Northcraig Cottage Bed & Breakfast

History of North Queensferry

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Scotland is steeped in history and the small village of North Queensferry in Fife has its ample share.

Modern day North Queensferry lies between two huge bridges – the Forth Rail Bridge in its impressive red paint and the more delicate-looking Forth Road Bridge, but there has been human settlement here since ancient times.

The Forth Rail Bridge viewed from Town Pier, North Queensferry

The Forth Rail Bridge undergoing repainting, viewed from Town Pier, North Queensferry


The name 'North Queensferry' originated at the time when Queen Margaret of Scotland journeyed through the village nearly 1000 years ago.

Medieval remains in North Queensferry can be seen in Helen Place at the St James Chapel, which was a gift from King Robert the Bruce to Dunfermline Abbey in 1320.

The Firth of Forth is at its narrowest at this point and has the small island of Inchgarvie mid-river, making this location a natural choice as a crossing point on the route Dunfermline, Saint Andrews and onwards to the Scottish Highlands and Northern Scotland. It is probable that this crossing was used for centuries before the Queen's Ferry was established.

Nearby St Margaret's Hope was the place where the then Princess Margaret landed when, fleeing from William the Conqueror, her ship was blown off
course and she, with her family, were give hospitality and protection by Macolm Canmore - her future husband.

Queen Margaret, the wife of King Malcolm III of Scotland, used this ferry to cross the River Forth between North Queensferry and South Queensferry  when travelling between Dunfermline, then capital of Scotland, and her favourite chapel in Edinburgh Castle. Margaret died in 1093 and is buried in Dunfermline Abbey. The crossing became known as the Queen's Ferry. The ferry also shortened the journey for pilgrims travelling to St Andrews.

The ferry was owned by Dunfermline Abbey and leased by the monks to lay persons during the Middle Ages. In 1589 James V1 gave the ferry rights to his bride as a wedding gift.

Mary Queen of Scots crossed the Firth by ferry many times but most notably in 1568 after her imprisonment in Loch Leven.

North Queensferry over the centuries remained a small community, with a population of probably no more than 600, but the numbers of people passing through the village daily were huge. From noblemen to commoners, from Kings to cattle, all had to use the Queen's Ferry to cross the Forth. It is recorded that Mary, Queen of Scots used the ferry the day she was being transported to Loch Leven Castle, where she was imprisoned in 1565.

By 1752 the grounds of St James chapel in North Queensferry had been adopted by the local sailors as a cemetery. The hand-carved inscription in the wall by the gateway indicates that the boundary walls were built at this time

.An inscription carved in stone by sailors at North Queensferry cemetery

Inscription by sailors at North Queensferry graveyard

Inchgarvie Island, which supports a column of the Forth Rail Bridge, was held for a time by a company of Musketeers for King Charles II before being taken by Cromwell's troops. Fortifications were again in place in 1781 at the time of the American War of Independence and remained there into the 19th century as a safeguard against possible invasion by Napoleon. At other times the
island was a state prison and sanctuary for plague victims. It was an important naval installation in both World Wars.

As early as the 1790s engineers were exploring the possibility of 'dry' crossings in the area.

The ferry's importance diminished during the 19th century, with an alternative ferry crossing operating for a while between Burntisland and Granton.

In the 19th century North Queensferry was a fishing village and bathing resort. At this time quarrying was an important local industry, and land was being set aside for estate houses, villas and plantations of trees.

In 1810 landed proprietors were given compensation for their ownership claims and government appointed trustees carried through a modernisation programme with treasury backing. This resulted in the creation of the Town Pier which was extended from an 18th century quay: new East and West Battery Piers to replace ancient landing sites: superintendent's house and garden and new roads.

On Ferry hills there is a 'Duelling Stone, an upright piece of whinstone, which marks the site where a Captain Gurley died during a pistol duel with a Mr Westall. The men had quarrelled over a gambling debt and travelled to the site from Edinburgh on 30th October 1824 to settle their point of honour. The duel was reputedly the second last to take place in Scotland.

In 1842 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert alighted at Town Pier following a ferry crossing. For this occasion the villagers carpeted the pier with red cloth and triumphal arches were erected in the village.

The idea of a bridge across the Forth had been debated frequently in the past, but the depth of the water and the hard whinstone rock base found
underneath had discouraged any attempts. The building of the Forth Rail Bridge began in 1882 under the supervision of Benjamin Baker and John Fowler. Nearby granite quarries provided material for piers. Over 4,000 men worked on the project and 57 met their death during construction. The Forth Rail Bridge was opened in 1890 by the then Duke of Rothesay, Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward the seventh.

The Forth Rail Bridge was the first major structure to be build entirely of steel. 54,000 tons were used to construct its majestic cantilever spans. The Bridge, which is one and half miles long, was completed after seven years in 1890. The Rail Bridge is supported by 3 main towers, each one is 361 feet high and only one is build on dry land. The bridge was built using a cantilever system and is thought to be one of the engineering wonders of the modern world. During World War II the Bridge and British warships anchored in the Forth were a target for German bombers.

The Forth Rail Bridge is Scotland's largest 'listed' structure. A London tube (underground or 'subway') train could run through its tubular members which are 12 feet in diameter. In hot weather the bridge expands by as much as 7 feet. A shower of rain adds approximately 100 tons to its weight. The Bridge is held together by 6,500,000 rivets.

The ferry crossing continued however, and with the coming of the motor vehicle in the 20th century, its importance was again restored. By 1960, the Queen's Ferry was handling over 2,000,000 passengers a year and over 600,000 motor vehicles and it soon became apparent that another bridge would be required.

In 1964 Her Majesty The Queen opened the new Forth Road Bridge, and 800 years continual use of the Queen's Ferry came to a close. The last ever commercial ferry crossing of the Queen's Ferry left Hawes Pier, South Queensferry on the evening of 3 September 1964.

The Forth Road Bridge is over one and a half miles long. Its central span is almost as long as Edinburgh's Princes Street. Its main towers are 512 feet high and its deck suspended from steel cable spun from 30,000 miles of wire. 39,000 tons of steel were used in the construction of the Road Bridge.

The Town Pier, the docking point for the ferry was designed by John Rennie, a talented engineer and designer, and was built between 1810-13. It was later extended by Thomas Telford.


The old lighthouse on Town Pier, North Queensferry

The recently restored old lighthouse on Town Pier, North Queensferry

Approaching boats were guided by the light tower at North Queensferry, The Old Harbour Light Tower was designed by Robert Stevenson, engineer to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, and installed on top of the Signal (Tower) House staircase. The hexagonal shaped Signal House Tower, erected circa 1812, sits in an elevated position and combines the functions of lighthouse and administrative building. It housed the boat crews and had assembly rooms and a waiting area for ferry passengers. The building's superintendent, Captain Scott, was amazed by the slow progress of the masons during its construction and gave it the name 'Mount Hooly' ('Hooly' is a now-obsolete word meaning 'slowly' or 'cannily').


There are many other historical relics to discover: if you walk up the Brae towards North Queensferry railway station, you will see the Travellers' Well and a plaque describing its history. Walking along the shore road between the bridges, you will come to the site of Willie's Well.

Entrance to Willie's Well, North Queensferry

The entrance to Willie's Well


Plaque at Willie's Well

By taking the Forth Coastal Footpath, you quickly reach a wonderful viewing point looking out over the village, Deep Sea World and the Forth Rail Bridge. Further along is the site of wartime gun emplacements and the moorings for barrage balloons used to protect the Rail Bridge from enemy aircraft.

What to see in North Queensferry

  • Forth Rail and Road Bridges.

  • The Fife Coastal Path.

  • Signal House Tower.

  • Town Pier, built in 18th century and extended in 1812 and 1834.

  • 6 Lantern House, erected on the shorter pierhead to provide an all-weather lighthouse for ferries.

  • St. James Chapel ruins. The chapel was granted by Robert 1 to Dunfermline Abbey c 1320-23. All that remains are the rubble built west gable and parts of the north wall.

  • Gunsite, Carlingnose Battery. Gun emplacements were installed here about 1901.

  • Travellers' Well

Photo of the Travellers' Well, The Brae, North Queensferry

The Travellers' Well - half way up the Brae



Close-up photo of the spout of the Travellers' Well, The Brae, North Queensferry

Close-up of the spout of the Travellers' Well

  • St Margaret's Hope.

  • North Queensferry Railway Station, built in the Victorian style, opened 1890.

  • Willie's Well, constructed in 1773, is accessed down a few steps from the main road into the village. It was originally an open well by the side of the King's Highway next to the former bleaching/drying green and was the meeting place of housewives on washing day.

  • Deep Sea World aquarium, erected in a whinstone quarry which was operative from 1764 to 1929.

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