Inchkeith: Island of History
Gordon Young tells us a story that began at the old Police Box run by Newhaven Heritage every Saturday at Newhaven Harbour
During a conversation one Saturday with Stephen Todd, one of the last lobstermen in Newhaven, he showed me some photos taken when he was on Inchkeith one of which was a plaque with the initials MR and the date 1564 on it.
That led to a discussion, could it be Mary Queen of Scots and if so what was it doing there? I knew next to nothing about Inchkeith apart from it having a lighthouse that flashed its white light once every sixty seconds and had a garrison on it during WWII. That much I knew as my aunt and her future husband were stationed there. I then decided that I had to find out a bit more about this island and it’s stories.
The first references were in 679-704 when St Adomnan, the Abbot of Iona, founded a ‘school of the prophet’ on the island. Later, in 1010, Malcolm II when warring with the Danes, rewarded Robert de Keth with large estates, which included Dalkeith and Inchkeith for helping to repel them, a possible derivation of the name of the island.
Years passed, then Edinburgh found a use for the island and in 1497 sufferers of a contagious disease called gromdgore, an old Scots word for syphilis, were shipped from Edinburgh to a hospital there. Where they would stay ‘until God had brought them back to health’. It’s assumed that they died from the disease.
This set the precedent for using the island as basically a dumping ground for the sick. Between 1580 and 1799 plague victims from various ships were sent there and sailors from a Russian ship were quarantined there. Many died and were buried on the island. In 1609 plague victims were sent there from the mainland.
In 1547, after the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, the Duke of Somerset put marines ashore and they built a large square fort where the lighthouse stands today. This was the start of the militarisation of Inchkeith. They held it until 1549 when a joint Scots and French force recaptured the island after which Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary Queen of Scots, visited Inchkeith and ordered that a larger and stronger fort should be built. When this was completed, a French force garrisoned the island.
Mary Queen of Scots visited and inspected the French garrison in 1564 and a commemorative stone was set into the gateway of the fort. The stone, with a crown and inscribed MR 1564, is the one that started this story. It is now set into the wall close to the lighthouse. The fort was demolished and the lighthouse, which was designed by Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson, was built in its place being the highest point on the island. It was lit on 14th September 1804.
In 1878 the Admiralty finally realised the strategic importance of Inchkeith and installed gun batteries at three corners, each one partly underground and still accessible today. Improvements continued between the late 1800s and 1905 and by the end of WWI the main armament consisted of three 9.2” guns and six 6.6” guns. Between the two Wars the fort and guns were maintained and in 1937 anti-aircraft guns were installed. In 1938 just prior to WWII it was further mobilised.
At its peak the garrison consisted of just over 1100 personnel. It wasn’t without incident, on the 21st Feb 1940 a sand-filled dummy shell was fired across the bows of the Naval Trawler, Peter Carey, to stop it straying into a mined area. The shell ricocheted off the water and hit a tenement at 118 Salamander Street in Leith. Fortunately no one was injured.
In an exercise during the War, a “special Royal Signals unit” landed on Inchkeith to transmit radio traffic and carry out mock attacks on the island’s defences via the cliffs. This was to try to fool the German High Command into thinking an attack on Norway was imminent and detract from the preparations that were going on for D-Day.
By 1956/7 all military use ceased and ownership of the island was passed to the Northern Lighthouse Board. In 1971 the lighthouse and associated buildings were category B listed and in 1976 the island and its fortifications became a scheduled monument.
After the light was automated in 1986 local businessman, Sir Tom Farmer, purchased the island. Rockstar North, the company that makes the computer game Grand Theft Auto, has since bought it. n
P.S. Boswell and Johnson visited Inchkeith Island in 1773. Boswell noting that Johnson stalked 'like a giant among the luxuriant thistles and nettles’, and in 1817 by Thomas Carlyle who described it as 'prettily savage'. ■
Inchkeith Island, and the plaque commemorating the lighting up of the lighthouse in 1804