DOWN BY THE WATER
The inspiration and industry that flow from the River Forth
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