Packed with features of historic and industrial interest, this pushchair and wheelchair-friendly walk starts and finishes at the historic Bo’ness harbour and makes for an easy walk along the paved John Muir way - or a scramble along the rocky foreshore if you time it for low tide. With scope for beach combing and a choice of eateries before you get back in the car, it ticks all the boxes.
For over 350 years Bo’ness was a bustling centre for trade and industry and most of the features of historical interest around the harbour, town centre and waterfront date to its industrial heyday.
Park in the Union Street Car Park (free parking). The size of the customs house on Union Street opposite the car park is indicative of the scale of the trade formerly carried out here. Take a moment to stand back and look at it, with its Victorian crest over the central door.
From the car park, cross the railway line and head across the park.
The first thing you see is the big yellow Bo’ness buoy. Renovated in 2017 and made into a time capsule, it was one of three original iron-plate moorings buoys used in Bo’ness dock, which opened in 1881.
Beside this, a tunnel sculpture commemorates the 5km long tunnel that ran under the Forth in the 1960s, linking the Valleyfield Colliery in Fife with the processing facilities of Kinneil Colliery. (The tunnel is subject of another article).
You can walk out on the harbour piers. The harbour is about half its original size, as much was filled in after it finished its working life in the 1960s, but the granite capstones that fringe the harbour and neighbouring dock point to the wealth once generated here. At the end of the East pier you’ll notice the very rusty remains of a lamp. Its lion and unicorn crest is an example of the fine quality ironwork produced in Bo’ness. The town has a long tradition of iron founding, and Bo’ness manhole covers can be seen all over the country. The scale of this municipal iron work production has tended to eclipse their top-end work - beautiful ornamental ironwork, from railings for Saudi palaces to boot scrapers.
From here, it’s an easy flat walk along the way-marked John Muir way. We’re on the Linlithgow to South Queensferry section of the John Muir way, so you can go in either direction as far as you like, but for our walk we headed east along the Bo’ness waterfront. The path is suitable for bikes, wheelchairs and prams. We didn’t stay on the path all the way, but hopped on and off, scrambling along the rocky foreshore for much of our walk.
At low tide there is plenty of scope for beach combing or scrambling on the rocks.
For decades, the shore here was one long disposal site for artisanal, domestic and industrial waste, and while it has been cleaned up and is now a pleasant walk with great views across to Fife, there is loads of evidence of past industry, and treasures to be found. If you know what you’re looking for, colourful pottery sherds from Bo’ness’s pottery days are amongst the most attractive remnants to be found, mostly between the Upper Forth Boat Club Pier and the waste water treatment works at Carriden.
After about 20 minutes you get to Bridgeness, where one of the remains of industry is the pierhead. It was a north-south stone pier dating back to 1770s. By the mid 1800s it carried a narrow gauge railway track to transport coal direct from the pits to the harbour and onto ships for export.
Bridgeness harbour was filled in during the 1950s, various craft being buried in the process, among them a wooden Baltic Trader, the Nellie Duff, and according to local legend, a U-boat engine room that had been used as a power plant.
A little further past Bridgeness pierhead are the remains of a staith. Staithes were short piers that enabled coal to be tipped from railway wagons down chutes into ships’ holds. Coal was loaded in Bo’ness harbour but this was bunkers for steamers. The weight of coal and draft of colliers meant they had to be loaded out of the harbour on river berths. At both Bridgeness and Kinneil you can still see mines relics, pieces of hutch running gear, rolled steel joist, wire rope and scraps of conveyor belt.
The staith at Bridgeness was the end of our walk. We turned back, and opposite Bridgeness Pierhead we headed up Pier Road into Bridgeness for a quick look at the Tower.
Bridgeness Tower is a B-listed stone building just a few hundred yards up Harbour Road, directly up from the pier. It is now a private home. The earliest record of it goes back to 1749. It was originally built as a windmill to grind corn and pump water from the mines. The top floor and contrasting brick battlements were added in 1895. The narrower tower attached to it houses a spiral staircase supported by three lengths of ship’s mast joined together with a rope hand rail providing access.
Head back to Bo’ness Harbour the way you came on the John Muir Way. Bo’ness offers a few options for refreshments – we went to McMoo’s Ice Cream Parlour, which I can highly recommend, and there are other cafes and restaurants to choose from in town. Or get a fish and chip takeaway and take it down to the harbour to enjoy.
In the post war years the upper Forth became a huge park for ships awaiting the cutting torch. At the end of a vessel’s last voyage, she was taken over to the far side of the Forth, then on a high tide was steamed across at maximum speed to drive her as far as possible up the beach. Anchors were lowered as soon as she came to rest to stop her sliding back into the river. The bows of the huge ships would come almost up to Bridgeness Road.
Much domestic furnishing for local households came off the ships which often arrived equipped right down to cutlery, table linen and bed clothes - manna from heaven in the austerity years after the war.
The early days of iron and steel shipbreaking was tough and dangerous. The ship’s plates had to be removed by chiselling off the rivets one at a time. A chisel with a loose fitting wire handle, known as a tomahawk, was held against a rivet head by one man and hit with a sledge hammer by another. Punches and wedges drove out the rivets and separated the plates. It was a very risky business for the men involved, with the threat of lead poisoning from the fumes of burning lead paint, danger of falls from high structures, crushing injuries, asbestos lagging and rats in old ships carrying disease.
At Bo’ness the main breaker was W&P McLelland behind Cuthell’s Undertakers in Bridgeness. The site has been cleared but not re-developed and sections of ships used as crane bases can be seen. Holdfasts for ship mooring are also evident.
Article published in Konect September 2020
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer