Talking about ferries running aground, you might think that kind of thing is unfortunate, so spare a thought for the brand new Firth of Forth car ferry Robert the Bruce which ran aground at South Queensferry on Saturday 24th March, after barely 3 weeks in service. The vessel was on its penultimate cross-Firth trip of the day and became stuck fast at South Queensferry at the Hawes pier. It was not until late on the Sunday that she was successfully refloated. “New Ferry Boat Stranded at South Queensferry” said the headline in the Scotsman.
Barely a week later, on April 5th, Robert the Bruce suffered the ignominy of grounding once more at South Queensferry, ending up sitting high and dry, perpendicular to the pier. “New Ferry Boat Grounded Again” said the headline in the Scotsman.
The hapless vessel was aground again 3 weeks later. It took 5 hours to get the passengers off. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to run aground once in a month may be regarded as a misfortune; to run aground twice in a month looks like carelessness. Three months later? You’ve guessed it. “Robert the Bruce” was aground again. This was getting to be rather common and the local paper hardly gave it a second mention, devoting only a single sentence to the mishap.
The ferry boat Robert the Bruce ran aground on Sunday, but was refloated at high tide without any apparent damageLinlithgowshire Gazette, 6th July 1934
In all, in her first 4 months of service, Robert the Bruce would run aground four times. Her identical sister ship Queen Margaret managed to avoid this awkward habit entirely. For now…
The Forth car ferries were the brainchild of, were built by and were operated by the William Denny & Brothers shipyard in Dumbarton. Sir Maurice Denny had crossed the Forth in the old vessel Dundee one day and had thought to himself that a purpose-built car ferry (or pair of ferries) could provide a much more efficient service. As a captain of industry he had only to pick up the phone to the London and North Eastern Railway to set the wheels in motion. The LNER paid for the ferries and leased them back to Denny, who operated them. This arrangement meant that even if the ferries poached traffic away from the railway, the railway would still profit from them.
The design was innovative and Denny had high hopes it would catch on. The vessels had a large, open car deck, with small passenger cabins fore and aft. There were ramps on each side at each end for loading and unloading vehicles. The bridge sat high above the deck on a gantry in the middle of the ship to give a commanding view in all directions. Propulsion was by paddle wheels, an antiquated system on paper, but one which had certain advantages when manoeuvring at slow speed and which was brought up to date with each paddle being independently driven by an electric motor. This, coupled with rudders fore and aft, meant for superb manoeuvrability and the ability to change power and the direction of drive very rapidly. Diesel engines under the car deck drove the generators for the motors, and exhausted through a pair of slender funnels. This arrangement allowed the ferries complete roll-on, roll-off operation for rapid loading and unloading and the ability to move forwards or backwards at the same speed and no loss of handling.
Perhaps in sympathy with and to share in Robert‘s blushes, the older companion Dundee decided to get in on the action and ran aground at South Queensferry in 1939. Again, her passengers and cars were stuck aboard for hours, the Evening News printing an atmospheric night time photo of her with the ghostly outline of one of the piers of the Forth Bridge behind her.
The Forth ferries survived WW2 without further incidence but on 18th August 1947, perhaps as a late celebration of victory, one of them ran aground again in the mud off South Queensferry. This time however it was the Queen Margaret at fault, and Robert the Bruce redeemed herself by towing her off the mud.
In 1949, the ancient Dundee was replaced by a new vessel, the Mary Queen of Scots, identical to Robert and Margaret except that post-war economies meant that the electric drive system for the paddles was replaced with a hydraulic one. To welcome the new member to the team, Robert the Bruce decided to show off as only she knew how, and on April 3rd 1950 she ran aground. Again. At South Queenferry. Again. This incident was on account of the mooring rope that should have been thrown to the pier landing short combined with a sudden gust of wind that blew her onto the mud before the engines, idle at the time, could respond.
Queen Margaret tried to repay the towing compliment from 1947 back and rescue her stricken sister however the tow rope broke and then the tide receded, making further rescue attempts on that tide impossible. Two hours service was wasted and Robert had to wait to be rescued on the next high tide.
Friday May 23rd 1952. Guess what happened. Go on. I’ll give you one guess… Wrong! It was actually Mary Queen of Scots which grounded this time. Strictly speaking she didn’t run aground, as she found herself stuck when the tide receded while she was both loading vehicles and taking on oil, the additional weight incurred settling her on the mud beneath her keel. Attempts by Robert the Bruce to get her off the mud at South Queensferry proved fruitless and again they had to wait for a high tide to free her
Never one to be outdone by her sisters, two months later Robert the Bruce managed to run aground 50 yards short of the pier at South Queensferry. Queen Margaret came to the rescue and tower her off the mud before the tide left her high and dry after a 20 minute struggle. It was almost a year before one of the ferries ran aground again. This time it was Mary Queen of Scots: caught by the combination of a westerly wind and an autumn equinox tide “which tends to empty the river” on August 27th 1953. She was left high and dry in the middle of the Firth for an hour and a half until a change in the tide allowed her to come unstuck. This left the passengers of a bus trip sorely disappointed; they had crossed on one ferry while their vehicle followed on the next (Mary Queen of Scots) and got stuck mid-stream. By the time the bus made it over, he found his passengers had given up and headed home to Edinburgh by alternative means.
In 1955, due to booming traffic, the three Forth ferries were joined by a fourth Forth ferry (try saying that in a hurry), when the slightly larger Sir William Wallace joined the fleet.
True to the established tradition, Robert the Bruce welcomed her by running aground! On March 12th 1955, in dense fog, she hit a mudbank some 500 yards short of the pier. This time it was an exceptional spring tide at fault. It took an hour and a half to free her.
The following year, it as Queen Margaret’s turn again and on December 2nd 1956? she was stuck at South Queensferry once more. It would take a whole 3 years in service for Sir William Wallace to join the “High and Dry Club”, which she first managed in February 1958. Again it was at the South Queensferry end and she had 40 cars on board when she got stuck. The passengers were rowed ashore and either bussed to Edinburgh, or waited 5 hours in the Hawes Inn for their cars. One hopes that the refreshments provided were only teas and coffees. She repeated the act at the end of September that year, getting within 20 feet of the pier at South Queensferry and then grounding on the mud. 50 passengers were taken ashore in the lifeboats. She became stuck at 740AM and it was not until a high tide at noon that she floated free.
Queen Margaret tried something new and rammed one of the piers of the Forth Bridge in February 1961 when the wind and tide conditions conspired against her and made controlled progress impossible. There was one last grounding hurrah for the Forth ferries, when this same vessel took to the Hawes Pier mud for 1 and a ¼ hours on the appropriate date of Friday 13th October 1961. It took the combined efforts of Sir William Wallace and Mary Queen of Scots to free her.
In the final decade of the ferries on the Forth, Sir William Wallace added an additional dimension to the difficulties of running the service; she was bigger than her sisters but had the same engines and same sized loading ramps, so was slower and took longer to load and unload. This made her a logistical pain in the bum for keeping to schedule and her smaller sisters frequently had to slow down when crossing against a tide or current to let her catch up. Her car deck was also slightly differently arranged and her master found out the hard way that if he packed them on tightly the same way as the other ships, then they became wedge in, couldn’t get onto the ramp and thus couldn’t get back off again! The solution was simple but inelegant – the ship sailed around to the other side of the pier and all the cars reversed off instead.
The owner-operators of the ferries went into liquidation in August 1963 and so the liquidators continued to run the service for a further 13 months until September 3th 1964 when the last sailed before the Forth Road Bridge was opened. Guests of honour on the last scheduled voyage were HM The Queen and HRH Prince Philip. Queen Margaret had clearly no sense of occasion and humour and refused to run aground with the royal party aboard.
As a postscript, I should note that nobody was harmed in any of these groundings, beyond the feelings of the ships’ masters. In actual fact, considering the intense scheduling of the route over 30 years hard work, in tricky waters, they actually had a pretty enviable safety record. In the late 1950s, all four ships ran an all-day service at 15 minute intervals, making 40,000 crossings a year, carrying 1,250,000 passengers, 600,000 cars and 200,000 commercial vehicles.
The Forth ferries were laid up at Burntisland after the end of their working lives and the three oldest ones were unceremoniously scrapped. The press were far more interested in the new Road Bridge to be interested in three old ships. The newest and largest, Sir William Wallace, spent a few years service at Islemeer in the Netherlands before being scrapped too in 1970. After 30 years of car ferry service, the scores on the doors for running aground were:
- King Robert the Bruce, 7 times
- Queen Margaret, 3 times
- Joint, Sir William Wallace and Mary Queen of Scots, 2 times each
- Dundee, 1 time
If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.
These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur