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Firth of Forth

Inchkeith Island from Portobello.jpg
Inchkeith from Portobello, Edinburgh
Location: 56°0’0"N, 3°6’0"W
Grid reference: NT293826
Area: ~50 acres
Highest point: 197 feet
Population: 0

Inchkeith is an island of Fife lying in the Firth of Forth.

Inchkeith has had a colourful history as a result of its proximity to Edinburgh and strategic location for use as home for a lighthouse and for military purposes defending the Firth of Forth for attack from shipping, and more recently protecting the upstream Forth Road Bridge, and Rosyth Dockyard. Inchkeith is uninhabited today but was, by some accounts, been inhabited (intermittently) for almost 1,800 years.

Inchkeith is approximately half the size of the famed Isle of May at the mouth of the Firth, but of a different profile, rising to 197 feet at its highest.


Although most of the island is of volcanic origin, the island’s geology is surprisingly varied. As well as the igneous rock, there are also some sections of sandstone, shale, coal and limestone. The shale contains a great number of fossils. There are several springs on the island.[1]

The island has an abundance of springs, as noted by James Grant. James Boswell noted two wells on the island during his visit, and speculated as to the former existence of a third within the Castle.


The name "Inchkeith" is commonly believed to derive from the Gaelic spoken in Fife in the Middle Ages, from Innse Coit, meaning "wooded island".[2] The latter element coit is unknown in today’s Gaelic but is known in Welsh, as ‘’coed’’, suggesting either that the word was once known in Gaelic, from a Proto-Celtic original or a name derived in part from Gaelic and in part from Old Welsh or from Pictish.

The Life of St Serf (written before 1180) calls the island Insula Keð, suggesting that the etymology may be wrong, unless the anonymous author or translator misunderstood the name: if we could be sure that the author was Scottish and with some knowledge of Gaelic, this could be taken to mean that the word was probably not comprehensible even in Fife Gaelic in the 12th century.[3]

The proposed etymologies are all uncertain: Gaelic had all but disappeared in southern Fife by the mid-14th century,[4] and there is no continuous Gaelic tradition for the name.


Inchkeith from Kinghorn, Fife

Earliest history

Almost nothing is known about the early history of Inchkeith, and there is no certain reference to the island until the 12th century. In the days when people were compelled to cross the Firth of Forth by boat as opposed to bridge, the island was a great deal less isolated, and on the ferry routes between Leith and the coasts of the Lothians and Fife. Like nearby Inchcolm and the Isle of May, Inchkeith was attacked repeatedly by English raiders in the 14th century during the wars between the two kingdoms, in which so the island was effectively in the route of any supply or raiding vessels setting course for Stirling.

It is unknown as to who owned Inchkeith from the 8th Century onward, but it is known that it was the property of the Crown until granted to Lord Glamis.

Inchkeith as quarantine

In 1497, the island was (along with Inchgarvie, a few miles away) used as an isolated refuge for victims of the 'Grandgore' (sometimes known as "glandgore" in those days), or modern-day syphilis in Edinburgh.[5] The 'grandgor' was recognised in the 1497 Minutes of the Town Council of Edinborough (Phil. Trans. XLII. 421) "This contagious sickness callit the Grandgor.". The Grandgore Act was passed in September 1497, causing Inchkeith, as well as other islands in the Firth, such as Inchgarvie, to be made a place of Compulsory Retirement for people suffering from this disease.[6] They were told to board a ship at Leith and once there, "there to remain till God provide for their health". It is probable that they all died.

In 1589, history repeated itself, and the island was used to quarantine the passengers of a plague ridden ship. More plague sufferers came here from the mainland in 1609. In 1799, again, Russian sailors who died of an infectious disease were buried here.[7]

James IV's linguistic experiment

During the reign of King James IV in the Renaissance, Inchkeith was the site of an extraordinary experiment. According to the historian Robert Lyndsay of Pitscottie, James IV directed in 1493 that a dumb Woman and two infants be transported to the island, in order to ascertain which language the infants would grow up to speak isolated from the rest of the world, which theory suggested may be the 'original' language, or language of God. According to these accounts, the infants did not speak.[8] James Grant quotes Lyndsay on this topic.

He caused tak ane dumb woman, and pat hir in Inchkeith and gave hir two bairnes with hir, and gart furnish hir with all necessares thingis perteaning to theiar nourischment, desiring heirby to know what language they had when they cam to the aige of perfyte speach. Some say they spak guid Hebrew; but I know not by authoris rehearse.

Robert Lyndsay of Pitscottie, James Grant's Edinburgh, Old and New

16th and 17th centuries

In the 16th century, the island suffered war once more, this time at the end of the War of the Rough Wooing. The English general the Earl of Somerset garrisoned the island in 1547 after the [[Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in Midlothian. His force of marines was ordered to reinforce the island, and so they built a large square fort, with corner towers, on the site of the present day lighthouse. His forces, mainly Italian mercenaries, were ejected by a combined Franco-Scottish force under General D’Essé (André de Montalembert, Sieur de Essé) on June 19 or 29, 1549.[9] On the following day, Mary of Guise, the regent, visited the island, to see the "three and four hundred of her dead foes still unburied". Since 29 June was Fête Dieu in France, she renamed the island "L’Île de Dieu". The soldiers also nicknamed it "L’Île des Chevaux" (The island of horses).[10] Neither name stuck.[9] Seven English banners captured on the island were sent to Henri II of France. On 17 July 1549, he gave the soldiers who brought the banners lifetime pensions.[11]

The island was occupied by the French, under Mary of Guise during her period as the Regent of Scotland between 1554 and 1560.[12] The old English fortifications were further strengthened by the Scots and French, who under D’Essé built a larger and stronger fort. Accounts for this rebuilding written in French survive with the names of the Scottish craftsmen and women who worked there in 1555.[13]

During the siege of Leith, the English admiral William Wynter obtained a description of the fortress as it stood on 17 April 1560. The wall and rampart was 30 feet thick, being 14 feet of stone behind 16 feet of earth. There were 140 French soldiers with 70 women, boys and labourers. As Wynter was trying to blockade the island and cut off supplies, the garrison was eating oysters and periwinkles gathered at low water and fish caught with angling rods. After the peace of the Treaty of Edinburgh in September 1560, the English diplomat Thomas Randolph noted that Captain Lucinet and his French garrison remained on Inchkeith, but there were now more women than men, and Edinburgh wits called the island "l'Isle des Femmes."[14]

In the 1560s, Mary, Queen of Scots, inspected the French garrison here, and a stone from the original gateway with "MR" (“Maria Regina”) and the date still exists, built into a wall below the lighthouse. The guns were used during the rebellion against Mary called the Chaseabout Raid. Lord Darnley was sent to inspect the armaments in August 1565. The English ship, The Aide captained by Anthony Jenkinson arrived in the Forth on 25 September 1565, and was bombarded by the cannon on Inchkeith. Jenkynson had intended to blockade Leith to prevent Lord Seton bringing more munitions for Mary from France.[15]

The fort itself was demolished, or ordered to be "raisit" (razed) in 1567, after Mary had been deposed. Her opponents were anti-French, and did not take too kindly to a French garrison so near the capital. It ended up being a prison.

James Grant lists subsequent owners of Inchkeith - in 1649, he says, the "eccentric and sarcastic" Sir John Scott of Scotstarvit, going on to be owned by the family of the Dukes of Buccleuch, forming part of the property of the Barony of Royston, near Granton.[6]

During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the island was held and fortified by Cromwell’s men.

18th century

In the late 18th century, James Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (published in 1785) mentions Inchkeith, upon which Boswell and Dr Johnson alighted, noting that the now-uninhabited island had a profusion of luxuriant thistles and nettles, a strongly built fort, and sixteen head of [grazing] black cattle.[16] The fort visited appears to have been built in 1564.

Usually the cynic, Johnson admired the island and said,

I’d have this island; I’d build a house... A rich man of an hospitable turn here, would have many visitors from Edinburgh.

19th century and First World War

In 1803, construction was begun of Inchkeith Lighthouse, designed and built by Thomas Smith]] and Robert Stevenson. The light stands 220 feet high, and the lighthouse was first operational by 1804, and is now listed as a building of Architectural/Historic significance.[17]

Inchkeith continued to be fortified in the subsequent years, both from fear of Napoleonic invasion, and later the two World Wars, like the other islands in the inner Firth of Forth. In 1878, the Royal Engineers built batteries on the three corners of the island, designed as separate fortresses.

Construction upon the island's "South Fort" began in spring of 1878, being completed in 1880. Construction on the West and East forts began in summer of 1878, being completed in 1880 and 1881 respectively. These forts are reported to have had four 10" rifled muzzle loader guns, with two in the South Fort and one each in the east and west. In 1891, the East and West guns were replaced with two 6" disappearing guns.

In 1899, Inchkeith had a Compressed Air Foghorn installed, providing two 3.5 second blasts every 90 seconds during fog.[17] This would remain in place until replaced after the Second World War.

From the 1890s until the early 1900s, the fort at Inchkeith underwent a sequence of gun improvements and replacements, with the shore being covered in barbed wire, and the island being made ready in August 1914 for the First World War. It was also augmented with guns taken from other forts - two 4.7" MK1 quick-firing guns from Fort Paull on the north bank of the Humber (which was disarmed, being deemed to be too close to Hull), and what appears to be a 6" B.L. Mark VII gun from Yaverland Battery, one of the antiquated Palmerston Forts on the Isle of Wight, in February 1915.

HMS Britannia

During First World War, the Royal Navy battleship HMS ‘’Britannia’’, at the time a part of the 3rd Battle Squadron in the Grand Fleet, ran aground at Inchkeith on 26 January 1915, suffering considerable bottom damage. She was refloated after 36 hours and was repaired and refitted at Devonport Dockyard.[18]

The Second World War

In the 1930s, the fort appears to have undergone another program of replacement and augmentation, culminating in 1937 with the installation of several Lewis Guns and a pair of 12 Pdr QF guns, presumably for anti-aircraft defence. In 1938, following the Munich Crisis, the island was further mobilised, and had more Nissen Huts installed, presumably for equipment and personnel. In that year, during a practice firing of the guns on Inchkeith, a practice shell landed on a building on Salamander Street in Leith.

In conjunction with the other islands in the forth, Inchgarvie (foundation for the Forth Rail Bridge, and nearby the Rosyth Dockyard), and Inchcolm off Leith, Inchkeith formed an important part of the defence strategy for the Firth of Forth. Further out, 8 miles NE of North Berwick on the South Coast and 5 miles SE of Anstruther on the North, the Isle of May had Induction loops and ASDIC equipment designed to detect ships and submarines.

From this point on, Inchkeith's defensive capabilities were continually upgraded. In May 1940, the island was issued with 40 "Board of Trade, Rocket Flares, Red", for alerting in the event that an invasion was attempted (or spotted). In late 1941, the island appears to have been chosen as the site for a Radar installation.

By 1942, the island had one "Major Full Time Battery" of two 6" guns covering the North side of the island, two 6" guns covering the South side and the water between the island and Leith, a further two 6" guns in the West Fort, and two 9.2" guns, tasked to defend the dockyards further upstream against naval bombardment. The island would go on to have Bren and Bofors guns added for anti-aircraft defence. The island appears to have had around 160 troops stationed there, with dozens of buildings, emplacements, fire control centers, and nissen huts, many of which remain in varying states of repair. The island had several bomb shelters for use in the event of aerial attack, one of which within a cave in the cliffs.

Operation Fortitude North

Operations Fortitude North and Fortitude South were related to a wider deception plan called Operation Bodyguard. Operation Bodyguard was the overall Allied strategic deception plan in Europe for 1944, carried out as part of the build-up to the Invasion of Normandy. The major objective of this plan was to lead the Germans to believe that the invasion of northwestern Europe would come later than was actually planned, and to threaten attacks at other locations than the true objective, including the Pas de Calais, the Balkans, southern France, Norway, and Soviet attacks in Bulgaria and northern Norway.

Operation Fortitude North's fictional British Fourth Army were based in Edinburgh, and spoof radio traffic and Double agents were used as means to disseminate the misinformation. On 3 March 1944, members of a "Special RS (Royal Signals) Unit" from the British Fourth Army landed on Inchkeith, with a detachment of 22 men and 4 officers, with two radio vans. At the beginning of April, a further 40 men arrived, and proceeded to stage mock attacks of the Inchkeith defences via the cliffs, until their departure in September.

The aim of this ruse, unknown to the participants, was to make German High Command believe that a raid in Norway or elsewhere was being planned. Although Operation Fortitude was a great success, Inchkeith appears not to have been overflown by German Reconnaissance planes until 7 October. Examination of the footage taken in 1945 appeared to indicate that the aeroplane flew too high to ascertain anything meaningful.[19]

Post-war era to present day

Post-war, defences were dismantled commencing late 1945. By early January 1946, only a small number of troops with a "nucleus" of coastal guns remained, and finally in 1956/7, all military use of the island ceased, and ownership passed over to the Northern Lighthouse Board, who performed a variety of renovations on the island from the early 1960s onwards.

The island, like Cramond Island was worked as a farm, for a number of years. It is now abandoned, and unkempt.

In 1958, an experimental Foghorn was installed, replacing the previous 19th century system. A Diaphone system providing 4 blasts of 1.5 seconds once every minute was installed on Inchcolm, operated by radio telephone from Inchkeith. This was replaced with an electrically operated system controlled by an automatic fog detector in 1986.

In 1986 the lightkeepers were withdrawn when the lighthouse was automated and the owners, the Northern Lighthouse Board, sold the island to the millionaire philanthropist Sir Tom Farmer, best known for founding Kwik-Fit. Under current ownership, permission is needed to land at Inchkeith. He himself lives in Barnton in Edinburgh.

The existing lighthouse is managed via the PSTN, and powered by Nickel Cadmium batteries, "charged on a time cycle of three times per week by one of two (12.5 KVA) markon alternators with TS3 Lister diesel engines."[17]

Outside links


  1. Grant, James (1880s). Old and new Edinburgh. 6. London: Cassells. pp. 290. 
  2. William J. Watson, Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1926), new ed. (Edinburgh, 2004), p. 382.
  3. The work contains a number of place-names with good Gaelic orthography; see Alan Macquarrie, "Life of St Serf", in the Innes Review, vol. 44, no. 2 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 122-52.
  4. Simon Taylor, "Babbet and Bridin Pudding or Polyglot Fife in the Middle Ages", in Nomina, 17 (1994), pp. 99–118.
  5. Pearce, J M S (April 1998). "A note on the origins of syphilis". Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 64 (542): 542. doi:10.1136/jnnp.64.4.542. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Samuel Lewis (topographer) (1846). "Inchkeith". A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland. pp. 555–584. Retrieved 2007-12-28. 
  7. {{Haswell-Smith}
  8. Scottish History - Renaissance and Reformation - Historical Oddities
  9. 9.0 9.1 "The story of Leith - XXII. The Siege of Leith". electric scotland. Retrieved 2007-06-22. 
  10. "Overview of Inchkeith". Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 2007-12-28. 
  11. Calendar State Papers Spain, vol. 9, (1912), 404, (Isle des Chevaux).
  12. "The Story of Leith - XXIV. Leith after The Union of the Crowns". electric scotland. Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  13. National Archives of Scotland, "E34/21 Weekly accounts of expenditure at "Lisle Dieu", 24 June-25 October 1555, signed by De Villemore (Comptroller) and Bellenden (Justice-Clerk)". 
  14. Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.1 (1898), p.365 no.737, p.481-2 no.906
  15. Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol.2 (1900), pp.197, 220-1: Early voyages and travels to Russia and Persia, by Anthony Jenkinson and other Englishmen, New York (1967), pp.167-176
  16. Boswell, James (1785). The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL. D. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 "Inchkeith Lighthouse - History". Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  18. Burt, R. A., British Battleships 1889-1904, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1988, ISBN 0-87021-061-0, p. 251; Chesneau, Roger, and Eugene M. Kolesnik, eds., Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships, 1860-1905, New York: Mayflower Books, Inc., 1979, ISBN 0-8317-0302-4, p. 9
  19. UK Fortifications Club - Fort of the Quarter - Inchkeith


The islands of the Firth of Forth
West Lothian Midlothian East Lothian Fife
Inchgarvie Cramond IslandInchmickeryCow and Calves Bass RockCraigleithEyebroughyFidraThe Lamb InchcolmOxcarsIsle of MayInchkeith