The in­spi­ra­tion and in­dus­try that flow from the River Forth

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS -

IAM in the air again. Over Stir­ling the heli­copter cir­cles above the mon­u­ment and around the cas­tle. I am in the back seat, squeezed in the mid­dle, rub­bing my hands to warm them as the cold air pours through the cock­pit from where the doors have been re­moved. In front of me Shah­baz Ma­jeed is tak­ing pho­to­graphs of Stir­ling Cas­tle and the Wal­lace Mon­u­ment. For the next hour and a half he will also cap­ture Cas­tle Camp­bell, Loch Leven, the wa­ter­front in his home­town of Dundee, St An­drews and Ed­in­burgh.

But for now Stir­ling is be­neath us. And the River Forth. From 1000ft up I can see al­most along the en­tire length of it. To the west, where late evening sun is stream­ing gold through the cloud cover, I can fol­low the liq­uid line of the river back to where it joins the Teith and fur­ther to the point where it dis­ap­pears into the evening haze where the moun­tains rise.

Di­rectly be­neath me the river me­an­ders in huge, arc­ing threads – al­most as tight as a noose at points over Stir­ling, be­fore widen­ing at Kin­car­dine and then widen­ing again be­yond the Forth Bridges, like a pelican open­ing its gul­let.

It oc­curs to me that the streets be­low

me are where I lived out my en­tire 20s. I am look­ing down on my own past in a way.

As we climb over Fife for a few mo­ments I can see both the Forth and the Tay at the same time. The land be­low is laid out like a 3D model. Scot­land – or rather my vi­sion of it – even now is re­shap­ing it­self in my head.

Head­ing back to­wards the bridges I can see all the is­lands in the Forth, Inchkeith (cur­rently owned by Sir Tom Farmer), Inch­holm, Inch­garvie, Inch­mick­erey, all the way out to Bass Rock and the Isle of May. Here is the Forth es­tu­ary. The next leg of the jour­ney.

We fly over Methil and Kirk­caldy and ap­proach the Forth bridges. The el­e­gant up­right stays of the Queens­ferry Cross­ing – still a cou­ple of weeks away from open­ing at this point – strobe in my vi­sion in the last of the light as we ap­proach.

“The hope is you go up there and you maybe get a unique im­age,” Ma­jeed told me be­fore we headed out tonight. “And more of­ten than not that’s what hap­pens. The last time I did one of the bridges the pic­ture ended up on a five pound note.”

BEN Chatwin and I are stand­ing on the pier be­neath the Forth Bridge. In his hand is a dig­i­tal hand recorder and a hy­drophone which he is cast­ing into the wa­ter ev­ery time a train crosses. “I’m hop­ing the bridge makes a noise ba­si­cally,” he tells me. A jel­ly­fish bil­lows in the wa­ter be­side us.

Chatwin is an elec­tronic mu­si­cian and com­poser who has a dream. He wants to make an al­bum about the bridge, which he can see out of the win­dow from his house in South Queens­ferry.

He has of­ten used live sound record­ings be­fore but now his am­bi­tion is more fo­cused, more de­vel­oped.

“I know what rivers and the sea sound like and it’s not that in­ter­est­ing to me. Stuff like that has been done loads of times. Man and na­ture in­ter­act­ing – that’s what in­ter­ests me.”

The idea for an al­bum about the bridge came, Chatwin ad­mits, af­ter he read the late Iain Banks’s novel The Bridge. “This is not a long bridge,” Banks writes at one point, “but it goes on for ever.”

The book, en­gi­neered to probe the in­ner and outer world of its char­ac­ters and the clos­est per­haps Banks got in his main­stream fic­tion to the science fic­tion he also wrote, was kind of in­tim­i­dat­ing, Chatwin ad­mits. But then the nearby road bridge was closed be­cause of me­chan­i­cal faults to­wards the end of 2015 and it changed the sound­scape of the area.

“On my evening walk with the dog I could hear things I’d never heard be­fore. I could hear bats squeak­ing. You could hear them swoop­ing close to your head, you could hear their wings flap­ping.

“And then when­ever the train did go across it was re­ally loud, deaf­en­ing. I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in how sound moves and you could hear the sound of the trains hit­ting Queens­ferry and bounc­ing back again.

“It made me think back to be­fore the bridge and what it must have been like. I did a bit of record­ing then. I wish I’d done more. I didn’t re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it un­til the noise came back.”

Rivers travel through ge­og­ra­phy and time. Through sto­ries too. This river is writ­ten into Scot­tish lit­er­a­ture

He looks up at the bridge above us. “It owns this space. Out of re­spect for the bridge I re­ally want to try to find it make some noise.”

We drive to North Queens­ferry, then round and through the tan­gle of traf­fic cones wait­ing for the new bridge to open. As we cut through the streets of the town Chatwin tells me about his plans for attaching con­tact mics to the steel struc­ture it­self, maybe even record the bridge’s elec­tro­mag­netic fre­quen­cies. It’s all about, he says, “try­ing to cap­ture a space. And then all the mu­sic can ex­ist inside the space”.

We fi­nally stand be­neath the or­gan­ised chaos of the bridge’s steel struc­ture on the north bank of the es­tu­ary and look up. “There’s some­thing quite beau­ti­ful about it,” Chatwin mur­murs.

Rivers travel through ge­og­ra­phy and time. Through sto­ries too. For Chatwin this is Iain Banks’s bridge. For my­self it be­longs to Robert Donat, clam­ber­ing out of a train to es­cape in The 39 Steps. For some oth­ers, no doubt, Robert Louis Steven­son comes to mind. The nearby Hawes Inn gets a men­tion in Kid­napped. This river is writ­ten into Scot­tish lit­er­a­ture.

All of this is swirling around us un­seen. I think of the cob­bled streets of South Queens­ferry, of the Bur­ry­man who ap­pears once a year, this rear­ing im­men­sity of Vic­to­rian en­gi­neer­ing in front of us. And I think of Banks liv­ing in North Queens­ferry, a se­rial fu­tur­ist sur­rounded by the past.

Ev­ery day we are all time trav­ellers.

IRVINE Welsh’s River Forth is pos­si­bly

dif­fer­ent to mine and yours. In The Black River (the Gaelic name for the Forth, Ab­hainn Dhubh, trans­lates as such), a typ­i­cally scabrous es­say for the Caught by the River web­site, Welsh paints a pic­ture of pol­lu­tion and pill-pop­ping ravers on the Maid of the Forth as well as its part in Scot­land’s failed colo­nial past (it was from Leith that Scots set sail on the doomed ex­pe­di­tion to found a colony in Panama “thus pre­cip­i­tat­ing the unloved and un­wanted Union of the Crowns,” he writes).

Pol­lu­tion has been a fac­tor on the Forth for much of the 19th and 20th cen­turies. Dis­til­leries, brew­eries, pa­per mills, tan works and tex­tile mills all used the river to flush away what it didn’t need and then as the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion kicked in coal washing plants and paraf­fin fac­to­ries in West Loth­ian and en­gi­neer­ing in Falkirk added to the toxic mix. The petro­chem­i­cal plant at Grange­mouth dates back to 1924. And that’s all be­fore you take sewage into ac­count.

Between the 1920s and 1978 sewage from the city of Ed­in­burgh flowed into the Forth, ac­cord­ing to TC Smout and Mhairi Ste­wart’s book The En­vi­ron­men­tal His­tory of the Forth, with “min­i­mal fil­tra­tion”. By 1923 the Fish­ery Board re­ported that the death by poi­son­ing or suf­fo­ca­tion of salmon and sea trout in the river was an “an­nual oc­cur­rence”. No won­der Welsh de­scribes it as a “dull, manky stag­nant-look­ing stretch of wa­ter”.

Mank­i­ness comes in sev­eral forms, of course. The is­land of Cra­mond, to which you can walk to at low tide, was, Welsh says, where you would choose to get ac­ci­den­tally cut off and be forced to spend the night with your date of choice. “The se­ri­ous shag­gers stud­ied the tidal charts in the [Ed­in­burgh] Evening News like the most ded­i­cated Old Salts, and never left home with­out a sports bag con­tain­ing a jumper and blan­kets,” he writes.

To be fair on the Thurs­day I walk out to Cra­mond I don’t no­tice too many sports bags. But then it is be­fore lunch. What I do see are dog walk­ers and de­tec­torists comb­ing the Forth shore. And on the is­land it­self, from the num­ber of African faces and Ital­ian ac­cents I’m guess­ing Cra­mond’s TripAd­vi­sor rat­ing must be high.

From the is­land’s mod­est heights I can look down the Forth to­wards the es­tu­ary mouth, down past Gran­ton to Leith. The es­tu­ary glit­ters and sparkles in the sun.

The land, to be fair, is less pre­pos­sess­ing. Welsh ar­gues that Ed­in­burgh has no real af­fec­tion for the river. And it’s true that the new build that has grown up on the wa­ter­front in re­cent decades presents a face to the Forth that is em­i­nently slap­pable. Ugly, boxy, un­ap­petis­ing. But get out on the wa­ter and ev­ery­thing changes.

Gran­ton, as well as be­ing part of Welsh’s lit­er­ary ter­ri­tory, is home to the Forth pilots, the mas­ter mariners who are em­ployed to bring the ships that visit the Forth from all over the world to safe har­bour, whether that be Leith or Rosyth or, fur­ther up river, Grange­mouth.

There are 26 pilots in all work­ing 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, five men (they are all men at the mo­ment) to a shift.

“All of us have been in the Mer­chant Navy,” ex­plains Cap­tain Robert Keir as we sit on­board the Pi­lot Ves­sel Tiger cut­ting out from berth into the es­tu­ary to trans­fer

pilots between the var­i­ous ships that dot the es­tu­ary. “We’ve all been at sea for 15 years.”

What they bring to this job is lo­cal knowl­edge. “You al­most need to be able to walk along the riverbed in your mind,” Keir ex­plains. “I think you have to have a cer­tain char­ac­ter. You need to en­joy a high-pres­sure en­vi­ron­ment. This can be a tough job at times with the weather and tides so, yeah, all of us who do it en­joy it.”

Their clients range from Exxon, BP and Ineos to cruise liners. There’s one in the es­tu­ary to­day, the Star Pride, wait­ing to land pas­sen­gers in time for the Tat­too.

In the last few years the Forth pilots have also been in­volved in pi­lot­ing ma­te­rial for the Queens­ferry Cross­ing out into the river and guid­ing the new air­craft car­rier the HMS Queen El­iz­a­beth out of dock in Rosyth and then be­neath the bridges.

“The car­rier had to come over the sill of the port en­trance on high tide,” re­calls Keir, “but it was too high to go un­der the bridge. So it had to go out and an­chor un­til a low. It also had its mast folded over on a hinge. That was a lot of plan­ning.” In­deed. There were three pilots as­signed to the project for five years in the plan­ning.

“The car­rier has its own Face­book page and it showed it go­ing into Portsmouth last week. And the head­line said: ‘Car­rier squeezes into Portsmouth.’ And you could have fit­ted four wide through the en­trance. That’s noth­ing. We had a foot ei­ther side.”

Keir has lived a life on the wa­ter. He was brought up in Ar­broath and went to sea at 16. “I had never been out­side Scot­land un­til I flew down to Lon­don for my in­ter­view as a cadet and I was 16 when I ar­rived in Ja­pan on Christ­mas Eve on a gas tanker for Shell.”

Later he joined Cu­nard and worked the cruise liners, end­ing up on the QE2 where he met his wife. Now he’s set­tled in Dol­lar and work­ing on the river.

“When you get mar­ried and have a fam­ily, go­ing away to sea for five months is not great,” he ad­mits. And any­way, guid­ing a ship into port is the fun part of be­ing a mariner.

“When you get to the port it’s all hap­pen­ing. We get the best bit of ev­ery voy­age.”

The Tiger, built in 2000, is one of three pi­lot ves­sels. Its top speed is 24 knots but it sticks to 18. Right now we are tak­ing an­other pi­lot, Ken Fraser, out to a gas tanker Ri­jn­borg which he will then pi­lot into berth at Grange­mouth.

This body of wa­ter is the pi­lot’s place of work and they have seen huge im­prove­ments in it over the last few decades. The Forth, Fraser says, is “a lot bet­ter now than it was 30, 40 years ago. Then, it was pretty grey. You could get a lot of ef­flu­ent from ships or ef­flu­ent from the re­fin­ery.

“I used to sail up to Grange­mouth on chem­i­cal tankers 40 years ago and you never saw any seals. The past 25 years they’ve im­proved the pol­lu­tion out­put from Grange­mouth. And the ships have

When you get to the port it’s all hap­pen­ing. We get the best bit of ev­ery voy­age

im­proved. They don’t pump any­thing into the sea.”

Some­times the pilots spot dol­phins, and whales are reg­u­lar vis­i­tors. “We will go past a cata­ma­ran buoy,” ex­plains Keir. “There is usu­ally three or four seals sit­ting on top of that sunbathing.”

To­day is clear and calm. When the pi­lot reaches the gas tanker he sails around to the lee side of the ship away from the wind. As the Tiger edges closer to the Ri­jn­borg tow­er­ing above us, you can see the wa­ter sluic­ing between the ves­sels. This is where in­jury is most likely, Keir tells me, where limbs and bod­ies can get trapped. But to­day the Tiger nudges against the gas tanker with the slight­est of dunts. More of a kiss than a punch.

Pilots have to climb nine me­tres of rope up the side of the ship (more than nine me­tres is illegal, but they may have to trans­fer to a gang­way to com­plete their jour­ney). It looks a chal­lenge, but Fraser is up the lad­der and on to the gang­way in a mat­ter of sec­onds. Once he waves down to us the Tiger is off to pick up an­other pi­lot, Fred Whi­taker, from one ship, the Es­sex, which has just come out of the gas ter­mi­nal from Moss­mor­ran, and take him straight away to an­other, the Kon­tich, which is go­ing to take its berth.

We are now five miles and more from the docks and out here you get a sense of what a huge ex­panse of wa­ter this is. Is it still a river? “We work on the river,” con­firms Keir. “We call it the river.”

But it is con­nected to the world. Keir shows me an app on his phone called Ma­rine Traf­fic, dis­play­ing all the ships that are cur­rently afloat around the Bri­tish Isles. He ze­roes in on the Forth. “I’m try­ing to find us,” he says.

We look at all the dots on the dig­i­tal map. So many ships, I say. “Ev­ery­thing that comes into this coun­try for trade comes in via one of the ports,” Keir re­minds me. “The mas­sive con­tainer ships come from the Far East, they all go to Rot­ter­dam An­twerp and then the feeder ships take the cargo for Scot­land from China. These go back and for­ward ev­ery week.” Wa­ter is life in more ways than one, then. The Tiger makes for port. I am left think­ing back to Loch Ard where this jour­ney be­gan, that trickle of wa­ter bump­ing and barg­ing over the stones to­wards Aber­foyle. That seems a world away from this huge es­tu­ary I am float­ing on. And yet it’s all part of the same story. Or part of the many sto­ries that flow down this river to the sea.

A new bridge has now opened. An­other story be­gins. Some­one, some­where will be writ­ing it even now.

Ben Chatwin’s next al­bum Stac­cato Sig­nals will be out early next year on Vil­lage Green Record­ings

In The Her­ald on Mon­day: the pride and sad­ness of David Climie, the man who built the Queens­ferry Cross­ing


The Queens­ferry Cross­ing last week be­came the third bridge to span the River Forth and link South and North Queens­ferry


Clock­wise from top: Cap­tain Robert Keir of the Forth pilots, who bring all ships vis­it­ing the Forth into safe har­bour; the cause­way that links Cra­mond Is­land with the south bank of the Forth at low tide; pi­lot Fred Whi­taker de­scends a rope lad­der from gas tanker Es­sex; and mu­si­cian and com­poser Ben Chatwin, whose am­bi­tion is to make an al­bum about the Forth Bridge


HMS Queen El­iz­a­beth passes un­der the Forth Bridge in June. The task of mov­ing it from dry dock in Rosyth to the open sea was five years in the plan­ning

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