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Burntisland, Fifeshire

Historical Description

BURNTISLAND, a parish, burgh, and sea-port town, in the district of KIRKCALDY, county of FIFE, 4½ miles (S. W. by W.) from Kirkcaldy, and 9 (N. by E.) from Edinburgh; containing, with the village of Kirkton, 2210 inhabitants, of whom 1572 are in the burgh. This place is erroneously said to have derived its appellation from a small island in the harbour, originally inhabited by a colony of fishermen, whose dwellings were destroyed by fire: the ancient name was Bertyland, afterwards corrupted into Burntland, and Burntisland, and its etymology is uncertain. The harbour appears to have been selected as a landing-place for his forces by the Roman general Agricola, who with his fleet explored this part of the coast of Britain; and on the summit of an eminence in the parish, called Dunearn Hill, are the ruins of a fortress in which his army was stationed. Few events of historical importance are recorded: the town belonged to the abbey of Dunfermline, previously to the middle of the sixteenth century, when James V. exchanged it for other lands, and erected it into a royal burgh, soon after which it became a place of considerable trade, and its harbour was the chief port of an extensive line of coast including the ports of Kinghorn, Kirkcaldy, Dysart, Wemyss, Leven, Elie, St. Monan's, Pittenweem, Anstruther, Crail, St. Andrew's, and South Queensferry. In 1601, a meeting of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland was held in the town, at which James VI. was present, and recommended a revision of the common translation of the Sacred Scriptures, and of the version of the Psalms of David. During the parliamentary war in the reign of Charles I., the town was assaulted by the forces of Cromwell, to whom the inhabitants surrendered it. In the disturbances of 1715, the town was taken possession of by the Earl of Mar's forces, who, by commanding the harbour, insured the arrival of stores and auxiliaries from abroad.

The TOWN is situated on a peninsula projecting into the Firth of Forth. It is neatly built, and amply supplied with water, which was first introduced by the magistrates and council at an expense of £1000, defrayed from the funds of the burgh. A subscription library, containing about 600 volumes, has been established. A fair is held on the 10th of July; and from the favourable situation of the place, and the facilities of bathing which this part of the coast affords, the town is much frequented during the summer months. Within the last few years, Burntisland has become a great national ferry-station; a splendid low-water pier, where steam-vessels can land at all times of the tide, has been built by the Duke of Buccleuch and Sir John Gladstone, and the Edinburgh, Perth, and Dundee railway has an important station here. The pier now belongs to the railway company, and the company's steam-vessels ply, in connexion with the trains, across the Firth of Forth to and from Granton, on the south shore of the Firth, whence the line of railway extends to the heart of Edinburgh. The act vesting the pier and ferry in the company was passed in 1847, and conferred power to extend and improve the pier. A large moveable slip has been recently erected, by means of which goods are now conveyed across the Firth, on a steam-vessel of peculiar construction, without removal from the trucks. Besides the pier, the company possess the property to the west, presenting a considerable harbour frontage, and including a very commodious graving-dock; and lines of rails cross over on the level in front of the spacious Forth hotel, which looks down the pier. To the right of, and connected with, the hotel, stands the elegant station-house, having a colonnade of highly symmetrical Corinthian columns, built of the excellent freestone of Fifeshire. The station is ensconced below the beetling brow of the sea-cliff, behind which the town is situated within the gorge, and on the steep acclivities of a narrow valley, formed between the sea-cliffs and the elevated ridge extending from Rossend Castle to the School hill or Mount Pleasant, Kirkton hill, and the Binn.

The port formerly carried on an extensive trade, for which it was chiefly indebted to the convenience of its harbour. For its great security and facility of access, the harbour obtained the appellation of Portus Gratiæ, and in many old documents it is mentioned by the designation of Portus Salutis. The trade, which consisted mainly in the exportation of coal and salt, and the importation of wines from France, and timber from Norway, declined greatly after the Union, and was almost discontinued for a considerable time; but it afterwards revived, and at present consists principally in the curing of herrings, which are taken in the fishery established here, and exported to the neighbouring towns. The number of herrings annually cured and exported amounts, on an average, to about 18,000 barrels; there are eight establishments for curing, which together employ from seventy to eighty boats, having about 400 men. The season commences in July, when the boats set sail for Wick, Fraserburgh, and Rosehearty, where they remain for nearly two months; and between this place and the several fishing-stations, about ten sloops are constantly engaged in taking out cargoes of barrels and salt, and in bringing home the fish that have been caught at each place, to be cured for exportation. The whale-fishery was carried on here for a few years, by a company that annually sent out two vessels, of the aggregate burthen of 700 tons, and each a crew of fifty men. During the period from 1830 to 1835, the quantity of oil procured was 1200 tons, and of whalebone more than fifty tons; the preparation of which afforded employment to thirty persons, of whom nearly one-half were oil-coopers, and the remainder women who were occupied in cleansing the bone. This fishery, proving a bad speculation, has been discontinued. The building and repairing of ships were formerly carried on extensively, and at present engage more than 100 persons; but the largest vessel built has not exceeded 450 tons' burthen. A distillery at Grange, in the parish, consumes annually about 11,000 quarters of malt, in the production of nearly 190,000 gallons of whisky; and the amount of duty payable exceeds £36,000. In connexion with this establishment, the buildings of which are situated half a mile from the town, about 700 head of cattle are annually fed, producing to the proprietors a considerable income; and the whole concern affords employment to about 100 men and fifty horses. The harbour is capacious and easy of access, and, from its depth, affords shelter to vessels of great burthen. A dry-dock has been some time constructed, in connexion with the harbour; it is about 200 feet in length, and seventeen feet in depth at high water, and is capable of receiving vessels of 1000 tons. The roadstead affords good anchorage, and is much frequented in stormy weather; the bottom is deep, even near the shore, and the high grounds on the north, and a sand-bank extending considerably into the sea on the east, provide shelter for vessels in distress. An act of parliament to improve the harbour was passed in 1848. At Starly burn is a small harbour, from which the limestone found on the lands belonging to the Carron Company is shipped, and where also ships frequently touch to take in a supply of fresh water. There is also a pier east of the town, chiefly used for shipping lime to neighbouring districts.

The town was erected into a royal burgh in 1541 by James V., whose charter was confirmed by his successor, James VI., with additional grants; and a new charter was bestowed upon the inhabitants by Charles I., under which the government is vested in a provost, three bailies, a treasurer, procurator-fiscal, and a council of twenty-one, assisted by a town-clerk. The provost and bailies, with all the other officers, are elected by the council, who are chosen by the parliamentary electors within the royalty. The magistrates exercise jurisdiction within the burgh, and the bailies hold courts for the trial of civil cases to any amount, and for the decision of criminal offences, chiefly misdemeanors; there is also a court of guild, under a dean of guild chosen by the council. The trades or companies consist of the hammermen, tailors, weavers, fleshers, shoemakers, and bakers. Burntisland unites with Kirkcaldy, Dysart, and Kinghorn, in returning a member to the imperial parliament; the right of election is vested in the resident householders occupying premises of the value of £10 per annum, and there are at present about fifty voters on the roll.

The PARISH was anciently called Kinghorn Wester. It is bounded on the south by the Firth, and comprises about 3000 acres, of which 500 are meadow and pasture, 100 woodland and plantations, and the remainder arable land. The surface is exceedingly irregular, being broken into parallel ridges of various eminence, and, throughout the whole of its extent, being finely diversified with hills and dales; the highest of the hills is Dunearn, which rises to the height of 700 feet above the level of the sea, commanding a most extensive and richly-varied prospect, embracing portions of nearly fourteen counties. The soil is very various, consisting of rich deep loam, of great fertility, with lighter loam, gravel, sand, clay, and moss; the principal crops are wheat, barley, oats, beans, and potatoes, with the usual green crops. Great improvement has taken place by draining the lands, and the system of agriculture is in a very forward condition. The cattle are of the old Fifeshire breed, and the sheep generally of the Cheviot. The annual value of real property in the parish is £8846. The plantations are but of modern growth, and there is comparatively little ornamental timber, though the soil seems well adapted to hard-woods of every kind. The substrata are chiefly limestone, sandstone, ironstone, clay-slate, shale, greenstone, trap. tuffa, and basalt; and coal is supposed to exist, though none has hitherto been wrought. In the strata of sandstone, limestone, and shale, are various fossils; and amethysts, agates, and chalcedony are found in great variety. The limestone and sandstone are extensively quarried. Collinswell, Grange, and Newbigging, all handsome edifices, are pleasantly situated in grounds tastefully embellished.

Ecclesiastically the parish is in the presbytery of Kirkcaldy, synod of Fife, and in the patronage of the Crown; the minister's stipend is £185. 17. 4., with a manse, and a glebe valued at £50 per annum. The church, a substantial edifice with a low square tower, situated near the shore of the Firth, was erected by the inhabitants, in 1592; it is adapted for a congregation of 900 persons. There are places of worship for members of the Free Church and United Presbyterian Church. The burgh school affords instruction under a master appointed by the council, who pay him a salary of £26. He also receives a fourth part of the rent of lands bequeathed in the year 1689 by John Watson, Esq., provost of Burntisland, and now producing in the whole £63 per annum, of which the remaining three-fourths are divided among three widows, under the direction of the magistrates and council. In consideration of the sum the master receives from the endowment, he is bound to teach, if required, poor scholars to that amount; for each, £4 Scots, or 6s. 8d. sterling. The town was at one time fortified. On the south-east side of the harbour, part of the walls of a fort is still standing; and some years ago, traces of the ancient fortification were discernible on the small eminence in the north side of the town. On a knoll projecting boldly into the sea, at Lamberlaws, are traces of an encampment said to have been occupied by Cromwell; and on an eminence overlooking the harbour are the remains of Rossend Castle, built in the fifteenth century: it has been greatly improved within the last few years, and forms a pleasant residence, surrounded with gardens and plantations. Not long since, distinct traces might be seen of fortification along the braes forming the north boundary of the town. There are several tumuli in various parts; in one of them were found coffins, of rudely squared stones. On an eminence in the north-west of the parish are some remains of the fort called Knockdavie, and about a mile and a half to the east of it, of another of similar construction.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis


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Postal districtKY3
Post TownBurntisland