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Forth Defences, Outer, Inchkeith

Building(S) (20th Century), Hut(S) (20th Century), Military Installation (Second World War), Military Installation(S) (19th Century), Military Installation (First World War), Nissen Hut(S) (20th Century)

Site Name Forth Defences, Outer, Inchkeith

Classification Building(S) (20th Century), Hut(S) (20th Century), Military Installation (Second World War), Military Installation(S) (19th Century), Military Installation (First World War), Nissen Hut(S) (20th Century)

Canmore ID 52871

Site Number NT28SE 5

NGR NT 2944 8245

NGR Description Centred NT 2944 8245

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Fife
  • Parish Kinghorn
  • Former Region Fife
  • Former District Kirkcaldy
  • Former County Fife

World War One Audit of Surviving Remains (31 October 2013)

Inchkeith was the key fortress in the defence of the Forth and was fortified from the 16th century. Modern fortification was commenced in 1879, when four 10-inch Rifled Muzzle Loading guns were mounted in three forts, at the west (No. 1), the north (No. 2) and the south (2 guns - No. 3 Fort). A letter code was introduced in 1900 for the batteries on the island: the codes were changed twice by 1918 and then replaced by another system prior to the Second World War, making description confusing. Below, the 1916 codes are used, with annotation where changed by 1918.

In 1891 the two guns at No. 1 and No. 2 Forts were replaced by two 6-inch Breech Loading guns. In 1892 the first 9.2-inch gun (a Mk I) was mounted in the southern part of the island (to become “B” Group). In 1893 two 4.7-inch Quick Fire guns were emplaced, north and south of the lighthouse (to become Groups “H” and “F” respectively by 1916; Group “H” became “L” by 1918).

In 1899-1900 the two remaining 10-inch guns, at the south end of the island, in Fort No. 3, were replaced by two 6-inch Mk VII BL guns(“A” Group).

In 1901 two 6-pdr QF Nordenfeldt guns were supplied to the island, and four 5-inch BL guns were supplied for training.

In 1902-3 the 4.7-inch gun south of the lighthouse (“F” Group) was replaced by a 9.2-inch Mk X gun and in 1903-4 the same was done for the 4.7-inch gun north of the lighthouse (“H” Group, later called “L” Group). The first 9.2-inch that had been put in place, in 1892, was replaced with a Mk X gun over 1905-7

In 1903-4 the remaining single 6-inch gun at Fort No. 2 was removed to make way for two 6-inch guns in new emplacements (“M” Group).

In 1906 the four 6-inch guns in the two batteries at north and south ends of the island “M” and “A” Groups) were struck off the approved armament of the island, but retained until 1909 for training. In 1914 the approved armament of the island was the three 9.2-inch guns and the four defensive machine-guns.

In April 1915 the approved armament of the island was increased by four 6-inch guns, which were placed in the existing emplacements at north and south of the island (“M” and “A” Groups respectively). One from Group “M” was moved in 1916 to an existing 6-inch emplacement at the west (at first called “H” Group but later renamed “L”. Two further 6-inch guns were added to the island’s defences in 1916, in newly-built emplacements, as part of the battery called “H”, later named “L”.

The coast defence batteries of Britain were so vital to the country that it was important that they were not put out of action by the enemy, in advance of a naval attack. Many batteries were therefore provided with close defence.

Inchkeith was provided with a full suite of defensive structures and close-defence armament, starting well before the First World War.

First, there were nine blockhouses, what in the Second World War would be called pillboxes, distributed round the perimeter of the island. These first appear on a War Office map dated August 1941 but are of a First World War design recorded at Torry Battery in Aberdeen and at Portkil Battery on the Clyde, and are very likely to be of First World War construction. [RCAHMS record numbers NT28SE 5.15 to 5.23 inclusive].

Second, about 20 trenches (recorded on the 2nd edition map of the island) were dug to provide cover for defenders firing rifles onto any attackers. The Fort Record Book contains a sketch-map of the island, dated 1907, showing not only many of the fire trenches, but also extensive barbed wire entanglements covering beaches where the natural coast provided an inadequate obstruction. Two separate barbed wire enclosures protected, first, the northernmost 9.2-inch gun emplacement, and second, round the middle and southern 9.2-inch gun emplacements. The southern rock-cut trench of the Victorian fort at the south end of the island, and its caponier (a form of blockhouse ), were incorporated into the defensive scheme.

The island was provided with four .303” Maxim machine-guns for close defence in 1899, replacing four .45” Maxims. The positions of at least two Maxims are marked on the 1907 defence map.

Files at the The National Archives, Kew

WO 78/5158

WO 78/5159

WO 78/5161

WO 78/5162

WO 78/5168

WO 78/5180

WO 192/251 [Fort Record Book]

Information from HS/RCAHMS World War One Audit Project (GJB) 31 October 2013.

Archaeology Notes

NT28SE 5.00 centred 2944 8245

NT28SE 5.01 NT 29399 82670 Coast Battery

NT28SE 5.02 NT 29241 83120 Coast Battery

NT28SE 5.03 NT 29577 82268 and NT 29614 82307 Coast Battery

NT28SE 5.04 NT 29059 82990 Coast Battery

NT28SE 5.05 NT 29277 82945 Coast Battery

NT28SE 5.06 NT 29474 82471 Coast Battery

NT28SE 5.07 NT 29113 82875 Coast Battery

NT28SE 5.08 NT 29376 82715 and NT 29370 82727 Anti Aircraft Battery

NT28SE 5.09 NT c. 2942 8262 Radar site; Observation Post

NT28SE 5.10 NT 29503 82421 Anti Aircraft Battery

NT28SE 5.11 NT c. 2906 8296 Anti Aircraft Battery

NT28SE 5.12 NT 29329 82811 Observation post (Fire command post); Naval Signal Station

NT28SE 5.13 Centred NT 29413 82512 Military Camp

NT28SE 5.14 NT c. 2929 8291 Observation Posts (Old fire command N)

NT28SE 5.15 NT 29242 82758 Pillbox

NT28SE 5.16 NT 29472 82325 Pillbox

NT28SE 5.17 NT 29577 82219 Pillbox

NT28SE 5.18 NT 29628 82283 Pillbox

NT28SE 5.19 NT 29563 82490 Pillbox

NT28SE 5.20 NT 29530 82659 Pillbox

NT28SE 5.21 NT 29408 82918 Pillbox

NT28SE 5.22 NT 29364 82992 Pillbox

NT28SE 5.23 NT 29108 83007 Pillbox

NT28SE 5.24 Centred NT 29165 82811 Building; Huts

NT28SE 5.25 NT 29149 82999 Drill Hall; Officers Quarters

NT28SE 5.26 NT 29169 83024 Engine House

NT28SE 5.27 Centred NT 29356 82758 Water Supply Site

NT28SE 5.28 NT 29583 82256 Trench (fire trench)

NT28SE 5.29 Centred NT 29208 82930 Huts; Buildings

NT28SE 5.30 NT 29443 82595 Anti Aircraft Battery

NT28SE 5.31 NT 29526 82407 Anti Aircraft Battery

NT28SE 5.32 NT 29463 82721 and NT 29511 82526 Trenches (Fire trenches)

NT28SE 5.33 NT 29530 82307 and NT 29519 82318 Engine House; Oil Storage Tanks

NT28SE 5.34 NT 29276 82914 Anti Aircraft Battery

NT28SE 5.35 NT 29229 83183 Anti Aircraft Battery (possible)

NT28SE 5.36 NT 29250 83042 Observation Post (Battery Control Post, North)

NT28SE 5.37 NT 29232 83094 Store (S.A.A. store)

NT28SE 5.38 NT 29182 82724 to NT 29385 82562 Tramway

NT28SE 5.39 NT 29211 83236 Searchlight Emplacement

NT28SE 5.40 NT 29569 82231 Searchlight Battery

NT28SE 5.41 NT 29026 82991 Searchlight Battery

NT28SE 5.42 NT 29125 82971 Trenches (Fire trenches)

NT28SE 5.43 NT 29194 82809 Trenches (Fire trenches)

NT28SE 5.44 NT 29455 82567 Observation Post

NT28SE 5.45 NT 29468 82510 Observation Post

NT28SE 5.46 NT 29346 82784 Observation Post

NT28SE 5.47 NT 29360 82799 Observation Post

NT28SE 5.48 NT 29279 82853 Observation Post

NT28SE 5.49 NT 29294 82886 Observation Post

NT28SE 5.50 NT 29246 82950 Storehouse

NT28SE 5.51 NT 29244 82931 Kitchen

NT28SE 5.52 NT 29163 82887 Cart Shed; Storehouse

NT28SE 5.53 NT 29239 82847 Hut

NT28SE 5.54 NT 29165 82839 Workshop

NT28SE 5.55 NT 29197 82780 Office

NT28SE 5.56 NT 29232 82762 Storehouse

NT28SE 5.57 NT 29295 82732 Workshop; Building

NT28SE 5.58 NT 29078 83003 Firing Range

NT28SE 5.59 NT 29433 82495 Hospital

For earlier military structures see NT28SE 1.00

Inchkeith was fortified in 1878-81 by the erection of three polygonal batteries, one in each of the three headlands. Connected one with the other by a military road 1 1/2 miles long, they are yet entirely isolated by ditches 20ft deep and almost as many broad, while their massive parapet walls rise 4 1/2ft above the floor of the interior.

F H Groome 1901.

These fortifications are now ruined but are generally as described above.

Visited by OS (BS) 14 September 1978.

Inchkeith was re-fortified and re-armed during both the First and Second World Wars with several different calibres of guns. Many of the present remains relate to the 1939-45 war period, and include light anti-aircraft positions. The 9 or 10" batteries face eastwards whilst the 6" guns facing N and S were built to cover the channels to the N and S. These are annotated on a plan of the island (PRO 192/251) under the following names, A,(with Nos 1 and 2 6" guns) B, F, L, M groups, North Gun No.1, West guns Nos. 1 and 2. All batteries have their observation posts with a main 'Fire Control' area situated centrally on the island. In addition there are extensive administrative, domestic, supply and ammunition storage facilities along the whole length of the island.

The date and function of the trenchwork system at the S end of the island are unkown. Two wartime oblique aerial photographs show the situation in October 1941, with many of the temporary accommodation buildings visible.

Information from RCAHMS (DE); J Guy 1994, NMRS MS 810/3, PRO WO/192/251.

Most of the gun-emplacements and the accommodation huts are visible on a series of RAF WW II oblique air photographs (S 309, 6957-6961, flown 2 October 1941).

Information from RCAHMS (DE), March 2005

Following a photographic survey in February 2009, RCAHMS returned to Inchkeith in February 2010 to undertake a measured drawing survey of selected structures.

During this visit further military installations were discovered including a further two Unrotating Projectile (UP) holdfasts, a name pecked into a threshold concrete block at the entrance to a searchlight emplacement.

Information from RCAHMS (DRE), 2010.

Inchkeith, a small, steep-sided island set in a key position in the middle of the Firth of Forth, 5 miles north of the port of Leith, is a natural defensive site from which to observe and control enemy shipping entering the Firth or threatening the port of Leith. Its lighthouse was built on the highest point by Thomas Smith and his son-in-law Robert Stevenson in 1803. In 1878, batteries effectively acting as self-contained fortresses were built at three points and, as indicated on this map, by the time the First World War broke out, the island was bristling with military installations including gun emplacements, a signal station, a quantity of fire trenches sited strategically along the uppermost edges of the steep slopes, ammunition and artillery stores, an engine shed, water tanks as well as a telephone room, a look-out hut, accommodation for those stationed there, a main harbour (Leith) and two subsidiary ones (Kirkcaldy and Kinghorn).

To complete the picture of an impregnable island fortress, the map shows the positioning and extent of wire entanglement round the edges of the island to prevent ingress by any enemy. Further installations were added prior to the Second World War as part of the defence of the Firth of Forth from enemy shipping. Understandably, when made, the map was for War Department use only and this copy of the map, once de-classified, entered the National Library of Scotland in the 1980s via official Ministry of Defence disposal channels.

Information from Mr C Fleet (Senior Map Curator, National Library of Scotland), 14 October 2011.

Source: War Department / Ordnance Survey, Inchkeith (Kinghorn Ph.) Fifeshire. 1:2500 (surveyed 1911, printed 1914)). NLS Shelfmark: Map.Area.C18:13(3)

Architecture Notes

A palimpsest of military buildings dating from 1880 through to 1945.

The Defence of Britain Project

The estuary of the River Forth has been a vital and strategic area of defence for centuries. The estuary, because it faces Europe, cuts deep into the country and has the nation’s capital on the southern shore, was, for a long period, perceived as a vulnerable point on the coast of Britain. It is also the only sheltered anchorage between Invergordon in Easter Ross and the Humber. From the time of Mary Queen of Scots to the mid-1950s the islands of Inchgarvie, Inchcolm, Inchmickery, Inchkeith and the Isle of May have all, at one time or another, had defences built on them. As part of the recording of twentieth century defences in Scotland, two of these islands, Inchkeith and Inchmickery, were selected for survey work.

Inchmickery, situated about 3 km N of Silverknowes, has an area of approximately 1.3 hectares. The defences on the island all date from the twentieth century and include those from World Wars I and II.

The First World War defences are still visible and consist of emplacements for 12 pounder and 4-inch guns. In the Second World War the guns had been replaced by twin 6 pounder quick firing anti-shipping guns. These were placed on a care and maintenance basis as early as 1943. Virtually all space on the island is taken up with the remains of wartime structures. The key features are three tall Battery Observation Posts and two individual gun emplacements, along with a gun platform with three gun holdfasts. The rest of the space is occupied by huts, engine houses, offices, searchlight positions and stores. It has often been thought that the structures on the island were built to mimic a battleship in silhouette; no hard evidence for this has been found and the author feels, following the visit by RCAHMS that this theory is highly unlikely.

RCAHMS undertook a very rapid three hour photographic survey of this small island at the time of the Inchkeith project. The results are now in the Canmore database.

The survey of Inchkeith involved work over two years. Two four day sessions were undertaken, travelling out to the island each day. Compared to Inchmickery and the other islands in the Firth, Inchkeith has a much longer and more complicated military history.

The earliest recognisable remains are those of the citadel built by the French which occupy the highest point on the island, adjacent to the nineteenth century lighthouse. The citadel replaced a fort built by the English during their occupation in 1549. This structure must have been of a very temporary nature, possibly constructed of timber and earth. With the recovery of the island by the French, who garrisoned the island until 1558 on behalf of the Scots, a rather more substantial fort was built. A contemporary description notes ‘walls thirty feet thick’. Despite attempts to demolish the fort, much still survived in 1773; the construction of the lighthouse removed most of the citadel. Much of the east wall, consisting of rubble masonry about 1–2 m thick and a short re-entrant with a gun embrasure, remains.

An armorial panel bearing the Royal Coat of Arms has been inserted over an entrance to the courtyard of the lighthouse. The initials MR and a date 1564 are visible.

The lighthouse replaced an earlier one, the circular base of which survives to the south-east of the later First and Second World War Port War Signal Station. The proprietor of the Island in the early nineteenth century, the Duke of Buccleuch, gave permission for the work to start in 1803. The lighthouse, engineered by Thomas Smith, was opened in 1804. The light was later modified and is now automatic.

The military defences of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provide the most visible remains. The earliest nineteenth century structures are three stone built forts, numbered 1 to 3 on a War Office plan. Two retain above ground remains in one form or another, the third having only underground remains. They are situated on north-west side and at the north-west and south-east ends of the island respectively. In addition, at the south end of the island, to the north and south of Fort No.3 are two large rock cut ditches running east and west with stone built blockhouses (caponiers) set half way along them. To the north of Fort No.1 is the remains of a half filled rock cut ditch with another short length to the south. The remains of the two forts which survive above ground have date stones ‘VR 1880’, one above the main entrance to the magazines the other on an arch above the entrance road in to the courtyard.

The forts date from between 1878 and 1881 and follow a review of the Forth Defences by the War Office and a visit to the island by Colonel John Yerbury Moggridge of the Royal Engineers, who prepared plans for the gun batteries. The contract for the forts was given to Messrs. Hill and Co. of Gosport, Hampshire, the same firm which had built the major Victorian fortifications at Portsmouth and Spithead. The surviving walls are built of random rubble with some of the remains, including the magazines, underground, below the later gun emplacements. The rock cut ditch at Fort No.3 is about 7 m (20 feet) deep. First and Second World War coast batteries have been built over the stonework of Forts No.1 and 3. Fort No.2 retains elements of the magazine and accommodation under the M Group 6-inch gun emplacement and Battery Observation Post.

The forts were originally connected by a military road about 6 m wide (18 feet). All the forts were completed by 1883, and by 1898 had been armed with one 9.2-inch breech-loading (BL) and two 10-inch rifled muzzle loaders with additional emplacements mounting two 6-inch BLs and two 4.7-inch BLs.

The twentieth century brought an upgrading to the defences on the island. At the beginning of the century three large 9.2-inch calibre BL guns had been mounted in large concrete open emplacements; they were annotated B, F and L Group on the official map.

In addition further emplacements to augment the defences were built just before the First World War at the north, north-west and south-east of the island mounting 6-inch guns. Associated with all these defences were battery observation towers, fire control points, engine rooms, accommodation, stores and many other ancillary buildings along with a tramway, which ran from the harbor to the southeast end, the remains of which can still be seen.

In addition to the main military structures, a Port War Signal Station was built on the highest point near the lighthouse. One problem for the defenders on the island was the water supply. Though there were at least five wells, none produced enough to supply the large numbers of personnel now stationed on the island. A partial solution was found in the construction of a large concrete water collection area, still to be seen on the highest point. This construction never fully solved the water supply problem; through both World Wars the island required additional supply from Leith via water-carrying boats.

In the inter-war period the defences were run down, but not abandoned. However, with the rising threat from Germany in the 1930s, some planning was undertaken to modify and upgrade the guns. The 9.2-inch guns still in situ, were now provided with brick built overhead canopies as protection from aircraft attack.

This protection was also provided to the 6-inch batteries, the construction of which can be seen in a RAF aerial photograph held at RCAHMS. Several anti-aircraft positions were also built and modifications were carried out to many of the buildings to convert them for modern warfare. The Port War Signal Station was also modified with a top storey being added. A small radar set was provided for close watch, the main radar cover coming from mainland based stations. The run down was called Operation Floodtide when most upstream sites were reduced to Care and Maintenance, so that by 1945 only the most important gun sites were still armed.

Following the end of the Second World War the dismantling of military sites began in earnest, and by 1956 the guns from Inchkeith were removed and the site abandoned, except for the Northern Lighthouse Board staff accommodation. Since the 1980s this too has been unmanned and the associated buildings abandoned. Much of the metal work on the island was removed in this period by tenant occupiers.

The island is one of the best multi-period military sites in Scotland, if not in the United Kingdom. Visitors can see five centuries of military remains, though only in three of these centuries was the island actually occupied. Fear of enemy attack has populated not only Inchkeith, but most of the islands in the Firth of Forth with the remains of wartime structures of several periods, and it is likely that these concrete, brick, steel and stone buildings will long be visible as testament to the folly of war.

Information from RCAHMS (DE 2010)


Project (March 2013 - September 2013)

A project to characterise the quantity and quality of the Scottish resource of known surviving remains of the First World War. Carried out in partnership between Historic Scotland and RCAHMS.

Note (November 2017)

Remembering war

Rushing through a small highland village this weekend in search of a shop, the traffic came to abrupt stop. The sound of a piper could be heard drifting up the glen – a wedding perhaps, a friend suggested. The shop was closed, but only briefly, and after a few minutes the village went back to normal. A handful of people, some in military fatigues, others in fur coats and suits reminiscent of generations past, strolled back down the glen to their homes. It was, of course, Remembrance Sunday. The group had gathered by a memorial to the fallen that I had never noticed before.

Remembrance Day comes as the autumn leaves fall and the light fades. It brings a chance to reflect and be thankful for those who gave their lives but also to consider the consequences and causes of such total war, as many writers have done. In The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell went so far as to suggest that the experience of wartime Britain had fundamentally damaged the power and prestige of men of authority – no longer would the working man simply do as he was told. In Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s masterpiece of rural literature, he crafted characters of admirable qualities, who challenged the idea that there was any sense in sending young men to almost certain death for a struggle they knew nothing about.

A battalion of war memorials (more than 2,700) are not the only physical reminder of the great 20th century struggles in Europe. To these can be added the vestiges of barrack blocks, gun emplacements and the strangely named pillboxes (as if they provided a cure) that dot the Scottish countryside. The readers of Edinburgh, if they raise their eyes to the northern horizon, can usually see a long narrow island in the Firth of Forth with a silhouette that vaguely recalls a battleship: Inchkeith. This distinctive island hosts perhaps Scotland’s richest landscape of military archaeology, a palimpsest of some 500 years of fortification and conflict.

An island battleship

In stark contrast to the battlefields of Europe which have often been ploughed-out of existence, Inchkeith still retains much of its latest military infrastructure – gun emplacements, searchlight batteries, blockhouses, fire trenches, observation posts, and a remarkable rainwater collection system. Military activity on the Island reached its peak in the 20th century. The Victorian forts were re-engineered for modern warfare; pillboxes were erected and trench systems dug to provide close protection for the island. During World War 2 the island acted as the headquarters for the Outer Defences of the Firth of Forth, protecting Edinburgh and the anchorage from bombardment, and preventing access by enemy ships. The island was also vulnerable to attack from the air so overhead protection was constructed on all gun positions and anti-aircraft defences were added. At its peak it has a garrison of over 1,100 men. The men were housed in newly built barracks with associated cook houses, dining and recreational facilities.

The surviving infrastructure from 1945 is in fact the last in series of fortifications of the island, each overlying the other and leaving scars on the fragmentary rock. Beginning in 1878 (just a few years before work on the nearby rail bridge began) the Royal Engineers constructed three artillery forts on the island and improvements to the defences continued until the outbreak of World War 1, such as the addition of new gun emplacements. More than 300 years earlier during the Rough Wooing, a war between Scotland and England, the English had constructed a fort here which later fell into French hands. It is strange to think that the French rebuilt and garrisoned a fort here for more than 10 years, on one occasion firing their cannon at an English ship near their shore.

Little remains of the old fort as much of it was removed in 1803 when a lighthouse was built. A stretch of wall standing to 6m in height marks the eastern wall, and a panel bearing the Royal Arms, the initials M R (for Maria Regina, Mary Queen of Scots) and 1564, has been re-set over the courtyard entrance. The Victorian forts survive in better shape, though buried a jungle of later concrete buildings, and rank vegetation, each was recorded in detail by RCAHMS in 2009.

Inchkeith remains a powerful monument to war. No wreaths are laid there, no roll-call of the dead read out. But each element of its historic landscape speaks to the stories of the men and women that worked there, and to the continental conflicts with which they were involved.

George Geddes, Archaeologist, Survey and Recording, Historic Environment Scotland


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