Nobody is ever going to go to Scotland for the glorious sunshine, although we have experienced at least two whole days of lovely blue skies in our total of two visits to nearish Edinburgh so far.
Sadly, the high summer’s day we decided to take a boat trip up and down the Firth of Forth to admire Inchcolm Island and the Forth Bridge was not one of those days.
But despite the brisk winds, the flurries of rain and the fact that we were having to wear both a thick jumper and our winter coats, this remains one of Mama’s favourite bits about our trips to one of the Venices of the North. Which is why she is writing about it almost three years after it actually happened.
It may be that she is more nostalgic for the summer holidays of her youth spent mainly in full body waterproofs in the Lake District than you might expect.
Especially because those holidays also involved messing about in boats. And as everybody knows, boats are much more interesting when there are a few waves and a whole lot of spray, which is what we got on this occasion in Scotland.
Papa huddled inside the undercover cabin. Mama stood out back with her face in the wind. And the rain. Did I mention the rain? Of course, she had me strapped to her chest as a makeshift bodywarmer. Sometimes Mama finds having children comes in handy.
The Firth of Forth is quite something from a boat, or indeed from any prospective at all. It’s really an enormous estuary with Edinburgh at its mouth and it is easily able to accommodate multiple ocean-going oil tankers passing each other at a distance. By which I mean, it’s big.
And this is why the Forth Bridge, the railway bridge first crossed in 1890 connecting the north side of the Forth to the capital of Scotland is such an engineering marvel. It is still the second longest cantilever bridge in the world, and was the first of its kind when built, says Mama nodding sagely as though either she or I have the faintest idea who cantilever is or why we should eat it.
But I do know it is so fabulous it is has just been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, along with the Kremlin and Red Square, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, and, apparently, the whole city of Liverpool. Cool, huh?
It’s also responsible for Papa realising he’d been in the UK too long. Making small talk, someone referred to their job as being in its futility much like painting the Forth Bridge, and Papa found himself nodding sympathetically, fully understanding the obscure reference to the fact that as soon as you finish painting one end, you have to start again at the beginning again.
Which is a myth, apparently. They use specially formulated paint to protect the cutting edge but fatally rust prone mild steel, and as a result it doesn’t wear off that quickly. Still, that didn’t stop Papa feeling traumatized. In fact, the Forth Bridge may be responsible for our move back to Moscow!
Of course, there is no chance that my Brilliant Big Brother will take and interest in all this because of his obsession with the natural world.
Luckily, the Firth of Forth boat trip held plenty of interest for him too, mostly in the form of numerous sightings of grey seals basking on rocks, buoys and Inchcolm Island itself.
Although we also saw a puffin flitting around the boat thanks to his animal obsessed eyes too.
The boats set off from South Queensferry, which is either a short train ride away from Edinburgh proper, or reachable by a dedicated coach journey laid on the by river trip organisers. South Queensferry itself is a very pleasant sort of town for someone who wants to get away from big cities for a while. If you are early you can wander around the High Street. There’s a fish and chippie that sells deep-fried Mars bars and everything, as well as more rustically attractive shopping experiences.
Or, if that doesn’t appeal, maybe pottering about on the rocky seaweed-infested shoreline will. We could certainly spend hours down there. Just make sure you wash your children’s hands thoroughly afterwards, says Mama darkly, who once had to weather tag team explosive vomiting after she didn’t. The Firth of Forth is pretty but it’s not that clean.
Anyway. Once you have admired the elegant red struts of the Forth Bridge and the wildlife and the choppy ride, you will be deposited on Inchcolm Island and marooned there.
There is something quite thrilling about this to Mama, who along with all Brits of a certain age, was forced to read the trapped-on-a-small-island-with-your-school-chums survival manual Lord of the Flies in school. Did we go feral and start beating each other around the head with conch shells? The anticipation would be rampant except that… how exactly is that different from a normal day out with kids? Everybody else can probably just get excited about the prospect of eating all sorts of unlikely live insects courtesy of Get me Out of Here…
Luckily, before it came to that, Mama broke out the sandwiches, which we ate inside the ruined monastery. It’s very scramble-able and picturesque and a whole bunch of fun to look round. Because of course, what else do you do with an island in the middle of an estuary but build a monastery?
Well, build military fortifications, that’s what. Bunkers and whatnot. Gotta protect the Forth Bridge from invaders.
We missed out on that because as well as poking around on Inchcolm Island’s sandy beach (WASH YOUR HANDS. Luckily there are fully plumbed toilets by the landing stage), we also discovered the path round the back of the monastery which leads you to the rockier, less built up island area and the end of the island, where the seals lurk.
Unfortunately we did not get to see the seals from land. Papa, who was the first to find the footpath, came back after a few minutes looking shaken and warning us to stay away. So obviously Mama had to take us to have a look.
No sooner had she stepped onto the broad green inviting walkway than she understood his fear. It was nesting season for seagulls, who turned out to be extremely unimpressed by anyone coming within any kind of distance of their young and totally unafraid to dive bomb en mass those that do so.
Being attacked by waves and waves and waves of large raucously shrieking birds who have no fear of humans after years of nicking their packed lunches is quite an experience. Mama made it to the top of the incline on the off-chance it would be a momentary inconvenience, realised the whole area was covered with the angry sea birds and beat a hasty retreat.
Never let it be said that our family is not occasionally sensitive to conservation issues and leaving our animal brothers and sisters in peace.
Anyway, after that it was time to get back on the boat again. More waves, more seals, no more puffins, another look at the Forth Bridge, the chance to compare it to the prosaically modern road bridge, and if you are lucky and get there quick before it is finished, the privilege of watching the ALL NEW, almost ethereal, road bridge go up. We may be a hundred and twenty five years on, but it is still damn difficult to get it right. Perhaps you will be there when they discover they are two millimeters off in being able to assemble there flat packed 21st century bridge kit, and everything!
All in all, a highly recommended day trip if you are ever in Edinburgh. QE2 smooeetoo is what Mama says. If you want boats, you want this one.
Although if you really want to go on the best British Isles cruise, you probably want one that goes all the way round.
Address for the launching area: Hawes Pier, South Queensferry, Edinburgh, EH30 9TB
Trip times: The boats run between from February to the end of October. There are between one and three sailings a day, depending on the time of year and whether or not it is a weekend.
You can also do a boat trip without getting off on the island (but that would be a mistake).
Prices: Child over 5 £9.30 – £10.30, adult £18.50 -19.50, family ticket from £49.60. Concessions for Historic Scotland members.
By car: There is a large free car park next to the pier.
By train: Edinburgh Waverley to Dalmeny Station (South Queensferry). Then you walk down the path from the station to the Hawes Pier going under the Forth Bridge. You could even have a go at going over the bridge on the train to North Queensferry and coming back again to Dalmeny if you wanted to really get your Forth Bridge fill.
By bus: Stagecoach 40/40A from Edinburgh Princes Street. Get off the bus at the Police Station (bottom of the hill) and it is a 10 mins walk along the High Street of South Queensferry to the pier.
The first tour operator also does a coach tour of Edinburgh followed by the river cruise.