The Royal Burgh of Burntisland lies on the south coast of Fife, just across the river from Edinburgh. It has a long and interesting history, and brief details of this are given below. The town crest, shown left, has above it the words "Portus Gratiae" (Safe Harbour) and below "Colles Praesidio Dedit Deus" (God gave the hills for protection). These refer both to the town's marine history and the Binn hill behind the town.
Burntisland's links with the sea have long been recognised. The Roman commander, Agricola, set up camp on Dunearn Hill, probably lured there by the natural harbour. He did not remain long in the area, however, and little more is known of Burntisland until King David 1 granted the lands for a church at Kirkton in 1130, though this assumes that there was a settlement in place here at the time. Rossend castle was built in 1119, and a settlement grew around the church, controlled by the Abbots of Dunfermline, known as Wester Kinghorn. The Bishop of St. Andrews consecrated the church in 1243. The castle was the residence of the Duries, who were the Abbots of Dunfemline, and remained in their care until the Reformation. Mary Queen of Scots stayed in 1563, and a French poet, Chastellard, was discovered hiding in her bedchamber, for which he was executed at St.Andrews (this was his second offence, the first occurred in Holyrood). Perhaps an early example of the "2 strikes and you're out" law !
A Royal Charter was granted by James V in 1541, to form a burgh and utilise the harbour as a naval port. The Charter remained unconfirmed until granted by James VI in 1586. Burntisland flourished in this period, becoming the second most important seaport in the Forth after Leith. The harbour area prospered and expanded, to the detriment of the older Kirkton. Shipbuilding became a major industry, and would remain so for nearly 400 years. Due to the expansion of this area, and the running down of Kirkton, it was proposed to build a new church, started in 1592 and completed in 1595. The Reformation of 1559 may have influenced the design, as there is certainly a Dutch flavour with the square layout and central bell tower. The pulpit is also central, to emphasise the equality of all in the eyes of God. The church is still in a marvellous condition 400 years on, and the Guild seats, sailors loft, and marked pews for the gentry are all well worth viewing. Several generations of Brands, including myself, have been baptised there since William Inglis Brand in 1842. The church is famous for having hosted the General Assembly in 1601, where King James VI (residing at Rossend Castle at the time), was instrumental in proposing a new translation of the Bible, which when complete was used for 350 years as the Authorised or King James Version. There is a carving of an inverted anchor over the main entrance to the church, symbolic of the sailor's and fishermen's faith in God to protect them from the sea. A model of the "Great Michael", a warship built in Burntisland during the late 1500's, hangs in the kirk from one of the pillars. An unusual feature is the external stairway on the east side which allowed access to and exit from an upper gallery known as the Sailor's Loft. This was to allow them to leave during a sermon if the tides clashed with the service. The church has recently undergone renovation inside after part of the roof collapsed.
Burntisland, as a naval port, was involved in various wars, French ships and troops being blockaded in the town by the English in 1560. The port was used as a muster area in 1588 during the threat of the Spanish Armada, and Charles I lost a large amount of treasure when the ferry "The Blessing of Burntisland" sank whilst crossing the Forth during his Royal Tour. Progress in finding this wreck is documented at a site below in the Links section. The most serious occasion was during 1651, when English warships bombarded the town and then Cromwell's troops took it. The garrison remained for 9 years, until 1660. They were not popular with the locals, as over the years several bodies clad in Roundhead equipment have been discovered under hearths and during harbour renovations. After this period, in 1666, Letters of Marque were issued to several local ship masters, acting as privateers against the Dutch, which led to a bombardment of the town by Dutch warships in 1667. Apparently nearly 500 cannonballs landed in the town. In 1689 government troops were shipped over to Burntisland to march to the Highlands against Viscount (Bonnie) Dundee. Ferry movements across the Forth were restricted during the 1715 Rebellion. The herring fleets often anchored in Burntisland to land their catches, and at its peak around 1800 almost 500 fishing boats would be in harbour, offloading for the 8 curing factories near the harbour. The coal industry and the arrival of the railway ensured continuing prosperity. As an example of the amount of trade passing through Burntisland in 1894, The Fife Free Press of December 8th that year carried the following : "Harbour Trade" - Burntisland trade returns for November show that the shipment of coal is gradually returning to about its normal extent. During the past month 61 steamers and 17 sailing vessels cleared outwards with cargo, the total coal shipments amounted to 60,955 tons, as against 63,891 for the corresponding month last year. The import trade was fairly steady." Around 1840 there was proposed a new railway line running north from Burntisland towards the Firth of Tay. Prince Albert Pier was constructed in 1844 to enable a regular passenger service between Burntisland and Granton, on the south side of the Forth. The railway station was built in 1847, and the first rail ferry in the world commenced in 1850. Burntisland gained enormously from this, but the building of the Forth Bridge in 1890 reduced its status to just another station on the line. Many service buildings were constructed however, and the North British Railway Company built and serviced engines, wagons and carriages here for many years.
The British Aluminium Company built a plant in the town during WW1, and the railway and docks serviced this for many years. In 1984 a new plant was opened after the merger of British Aluminium with Canadian firm Alcan. The shipyard, too had a world-wide reputation between 1919 and 1969, and continues to fabricate modules for the offshore oil industry today. The football team was started in the yard during the 1920's, and achieved its most famous run during the Scottish Cup in 1938. With 20 minutes to go, the "Shippie" were level 3-3 with Glasgow Celtic. Celtic were (as usual...) awarded a penalty and went on to win 8-3. They also had a little run again in the Scottish Cup a couple of years ago, and were featured on the BBC's "Sportscene" programme, with film of the game (they lost...).
A casual visitor to the town should visit the local library, gifted to the town in 1906 by Andrew Carnegie, where a small local exhibition displays some interesting items from the town's history. There is a good walk to be had by the energetic up and over the Binn, the 200m high volcanic hill at the back of the town, which affords a worthwhile view over the Forth, across to Edinburgh and up to the Bridges. The golf club is the 3rd oldest in Fife, after St. Andrews and Crail.
The town has altered a lot over the years. The old outdoor swimming pool is long gone, replaced by a new leisure centre incorporating a heated indoor pool with all the usual water slides and so on, but situated in the same location as the old pool. Many of the old established shops are no more - the High Street has many empty facades these days. But some businesses are flourishing, and the "Shows" still bring many visitors to the Links every summer. There are many new houses around, especially around the "Widow's Land" on the lower slopes of the Binn. Rossend Castle has been restored to its former glory by a firm of architects, and is currently used as their main offices. The docks where my father worked for 30 years continue to import bauxite for the Aluminium plant, as well as some other cargoes. The Pipe Band goes from strength to strength, and now features its own website, with music files to download of the band's efforts - well worth a visit. The hunt for King Charles I's treasure ship "The Blessing of Burntisland" is continuing, and needs support! Visit the website and help them collect the money required to raise this most interesting relic of our past.
For two fascinating snapshots of life in Burntisland in the 1790's and 1830's, take a look at the "New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99" and the "New Statistical Account of Scotland, Part X - Fife (1830's)" which contain descriptions of several aspects of the Burgh during this period.