10 Deserted Islands in the Firth of Forth (Scotland)

the-abandoned-island-of-inchmickery-in-the-firth-of-forth (Image: Veedar; the Firth of Forth’s abandoned island of Inchmickery)

One of the grandest estuaries in Britain, the Firth of Forth is a vast, misty, beguiling place of mystery and half-whispered legends. Unfurling proudly between Fife and the Lothians, it sits at the very heart of Scottish identity, a river that can make poets of commoners, lyricists of fishermen. Spanned by the world famous (and UNESCO-protected) Forth Bridge, it’s one of the UK’s most storied spots.

And now we’re here to shine a spotlight on some of those stories, by looking at the Firth of Forth’s deserted island. Little microcosms surrounded by water, within viewing distance of the land, many of these abandoned Islands of the Forth are home to tales that deserve to be better known. This article examines 10 of them.

Inchmickery

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the-abandoned-island-of-inchmickery-in-the-firth-of-forth-4 (Images: James Allan; Jim Barton; J M Briscoe)

Inchmickery may be the weirdest-looking of all islands in the Firth of Forth. Situated around two miles north of Edinburgh, it appears from a distance to be a kind of immobile battleship. Pillboxes and turrets hulk out of the rock of the abandoned island, as if daring the enemies of the crown to try invading. But all is just a mirage. Following the conclusion of World War Two, Inchmickery has been deserted, its gun emplacements waiting forlornly for a threat which will never materialize.

Ironically, the name of the fortified island might have far more peaceful origins. It comes from the Scottish Innis nam Bhiocaire, meaning Isle of the Vicar. Although there’s no proof, it’s thought an ecclesiastical settlement may have therefore once existed there, before the seagulls moved in and took over its deserted stretches. Despite its Second World War history, today Inchmickery is at peace once more. This island of the Firth of Forth is now a bird sanctuary protected by the RSPB.

Bass Rock

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a-lighthouse-stands-on-the-ruins-of-bass-castle-on-the-bass-rock-in-the-firth-of-forth (Images: Francis C. Franklin; Lisa Jarvis)

The majestic Bass Rock cuts an imposing form three miles off the coast from the picturesque harbour village of North Berwick. A sheer, hulking leviathan, Bass is arguably the best known of all the Islands of the Forth. It lurks offshore, radiating a subtle sense of menace no amount of sunshine could hope to dispel. Surrounded by a whirling, swirling cloud of gannets, it looks like the very definition of ‘uninhabitable’.

Yet, for most of its recent life, the Bass Rock has been far from empty. Settled by an early Christian hermit, it’s still home to the ruins of an ancient chapel. More prosaically, it was also used as a prison, taking advantage of an old castle that had stood there for centuries. The convicted would stand here, staring back at the mainland, perhaps dreaming of finding freedom one day. Many of them were political prisoners. Cromwell’s forces kept royalists on ice here. As such, it’s perhaps no wonder dramatic Bass has appeared in many works of Scottish fiction.

The medieval castle’s keep was demolished in 1902 to make way for the Bass Rock Lighthouse, which is clearly visible from land. The island has been abandoned since 1988, when the light was automated.

Inchcolm

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brick-tunnel-on-the-abandoned-island-of-inchcolm-in-the-firth-of-forth

wartime-fortifications-on-inchcolm-in-the-firth-of-forth (Images: Richard Wiseman; Magnus Hagdorn (1, 2); #Bladerunner)

In 2001, the UK census recorded that Inchcolm had a population of two. For whatever reason, two whole people had chosen to call this lonely stretch of rock home. Although the 2011 census recorded the population had dropped to zero, those mysterious two residents still demonstrated something locals have known for a very long time. There’s something mysteriously alluring about Inchcolm. And, once it gets its claws into you, it never lets go.

At 22 acres, Inchcolm is far from insignificant. Nestled off the Fife coast east of Dalgety Bay, its eponymous medieval abbey cuts an imposing sight across the infamous waters of Mortimer’s Deep. Not so long ago, the main ferries between Lothian and Fife stopped here, and the island was a hive of activity. Traces of this still remain, with deserted structures standing near old military gun emplacements. Fortifications from both the First and Second World Wars endure, including a brick-lined tunnel (pictured) dug by Royal Engineers around 1916.

Catch the ferry over and spend a couple of hours wandering around its picturesque shores, and you may just discover what drove those two unknown people to call Inchcolm “home.” (Though the deserted island in the Firth of Forth isn’t permanently inhabited, Historic Scotland maintains a small gift shop on Inchcolm.)

Isle of May

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historic-structures-on-the-abandoned-isle-of-may-4

historic-structures-on-the-abandoned-isle-of-may-5 (Images: Chris Combe; surprise truck; Magnus Hagdorn; alljengi)

The Isle of May is the last stop before you hit the open sea. Some five miles off the coast of the Scottish mainland, at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, it stubbornly clings to the horizon, like a ship that refuses to sink. Long and narrow, its main use for centuries was as a convenient location for a lighthouse.

The current version, which looks almost like a fairy tale castle, dates from 1816, and tumbled out the mind of Robert Stevenson. The story behind its construction is less than happy. In 1791, a devastating fire in the old lighthouse killed the keeper, his wife, and five of their children. The only survivor was a 3-year-old girl, who was found alive many days later, staggering through the curtains of ash that fell across the island.

Lighthouses aside, the Isle of May is today better known for something infinitely more pleasing. Like many Islands of the Forth, May is a wildlife haven, home to a large colony of grey seals who rear their pups there every winter.

Inchgarvie

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wartime-defences-on-the-abandoned-island-of-inchgarvie-6 (Images: Neil Armstrong; Yottanesia; Magnus Hagdorn (1, 2); Stanley Howe; James Allan)

When the old Scottish Gaelic name for an island translates as “rough island,” you know it’s going to be a strange sight. Like Inchmickery above, Inchgarvie resembles nothing so much as a kind of floating fortress: a Scottish, river-based Death Star. Yet while Inchmickery seemingly floats free of the world around it, Inchgarvie has been integrated directly into the modern world. Part of the abandoned island is used for supporting the iconic Forth Bridge.

It’s history is particularly grim. From the 16th to 17th centuries, Inchgarvie was a plague prison, a place where plague victims were dumped and left to die or recover by themselves. It’s hard to imagine now what a grim sentence this must have been. To stand there, looking at your home in the distance, not knowing if you would ever recover to see it again. Today, though, these memories have been subsumed beneath a wave of concrete fortifications, designed to keep Axis troops out at all costs during both world wars.

Fidra (Candidate for Treasure Island)

the-abandoned-island-of-fidra-may-have-been-used-as-the-basis-of-the-map-in-robert-louis-stevensons-treasure-island

the-abandoned-island-of-fidra-may-have-been-used-as-the-basis-of-the-map-in-robert-louis-stevensons-treasure-island-2 (Images: Richard Webb; SixSigma)

The shape of Fidra may be immediately familiar, ingrained in the minds of generations of impressionable readers. This barren stretch of rock just off the coast from North Berwick was a favourite haunt of author Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent hours walking slowly over the nearby beaches, tracing its shape in the sand. Many years later, it would resurface (it’s been claimed) as the inspiration behind the map in Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island.

Treasure hunters, however, will have to prepare themselves for disappointment. Fidra is currently off-limits to most-people, as the island is an RSPB breeding sanctuary for an impressive number of puffins. There are over 1,000 burrows on the island, all stuffed with the distinctive little seabirds during the mating season. Luckily for birdwatchers on the mainland, the RSPB has set up a camera on the island, meaning the feathered creatures can be seen in all their glory.

Cramond Island

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cramond-island-causeway

ruined-farmstead-and-abandoned-wartime-structures-on-cramond-island

ruined-farmstead-and-abandoned-wartime-structures-on-cramond-island-2 (Images: Mtcv; g c; Struan – 1, 2)

At low tide, a long causeway connects Cramond Island to the mainland, leading curious visitors past hulking concrete pylons, the remains of a submarine defence system installed in World War Two. Standing like ancient soldiers, facing out to sea, they give the walk to the island a sort of eerie quality harking back to the days when myriad active defenses littered the Firth of Forth to protect Edinburgh and the ports of Leith and Rosyth from the Wehrmacht.

Like other islands of the Forth, Cramond is a fascinating repository of the region’s history. Often eerily quiet, it is home to the scattered ruins of hundreds of lives lived over many centuries. Old stone walls from farmhouses crumble and become overgrown with weeds and grass. An old jetty collapses into the water, unused by fishermen for decades. Among this detritus, remnants from World War Two stubbornly refuse to decay; concrete pillboxes still waiting for a German invasion.

The emptiness of Cramond Island is a relatively recent phenomenon. As late as the 1960s, the hard, marbly baas of sheep could still be heard, echoing over the waters of the Firth of Forth.

Alloa Inch

abandoned-island-of-alloa-inch-with-derelict-farmhouse-and-water-defences (Image: Gareth Foster)

Its name may sound vaguely Hawaiian, but Alloa Inch is anything but tropical. A flat, low-lying world of reed beds and flood plains and ruins, it lies out at the centre of the Forth at one of its narrower points, seemingly blending into the mainland. Grey, derelict, and frequently submerged under water, the abandoned island cuts a forlorn and slightly haunting sight off the coast of Clackmannanshire.

The structures of the island are like catnip for rural explorers. A grand, ruined stone farmhouse crumbles alongside rusted and broken barns. Abandoned after flood defences were breached not so long ago, Alloa Inch has lain empty ever since. Since 1996, the Scottish Wildlife Trust has helped ease it toward a managed decline.

The Lamb

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the-lamb-island-in-the-firth-of-forth-2 (Images: Bing Maps; Google Maps)

A 100 metres by 50 metres bald lump of craggy rock poking out the grey waters, the Lamb is one of the more barren Islands of the Forth. Seemingly untouched by the history that swirled all around it, it is uninhabited, seemingly devoid of life, and less than dramatic to behold. But despite the Lamb’s apparent low key status when compared to other deserted islands in the Firth of Forth, the small volcanic landmass came to the public attention in 2009, when celebrity psychic Uri Geller shelled out £30,000 for it in the mistaken belief that the ancient Egyptians had buried treasure there.

Some in the modern age have even tried to link the Lamb back to old Druidic myths and pre-Roman superstitions. Part of this is due to the layout of the Lamb, flanked by two smaller islands, which taken all together is said to resemble the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt. Historically, however, there’s not a lot to back this up.

North Carr Reef

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scotlands-historic-north-carr-lightship (Images: AlexGordovani; Timwether)

A hidden reef lurking silently beneath the waves at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, North Carr has been responsible for more tragedies than anywhere else in the immediate area. Prior to the first buoy being placed in 1806, the reef regularly wrecked ships, killing hundreds.

Even with the buoy, deaths were common. In 1813, Robert Stevenson was contracted to build a lighthouse on the notorious reef. Thanks to the crashing, swirling tides, work could progress for perhaps just a handful of hours each month. To top it all off, periodic storms would destroy all the progress achieved so far, leaving only ruins. It took until 1821 to finish the project: a great metal beacon topped with a bell that clanked and called across the waves. It was later replaced by a series of lightships (the last of which is under restoration), though today the area is protected by the Fife Ness Lighthouse. The isolated remains of the abandoned island beacon, however, endure.

Edit: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Alloa Inch was in Fife, rather than Clackmannanshire.

Related: Explore 10 Abandoned Places Across Scotland

 
 


 
 
 

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