The History of Leith

August 11, 2004


HMS Hearty

Thoughts and recollections of being associated with an assortment of steam driven ships of a bygone age, although only a youngster at the time such experiences began for me during the nineteen thirties.

I had the good fortune to accompany my father – a fully licensed Firth of Forth marine Pilot – on all manner of ships, including the local based docking and estuarial tugs, invariably single screw although there was one with twin screws – being very manoeuvrable was used generally as the stern tug , plus two grand old ladies lasting up to just after the war, these being rather antiquated paddle wheel tugs, not much comfort for the five/six man crews, more of which to follow: these craft were exceptionally handy which allowed them to work in very tight corners, all of these boats were based and operated from Leith Docks, my earlier memories go back to the period when one the last of the ex German fleet, Bayern, which had been scuttled at Scapa Flow then ultimately raised and towed to Rosyth Naval Dockyard to be broken up for scrap during 1935, the tugs were engaged to meet the upside down battleship – kept afloat on a cushion of compressed air, all along the keel area there were numerous temporary huts erected to house the air compressors and afford shelter to the salvage run crew on board whilst being towed by three large Dutch ocean going tugs from Orkney – a few miles East of Inchkeith and escort them to Rosyth, particularly through the narrow passage under the North Arch of the impressive Forth Railway bridge, the entire operation lasted the best part of a day, entirely carried out without the aid of radar, radio communication or port control, signals were conveyed via tug steam whistles, Pilot (referee) whistles, morse lamps and occasionally, previously arranged flags, the entourage arrived at the Beamer Rock Lighthouse, which is just at the entrance channel to Rosyth Naval Dockyard sea lock, in reasonably smart time but it took, what seemed for ever, to position the hulk fairly and squarely into H. M. naval dock entrance lock, many safe guards were in place to avoid any mishaps which could have closed the dockyard to traffic, hence the long delay, in spite of this digression I can not remember being fed up or bored, as soon as the massive hulk was safely inside the dock proper and in charge of the Admiralty tugs, which at that time were also paddle driven, the Leith tug boats turned tail and headed for home at full speed, on that occasion I was a very young passenger on the steam tug ‘Oxcar’, ex ‘Holland’ 1926, 252 gross tons, built 1919 in Holland, tucked nicely away in a corner up on the flying bridge, the other two tugs being ‘Bullger’ and ‘Herwit’, both of which I enjoyed many further trips, no, I can’t remember being bored, just very tired upon getting home, with adult hindsight the later day regret is of not having a camera to record such a unique piece of maritime historical fact, though at that age the family box brownie was only used for holiday snaps.

Around about the same time my Dad said we were going to sail from the Forth Pilotage Bass Rock out station to Rosyth Dockyard with an old sailing ship which had just been towed from London, to be broken up, the ‘Grace Harwar’, which did not convey very much to me other than, oh good another trip on the water, no, I do not recollect any detail but have since realised it was quite a famous ship.

As were some of the others, a huge lump of upside down something – how at a young age can one relate to ships when they just seem like balloons in the water – which was in fact the Friederich Der Gross, followed a year later by the Grosser Kurfurst, none of which meant much to the avidly keen school lad who spent all his spare time near or on ships and boats. Although several, because of the sheer size as floating objects, could not help but be remembered, the mighty Mauretania, and latterly, with a certain amount of humility, some of our old friends, such as the tug Herwit, that we had sailed on with fond memories, to sometimes assist some of the ocean giants to their demise, the last working trip on the old Herwit was attending the ex Lyness (Scapa Flow) floating dock (or in reality, half of it as it had been cut in two to accommodate the salvage operations at Scapa Flow, this drydock had originated in 1914 from the German Naval dockyard at Kiel, of nearly three thousand tons, and eventually delivered to Rosyth on 30th July 1937, the robust twin funnel tug Herwit, after forty three years stalwart service, also met her end under the breakers torch at Rosyth in April 1947, although there are not many people left to say they were there or even involved, it seems right to record that such things did happen.

Further opportunities to sail on these stolid workhorses were numerous, such as attending several large ocean going liners on their final voyages to the ship breaking yards at Rosyth, Inverkeithing, and St. Davids, also an assortment of old craft to Charleston-on-Forth, Bo’ness (Borrowstouness) and closer to home, Granton, think in terms of the Majestic, Homeric, quite massive when moving in under a bow to take a tow rope, same skills used then as are still required today, the enjoyment I had during these care free days was infinite, and that, in addition to the many other varieties of ships and boats, from 10-ft dinghy’s to travelling the Pilotage area on full rigged sailing ships (German – Horst Vessle/ Norwegian Stratstaad Lehmkul), fishing craft of all types, even the occasional launching from our local shipyards, such as another coastal cargo ship, the Ocean Coast, launched from the Victoria Shipyard of Henry Robb, all of these jaunts had to be put under wraps at the beginning of the 39/45 war, although, I was even able to be willingly taken, due to total shortage of available manpower, as a deckie/pull-haulie/TEA maker on a local MFV on charter as a supply tender to the War Department, servicing all of Firth of Forth the Island garrisons, Inchkeith, Inchcolm, this interspersed with very restrictive war time conditions, which led me on to a career in the Merchant Navy which commenced with the obligatory period of pre-sea College classroom training……..WLH———-2004

Some Text