It is fifty years since the last car ferries plied the Queensferry Passage — the short crossing over the Firth of Forth just west of Edinburgh. We recall the days when it cost twelve shillings and sixpence to take a corpse over to Fife.
On a fine summer morning in the closing years of the 18th century, a young man waits in the middle of Edinburgh for the six-seater coach which will convey him to Queensferry. A handwritten notice by the road proclaims that the diligence for Queensferry will leave at noon on Tuesday, 15 July “in order to secure for travellers the opportunity of passing the Firth with the flood tide.”
This is the scene described by Walter Scott in the opening chapter of The Antiquary. The book was published in 1816, but set towards the end of the preceding century. Scott’s account of the excursion north from Edinburgh to Fife and beyond is a reminder that journeys which we now take for granted required careful planning in the past.
Queensferry is one of those places which featured prominently in the itineraries of yesteryear. Nowadays motorists speed over the Forth Road Bridge and barely give a thought to the small town on the shore of the Firth of Forth which lies immediately below the southern access road to the bridge.
In Walter Scott’s day, Queensferry depended on trade across the firth. And with the boat traffic came a demand for other services. In The Antiquary, Lovel and Oldbuck miss the flood tide at Queensferry and repair instead to Hawes Inn — where a “fat, gouty, pursy landlord” lends a nice Gothic touch to the proceedings