Burntisland stands on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, more or less opposite Leith. As a settlement it formed at a very early date around what was one of the best natural harbours on the river. It is believed that the Romans under Agricola brought troops and supplies ashore here during their invasion of northern Scotland in AD83 (see our Historical Timeline).
Fast forward a thousand years or so, and in 1119 Rossend Castle was built on a rocky bluff overlooking the harbour and ideally placed to help defend such a strategically important site. The land around Burntisland was part of the property endowed by David I on the Abbots of Dunfermline in around 1130, and in 1382 the abbey extended the castle.
The Reformation led to a change of ownership, and in 1560s the new lairds, the Melvilles of Rossend, increased the size of the castle once more. It is not clear whether this was before or after a visit by Mary, Queen of Scots en route to St Andrews in 1563. During her stay she discovered the French courtier and poet, Pierre de Chastelard, hiding in her bedchamber. Chastelard was infatuated with Mary and had already been caught hiding in her apartments at Holyrood Palace. This time he was hauled off to St Andrews and beheaded at the Mercat Cross, shouting before his death: "Adieu, thou most beautiful and most cruel Princess in the world." Stalking a woman as powerful and ruthless as Mary was probably never going to be a great idea. (Continues below image...)
Rossend Castle and the town of Burntisland were captured by Cromwell in 1651, and his troops helped improve the harbour as a base for their invasion. It had already developed to become one of the most significant ports in Eastern Scotland, as well as a ferry port serving Newhaven near Edinburgh (in competition with the nearby Pettycur to Leith service). The ferry operation was not without tragedy. In 1589 a vessel sank in a storm, taking 40 passengers and crew with it. And in 1633 another ferry sank, again in a storm. This time it claimed the lives of 30 people and the extremely valuable baggage train of Charles I. Efforts by divers to recover the treasure reputedly lost with the ferry continue to this day.
In 1726 Daniel Defoe noted: "Here is a very good harbour which enters as if it had been made by hand into the centre of the town: this is built round it, and the ships lay their broad sides to their very houses." However, Defoe was also able to report the economic decline which had afflicted Burntisland (and many other Scottish trading ports) since the Act of Union in 1707.
In 1850 Burntisland became the terminus for the world's first roll-on roll-off ferry, when a railway ferry carrying trains loaded with coal, grain, whisky and limestone opened across the Firth of Forth to Granton. When the Forth Rail Bridge opened in 1890, the rail ferry ceased, though main line trains to Dundee and Aberdeen continue to pass through the town.
Over the past 150 years, Burntisland has seen booms resulting from the export of coal and in shipbuilding. During the Second World War the town's shipyard produced 69 ships of all types. But the shipyard closed after its last vessel was launched in July 1969. More recently the docks have been used for the construction of parts of oil rigs for the North Sea, and served as a supply base for oil exploration, though this business, too, is in decline.
From 1913 Burntisland became home to an important aluminium industry using imported bauxite, first under British Aluminium, later under Alcan. This closed in 2002 with the loss of many jobs. The site was subsequently redeveloped as part of a major expansion of housing provision to the west of the town.
And what happened to Rossend Castle? It was considerably expanded in the 1800s, but later passed into the ownership of the Town Council, who leased it out as a boarding house until 1952. It then rotted away to become a roofless ruin, and was nearly demolished in 1972. But in 1975 it was brought for £350 by The Hurd Rolland Partnership, a firm of architects. They then superbly and sensitively restored it to serve as their own offices.
Those visiting Burntisland today find a remarkably attractive town with a holiday resort feel. It is home to the unusual Museum of Communications, and to Burntisland Parish Church one of earliest post-Reformation churches built in Scotland that remains in use today.
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