and softens copper. For many tasks though hardness is immaterial. A bolt off the shore will suffice for a crutch for the mast when sheeting the boat for the winter.
Beach cleans aided by Falkirk Council are making a difference to the area. These usually require an initial deep clean, taking away much heavy material, to be followed by maintenance litter picking.
Thankfully broken glass is less common now that polycarbonate bottles and cans have largely replaced glass. Social change is mirrored on the shore so wheelie bins and large plastic toys are now a common sight.
Historically this was an important local industry but on the shore coal ash is the only remnant. However a probable iron evaporator vessel was found during archaeological excavation of the Dimmock Building, the oldest building in Bo’ness, prior to its renovation.
Old native oyster (Ostrea edulis) shells litter the shore, especially at Kinneil. These are relics of a huge oyster fishery which in the thirteenth century covered 129 square kilometres of the Forth and yielded thirty million shells a year. Industrial and domestic pollution and over fishing saw it begin to decline in the 1870s and it had ceased by 1920.
An SNH leaflet provides information (8). This was one of the most important oyster fisheries in Scotland and was a supplier of repute that exported to the West of Scotland, England and the continent for consumption and on-growing.
Examination of some of these shells reveals tiny holes made by an oyster parasite, the oyster drill Urosalpinx cinerea a pest introduced into UK waters with the Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas..
Mussels are a staple of eider duck on the Forth, flocks of which can be seen at Kinneil Kerse. Winkles are collected commercially.
Until recently it was thought that the native oyster was biologically extinct in the Forth but the finding of two live shells by dredging in the last ten years disproves this. Water quality has greatly improved in recent years, thanks in no small measure to the European Union Water Framework Directive. Moves are afoot to carry out trial re-layings to see if oyster beds can be re-established (9).
The immediate post war years were busy ones for shipbreaking, the upper Forth becoming a huge park for ships awaiting the cutting torch (10). At the end of the vessel’s last voyage her bunkers would be well down and water tanks emptied. On a high spring tide she was taken over to the far side of the river and steamed across with all speed to drive her as far as possible up the beach. A fo’c’stle crew had been well briefed to lower the ship’s anchors as soon as she came to rest to stop her sliding back into the river. The bows would come almost up to Bridgeness Road.
Big ocean going ships were handled in this way such as the ss Metagama which took many Western Isles migrants to North America. On speaking to a master mariner in command of one of these final movements of a great ship I was told that it felt very strange to run a ship onto the beach having spent ones entire working life trying to avoid doing so.
The early days of iron and steel ship breaking were exceedingly laborious, dangerous and injurious to health. Ship’s plates had to be removed by chiselling off the rivets one at a time. A chisel with a loose fitting wire handle, known as a tomahawk, was held against a rivet head by one man and hit with a sledge hammer by another. Punches and wedges drove out the rivets and separated the plates. Oxy-acetylene cutting didn’t come in until the 1920’s.
Men contracted lead poisoning from the fumes of burning lead paint and were given milk to drink to mitigate the effects. There was the ever present danger of falls from high structures, crushing injuries and asbestos lagging (monkey dung). This covered much of the pipe work and not just in the engine room, steam being used on deck for cargo handling derrick winches and anchor windlasses. Rats in old ships posed the threat of leptospirosis, Weil’s disease. With normal access gradually being cut away and the effects of winter weather it was indeed a risky business for the men involved. The relatively few burners in the ship breaking and workers in the pits, foundries and potteries who have survived to old age is testimony to the insidious nature of these occupations.
At Bo’ness the main breaker was W&P McLelland (11), Bridgeness, behind Cuthell’s Undertakers. The site has been cleared but not re-developed and sections of ships used as crane bases can be seen. Holdfasts for ship mooring are also evident. The steam drifter Acquisition was used as a breakwater and a few of her timbers remain. The stern post and rudder were demolished a few years ago. For years her frames trapped coal washed along the shore and which was burned in the Upper Forth Boat Club stove. This was a mix of ships bunker coal and that washed from mines waste used for land reclamation. Ribbons of coal can still be seen along the strandline.
Shore coal varies in particle size from coarse sand size (coal culm) on the surface of the mud to walnut size further up the beach. This was abundant enough to be shovelled up. The coal slack skimmed off the surface of the mud was wet but the water would drain through the weave of a sack or small holes in a plastic one. Non combustible inclusions could be up to 20% but it was free fuel and unlike logs needed no sawing.
Care needs to be taken at the ship breaking as the area is contaminated with asbestos but is safe enough when wet, keeping the dust down.
To the west of McLelland’s a length of riveted plating stands vertically sticking out of the foreshore shingle. This is part of a WWI motor torpedo boat.
For years “The ship breaking” was a source of ships boats and gear for Upper Forth Boat Club members, boats being sold by the foot. Much domestic furnishing for local households came off the ships which often arrived equipped right down to cutlery, table linen and bed clothes, manna from heaven in the austerity years after the war.
The shore has been a favourite place to dump demolition rubble. Handsome sandstone blocks and old granite kerbstones draw the eye and gardeners looking for material for rockeries. Half a millstone lies on the shore near the UFBC yard, probably having come from a nearby farm. The car park has been edged with granite kerbstones recovered from the shore.
Upper Forth Boat Club
The UFBC club house is a section cut from the ss Ben Cleuch when broken at McLellands. The club has a small pier, notable because it was constructed by founder members without electricity. The rolled steel joist used in its construction was bored on site by hand with a “boring bar”.
The club compound is the best equipped yacht yard on the Forth being laid out with railway lines. The system makes the club independent of crane hire and operates as follows. Bogies running on mines hutch wheels are made to fit individual boats. A bogey is rolled down a patent slip and the boat floated on. It is then pulled up into the yard by a powerful static winch. In the yard a trench has been excavated at right angles to take more rails and another bogey with rails on its top. The boat on its own bogey is rolled onto the traverse bogey which is then moved laterally to a parking bay.
In the yard there is a wide variety of narrow gauge and service rail which attracts railway buffs. The wheels of cast steel are of broadly two types and sizes, small ones running in plain journals and larger ones with roller bearings. The latter survive periodic immersion provided they are kept well packed with grease.
Other visible facilities are a gantry and derrick for lifting engines and stepping masts. The yard has security lighting, CCTV and a 240 volt ring main. Elsewhere there are water points with hoses and three phase electricity outlets.
Club members have drying moorings in the bay. These are sorely tried in a north easterly blow but deep soft mud helps protect the boats. Half buried in the shingle in the bay to the west of the clubhouse is the keel of a Folk Boat, a silent reminder of the importance of a good mooring. Moorings are laid using a raft to take the sinker where it is required and can also be used to do a tidal lift to bring it ashore. For maintenance a variety of mud punts, a mud horse and mud boards are used to reach the moorings when the tide is out.
Wading birds and other wildlife
The Forth Special Protection Area (SPA) and Kinneil Kerse being a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) suggests the Bo’ness shore has particular natural heritage value and one is not disappointed. This is also a Ramsar site and Nature Conservation Review Grade 1 site. Dog walkers tend to keep the bird life at a good distance but early in the morning before this disturbance is afoot the birds come in close.
The extensive mudflats of the upper Forth provide feeding for birds throughout the year but are particularly important for over wintering waders. In autumn skeins of geese are a spectacle and call of the wild. Mute swans are less numerous on the wing but their flights come closer, swooping low to land on the mud or low water tide line.
A ten year old swan, ring letters JFC, was fed for eight months at the UFBC until becoming oiled by the June 2006 spill from INEOS. This animal proved to be a useful indicator of oil spillage, triggering the Forth Ports oil spill contingency plan Clear Water Forth. He was cleaned by the SSPCA refuge at Middlebank near Dunfermline.
There is a hide at Kinneil, of interest when boats are laid up for the winter, call 01324 504863 for access details. At Grangepans, besides the waders there are usually a few shelduck, part of the internationally important Kinneil population, sweeping their beaks from side to side, skimming alga from the surface of the mud.
Squid, octopi and jelly fish are stranded by an onshore blow. Pieces of wood bored by the ship worm Teredo can be found, the boreholes having a tell tale white calcareous lining. Timber piles with their ends rounded by gribble, a marine relative of the woodlouse, litter the high tide mark. The wharf borer Nacerdes melanura common on the south coast is not found in Scotland but this may change with the climate.
To the east of Carriden at Stacks Farm a ruined salmon fishers cottage on the edge of the coastal footpath between Crookies beach and Blackness known as “The Fishery” is an indicator of the one time salmon population. The elaborate stonework suggests the activity was profitable. Present day rod catches are doing well further up the river and on the river Carron. Sea trout must also have been numerous. One has been found in the cockpit of the writer’s boat on the mooring at Grangepans.
Historically there was a respectable sprat fishery on the Upper Forth and one still encounters men about who worked at it. Today the occasional furious flurry of terns fishing is an indicator of the presence of shoals of these fish.
Many would dismiss the Bo’ness foreshore as another brown field site but ever changing sky, wildlife, views of the hills of Fife and scatter of relics continually revealed by wave action turn a walk into a fascination.
1. The Story of the Forth, HM Caddell, James Maclehose and Sons, 1913.
2. Old Ordnance Survey Maps, Bo’ness 1896, The Godfrey Edition.
3. Scottish Pottery Society Bulletin 12, 1990, P.R. Shave.
5. Scottish Pottery, J Arnold Fleming, 1923 Macklehose, Jackson & Co.
6. Bo’ness Potteries, an illustrated history, Christine Roberts and Beverly Lyon, Falkirk Museums, 1977, ISBN 0 9502250 8 8.
7. Local Ceramics, A potted history of ceramics in the Falkirk District, Geoff B. Bailey, Falkirk Museums, 2002, ISBN 0954 045319.
9. The Grower, Newsletter of the Association of Scottish shellfish Growers, March 2007, P.R. Shave.
10. List of ships broken at Grangepans, Falkirk Council Museums
11. The Forth at War, William F. Hendrie, Birlin Limited, 2002, ISBN 1 84158 183 6.
12. Weather, Vol. 58 No. 10, October 2003, photo page 417 , P.R. Shave
Hon Sec Upper Forth Boat Club, Grangepans, Bo’ness
yacht Blue Spindrift
Steam Train at East Pier Boness
The Flying Fish
The Moorings and MTB Plating
Crest on East Pierhead Lamp
Boness Pottery Kinneil Museum
Pottery in Yacht Berth Harbour
Base Course of Old Sea Wall
Bones of the Steam Drifter
Kiln Furniture embedded in concrete