The river Forth, flowing into the north sea to the north-east of Edinburgh city centre, was a major obstacle to travellers for much of history. In particular, those pilgrims making the journey to St Andrews faced an arduous diversion inland to the west in order to cross the river at a narrower point, before trekking back all the way to the eastern coast of Fife.
Towns like Culross on the northern side of the water were major towns along the route, growing up around the business that the pilgrims provided to their taverns, inns and hostelries.
But in the eleventh century, Queen Margaret of Scotland established a ferry service which would significantly shorten the journey time of those on the pilgrimmage to St Andrews - it provided a means of crossing the firth of Forth just outside Edinburgh, between the banks of the river at two towns which still bear names connected to this service.
South Queensferry remains a charming coastal town that is well worth your time if you get the chance to visit. It's just over 10 miles out of Edinburgh, and can be reached via car or on a short train ride from the city centre (alight at Dalmeny and walk down to the level of the town, on the coast below).
Stretching along the water between two of the three bridges which now cross the Forth at this point - Queen Margaret's ferry service continued running for 900 years until the Forth Road Bridge was opened to vehicle traffic in the 1960s - South Queensferry offers a wesalth of small shops, cafes and opportunities to enjoy views across to Fife, and of the original Forth Bridge in particular.
Engineered in the aftermath of the Tay Bridge collapse in the 1870s, this railway bridge was deliberately designed to create an image of strength and stability with its criss-crossing gantries and vivid red colour. It continues to be a major rail link between Edinburgh and all points north of the Forth, and for modern pilgrims making the journey to St Andrews (known today as the home of golf) it provides the easiest means of making the crossing into Fife. (St Andrews itself is no longer on the mainline rail route, requiring visitors to alight at the nearby town of Leuchars and catching a local bus or taxi service into the town centre.)
In 2015 the Forth Bridge was designated Scotland's sixth UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was previously considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The single main street of South Queensferry itself is still lined with many original buildings which originally housed locals engaged in the fishing and ferry industry, with an elevated level of shops and accommodation looking out over the cobbled road which is often (sadly) choked with traffic - visitors would be advised to park as close to the Forth Bridge as possible, where a large car park is located, rather than trying to navigate the narrow street of South Queensferry itself, which provides limited space.
At the western end of the town is an area called the Binks, which was where the original ferry service arrived and departed. Near this is the Priory Church, a fifteenth century monastery building which remains active as a community church today.
The Carmelite monastery had been established here in the fourteenth century originally, but after the Reformation of 1560 the church ceased operation as a monastic order and became a Church of Scotland church.
It remains the only medieval Carmelite church building in the British Isles which is still in use.
South Queensferry is also one of the four cruise terminals that serves Edinburgh - for people arriving into the city off a cruise ship I always advise them to clarify which of the ports they are arriving into as none of them are actually Edinburgh. From South Queensferry, a taxi into the city will be pretty expensive, the shuttle buses can take up to 45 minutes to make the journey into town, and the rail service from Dalmeny requires a significant climb from the coast up to the level of the railway line.
Near the point where the cruise terminal delivers visitors onto land is the Hawes Inn, a hostelry dating from the seventeenth century which features in Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure story Kidnapped.
Other notable buildings in the town include the Black Castle, which is the oldest house in South Queensferry, built by a trader named William Lowrie in 1626. Not actually a castle at all, the name is derived from events in 1646 when Lowrie's sister-in-law confessed to paying another woman to use witchcraft to sink Lowrie's boat, causing his death. Both women were later burned at the stake, although the whole events may have been orchestrated by a local 'witch finder' who wanted Lowrie's grand house for himself...
South Queensferry is also the location for a number of annual traditional activities for locals. The Burryman festival dates back several centuries and is believed to be derived from pagan rituals, wherein a local man is clad in sticky burrs from the burdock plant which cover his whole body, leaving only his mouth and eyes exposed. He's led on a slow, uncomfortable pilgrimage through the town, fortified only with whisky sipped through a straw, while local children collect money for local charities and community organisations.
No less uncomfortable is the annual Loony Dook, held on New Year's Day, where people gather at South Queensferry and then plunge into the freezing waters of the Firth of Forth to raise money for charity. In recent years this community event has been co-opted by the organisation which runs Edinburgh's Hogmanay events, but it remains an absurdly popular event for people willing to risk hypothermia (and worse).
Take a trip out of Edinburgh to South Queensferry and on a sunny day you'll enjoy the best of this picturesque town, with incredible views of the Forth Bridge and across to Fife.
Find a local cafe to enjoy a coffee, or take home a souvenir of this historic town.
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