The following was extracted from a series of articles by former Provost R.M.Livingstone in the Fife Free Press, printed in the late 1960's and early 1970's. If any copyright has been infringed please contact me. I am assuming that there will be no problem with this due to the age of the articles.
In 1844 the Prince Albert Pier was built for the Granton-Burntisland passage. A bell was mounted on the wall to guide the ships during fog. On railway lines built along Shore Road and across the foot of the High Street, engines were limited to a speed of five miles per hour.
Throughout the great days of the ferries, the names of the boats linger in the minds of the old-timers of Burntisland - the "Forth", "Express", "Thane of Fife", "Auld Reekie", "Dandie Dinmont", "John Stirling", and the "William Muir". The bell from the "William Muir" still stands at the entrance to Railway H.Q. in Edinburgh.
Captain Morrison, one of the famous skippers, displayed his courage in a humorous manner. A rather autocratic shareholder appeared one morning at the ferry and took note of all going abroad, before going aboard himself. He continued for quite a time, till one morning when he was at his usual position Captain Morrison gave the signal to move the gangway. The boat moved away from the pier and the shareholder was left standing.
The first rail ferry in the world sailed from Granton to Burntisland on March 1, 1850. The two ships were named "Kinloch", which held 50 wagons, and the "Carrier", holding 20 wagons. In 1867, improved vessels were built - the "Balbirnie" (30 wagons); the "Leviathan" (25 wagons); and the "Midlothian" (40 wagons). These boats were all double-engined for quick reversing. There were call-boys on the bridge transmitting the captain's orders. The late Mr Napier, of Nicol Drive, who died about two years ago, was one of the original call-boys.
After the famous Wet Review of 1881, the drenched Fife contingent coming across on the "Leviathan" got wetter still. The ship struck the pier and sank with all 300 on board. Fortunately all were saved and Mr Shepherd, owner of Rossend Castle, went round every shop in town and purchased what clothing he could to give to the unfortunate volunteers.
The new dock was opened in 1870 with Captain William Galloway, of Leith, as dockmaster. To make way for the dock, houses in Dock Place were removed, the Graving Dock (Farnie's) was blotted out, the cattle pend was removed and workshops were demolished. The dock was 22 feet deep and had five and a half acres of water. It was the only coaling port in Fife, and work went on night and day. The dock was crowded with steam and sailing vessels of up to 1,000 tons. With three hoists operating, three-quarters of a million tons of coal were loaded annually. Mr Wemyss of Wemyss Castle opened the Methil dock in 1888, and this eventually killed much of the trade in Burntisland.
Many voices had been raised to have another dock opened at Burntisland. In 1901 another dock was opened, with a depth of water at 28-1/2 feet. The trade went ahead in leaps and bounds at the start: - 1905, 1.82 million tons; 1906, 2.13 million tons; 1911, 2.5 million; 1914, 568,000 tons; and 1920, 250,000 tons. Trade picked up slowly until 1938, when about one million tons was exported. After the Second World War, coal exports declined to zero. In the making of the second dock large pieces of land were reclaimed, tons of rock were blasted away through elevated land and railway lines were laid at a total cost of £450,000.
A brief revival of the fishing industry occurred about four years ago, when the Forth was jammed with sprats and herring. The vessels used Burntisland docks to transport their catches away in wagons.
At present, Burntisland docks are used to import about a quarter of a million tons of bauxite, and export a few thousand tons of alumina, etc., per year. Four cranes, built in 1912, are in use. A decision has now been taken, however, to build two new and up-to-date cranes. With the new container services getting under way and talk of more trade, the future could be much brighter. A new Docks Board, with the aim of centralising sea traffic, has been set up, and with its facilities - space, roads in and out at two different parts of the town, and a great natural harbour - Burntisland could rise again.
This concludes the story of Burntisland as a seaport which is open to the world. From the dawn of Christianity until the present day, men have come in ships from the ends of the earth to this little town. Some have come and stayed, the majority have sailed on. Men from this town have sailed away and travelled round the world. The town has survived through war, plague, storm and depression. We can now say that the outlook is very good. If someone in the new Ports Authority decides that Burntisland is suitable for use with the new container ships, then we will applaud them.
Those of us who live in the town have come to have an affection for it. Many who, for various reasons, have gone away, are pleased to return whenever they can. Anyone who has lived in Burntisland for any length of time will always agree with Sir Walter Scott :-
For more information on Forth Place, overlooking the docks, visit Ian Sommerville's page about this area.
This page is dedicated to my father, Jim Brand, who spent 30 years of his working life in the Docks.