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Paddle Steamers at Elie

By Captain Alan Provan

The River Forth is 116 miles long and the 63½ miles from Stirling to the mouth of the Forth were navigable for use by excursion and ferry steamers. At the height of the excursion trade it was reckoned that there were 63 piers of all shapes and sizes to visit, but most of them had restricted access because of the tide and nearly all have gone now.

The Comet (above) appeared in 1812 and very soon advances in machinery and design of boilers had steamships becoming popular and quite quickly taking over from sail.  When sailing ships arrived at the mouth of the Forth from all over the UK and the world they could quite easily be becalmed and drift with the tide until there was a favourable wind to take them upriver to Leith, Newhaven and other ports. This, of course, could last for days. Maybe attempts were made to row the smaller ones but this could take a lot of time and a lot of hard work. 

With the coming of steam power steam tugs started appearing, the first arriving from Tyneside in the early 1820s. It was not long before local shipping companies or businessmen and shipyards on the Forth took the opportunity to become involved and compete.  Often, the sailing ship that got up the Forth to Leith first and discharge her cargo would be the most profitable, so the competition amongst the tugs would have been quite fierce. Obviously, local shipping companies would use their tugs on their own ships first.

In 1834 engineer Samuel Hall (1781—1863) invented the surface condenser for steam boilers. This allowed exhausted steam to be returned as water, giving steamers more time non-stop at sea. Prior to this they couldn’t carry enough fresh water (sea water was damaging to the boiler, which had to cleaned out every couple of days). Having a condenser boiler allowed the Sirius (built in Leith) to be the first steam-powered boat to cross the Atlantic non-stop in 1837. 

Sailing Ship under tow by steam paddle tug.
Photo from Shipping of the River Forth (William F Hendrie)

Tugs would patrol the mouth of the Forth, usually from the Isle of May to Bass Rock, or further upriver depending on the weather conditions. It is very probable that many Masters, if the price was right and depending on his cargo, would employ a tug to take their ship upriver rather than sail up, which was faster and safer.  The necessary pilots would also have been on the tugs.

When business was slack, someone soon realised that to keep money coming in the public might fancy a wee sail on the Forth on one of these never-seen-before “steamboats”. This could be around the Bass Rock or the May Isle, or just a short cruise.  There would almost certainly be more tugs looking for business than there were sailing ships, so more opportunity to start short cruises.

By 1854 the excursion tug business was in full swing and, with steam power increasingly taking over from sail,  there was gradually less and less sailing ships in the river. So what to do with the redundant tugs?  It was decided by some to go for the excursion trips in a big way and money was spent building bigger bespoke excursion boats. Galloway was an early starter and the Chain Pier at Newhaven was built in 1821, allowing low water access.  Granton, useable from 1838, and Leith from 1852, were the main departure points.

The posters of paddlers below are some of those which would have called at Elie. There were, of course, many others.

Andrew Greig ran a service to Aberdeen & London calling at East Neuk ports, although this wasn’t successful because of cargo problems, so the Fife ports got a dedicated service in 1844. Check out Elie, fares and dates, etc, especially the sailing times from Elie.  Greig also owned the Chain Pier at Newhaven, so had a bit of a monopoly.  

Elie would be becoming a fairly busy harbour at this time, with steamers visiting most days and sometimes several a day.  The pier then was shorter and a narrower than it is now and in need of repair; the causeway was also in a poor condition, frequently being repaired and then washed away in bad weather when the harbour island would only be accessible by foot at low water or close to it.  Passengers were landed by “florry boats” (picture below) to the steps on the rocks or on the pier.

A Florry Boat (photo credit  Eric Eunson)

Note that of the seven in the boat, four are wearing uniforms (which indicates they are crew) and three are passengers.  Going by this it would take a very long time to land and pick up several hundred passengers!  If the steamer could get into the harbour at high water then the passengers would not have been able to get up to Elie as the then causeway would have been covered.  Planning all this must have been a bit of a nightmare because weather conditions also had to be taken into account, and of course tide times differ every day.

The Fifeshire Journal of August 1842 reported that the Stirling Castle will call at Elie regularly and will go into the harbour when tide permits.  So the pier must have been usable to some extent, though only at high water or close either side of this. This is an earlier Stirling Castle and not the one we will see later, built Glasgow 1826 and only 98ft long.

Rough steps can just be made out in the photos below along with the remains of a structure, which is thought to be steps to allow the passengers access over the wall. 

Traces of steps (1/3)
Traces of steps (3/3)
Traces of steps (2/3)
Remains of structure to access pier.
Painted 1848 by Charles Blyth, you can see the causeway and paddle steamer having departed from Elie. Just visible is the shape and size of the pier then, which is different to now.  The original of this painting resides in Elie, as do several lithographs.

The Forth must have been a very busy waterway at this time. Boats going up and down and crossing in all directions, both sail and steam, and it became even busier as the custom built excursion steamers arrived in large numbers.

The cruising season was from spring to autumn but cargo boats and ferries would be working all year, weather permitting. Although sail was making way for steam, there would still be some sailing ships requiring assistance from steam tugs to make passage up or down river.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1855 introduced certificates for carrying passengers and dictated the structure of a vessel, its lifesaving appliances to be carried and the number of passengers allowed.  Depending on where the owner wanted the steamer to trade he applied for a Class 5 certificate (upriver from Queensferry), Class 4 (upriver on a line from Portobello to Kirkcaldy) and Class 3 (beyond that line and to the open sea). All of these were for daylight summer excursions.

In August 1860 the East of Fife Record reported: The Anstruther & Leith Steam Shipping Company, hereby intimate that, in consequence of the high rate of Harbour Dues now chargeable at Elie, their steamer Forth will from henceforth neither receive nor land goods or passengers at that port.

Was this Mr Baird, who purchased Elie Estate in 1853, recovering money he spent on the work carried out to improve the pier and build the causeway?  A full account of the story to improve the pier and causeway can be found in the book ‘The Harbours of Elie Bay – A History’, written by Archie Rennie (available to purchase from EEHS).

PS Lord Aberdour (1866 to 1900) 142ft long x 20ft wide

The PS Lord Aberdour was regarded as the first pure excursion steamer on the Forth and the first with deck saloons.  Built in Glasgow in 1866 for McGregor & Galloway, especially for working on the Forth, she was broken up at Granton in 1900.  She was not a very popular cruiser, with poor amenities and no catering.  The old and the new – sail and steam – can be seen in the photo above.

PS Lord Elgin (1876 to 1881) 160ft x 20ft

The PS Lord Elgin was built in Stockton-on-Tees in 1876 for John Kidd and managed by Galloway. She was designed as a cargo vessel but did passenger work as well.  Sold to the South Coast of England in 1881 and was still working when broken up in 1955 – 79 years – not many boats have that sort of lifespan!

PS Lord Morton (1883 to 1916) 170ft long x 20ft wide  

The PS Lord Morton was built in Leith in 1883 and purchased by Galloway in 1886.  Requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1916 and subsequently bought by them in 1917.  Converted to a hospital carrier to support the expeditionary force fighting Russian Bolsheviks and blown up to avoid capture in the White Sea, Russia, in September 1919.  How she got there is not known, but it must have been some trip! (Is that a florry boat to starboard trying to catch up?)

PS Stirling Castle (1884 to 1898)  160ft x 20ft

The PS Stirling Castle (above two photos) was built in Leith in 1884 and purchased by Galloway in 1886. It undertook trips upriver through Alloa and on to Stirling, which was a very precarious passage.  She was sold to new owners in Constantinople in 1898 and name changed to Anatoli.  She was lost in WW1.  Note the number of passengers and how the man on the wheel has a poor view from behind the funnel. The funnels can be seen to be telescopic.

PS Edinburgh Castle (1886 to 1916) 160ft x 20ft

The PS Edinburgh Castle (above) was built in Kirkcaldy in 1886 for Galloway and was the first boat on the Forth to have electric lighting fitted.  She was not very popular, having an uncomfortable motion and prone to causing sea-sickness in the outer Forth.  Some paddle steamers, because of their machinery design, had a kind of surging motion as the piston slid up and down the driving rod and if pronounced could be quite uncomfortable when steaming at full speed. She was requisitioned for minesweeping duties in 1916 and subsequently purchased by the Admiralty in 1917.  Converted to a hospital carrier and, like the Lord Morton, blown up in the White Sea, Russia in 1919.

Edinburgh Castle sailings
PS Tantallon Castle  (1887 to 1898) 190ft x 21ft

The first Tantallon Castle (above) was built in Leith in 1887 for Galloway.  Sold to Constantinople owners in 1898. Renamed Ferah and lost in WW1.  In 1888 she would sail from Leith to Elie and pick up passengers from smaller vessels from North Berwick and Portobello for cruising. With her relatively large size, she would have had a job getting in and out of the harbour, with poor manoeuvrability. A lot of work for the florry boats!


In 1886, at the AGM of the Galloway Saloon Steam Packet (GSSP) Company, it was stated that the lack of low water landing stages was holding the excursion business back, and this must be corrected ASAP.  Calls at most ports in the river were restricted because of tides and using florry boats was a poor way of landing and uplifting a large number of passengers. It also couldn’t have been that safe.  Elie was particularly bad for this, with no low water landing for steamers, but nonetheless a very popular call.  

GSSP obtained approval, after discussions with Mr Baird, to construct a landing stage on the rocks outside the harbour, known as Apple Rock.  It was completed and brought into use in 1889, but at low water it was soon found that it didn’t extend far enough out and an extra set of pilings were fitted that winter.

Postcard view from UF Church tower Elie (Valentines 1896)

In the postcard view above, the pier at Elie Harbour can be seen (pre-dates the Elie Ness lighthouse, not yet built).  The small lighthouse at the end of the pier can just be made out, along with a paddle steamer alongside.  Construction of the pier started in November 1867.  The East Fife Record of 24 January 1868 reported that “the new light has been hoisted at the harbour” (this could be taken that it was replacing an existing one).  It was officially discontinued as a light by the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1929 (though it is understood that it was still lit years after this) and was demolished in the late 1940s.  An “Elie Native” wrote to the Edinburgh Evening News in 1923 looking for people to invest in the low water pier and bring it back into use again.  PS Conqueror had been using it periodically for the last two seasons.

Attempts were made in the 1880s to develop commuter traffic on the Forth, and a service commenced in 1889 between Elie and Leith.  This didn’t prove very popular and by 1891 Elie was only served Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  The service was abandoned at the end of that season, despite a petition by Elie residents.

SS Wemyss Castle (1891 to 1905)  180ft x 18ft  
Alongside Apple Rock Pier, Elie (above) and underway (below)

The PS Wemyss Castle (two photos above) was built at Port Glasgow in 1872, originally named Gareloch.  She was purchased by GSSP in 1891 and broken up 1905.

Schedule for Tantallon Castle August 1897
Note – no calls at Elie on Friday and Sunday. Monday three times, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday twice.


1898 was a record season with six steamers working and 380,000 passengers carried.

Passengers would often travel by train to Elie and take a steamer back to Leith.  With GSSP being partly owned by the North British Railway (and in debt to them) one combined ticket could be purchased for the round trip.

In May of 1898 Tantallon and Stirling were drydocked for routine survey.  On completion they sailed on trials in the Forth and just kept going never to return both being sold to owners in Constantinople.  These were arguably the two best boats in the fleet and the halcyon days of the paddle steamer excursions were in decline.  The money realised from the sale of the two boats was reinvested and the new Tantallon Castle (pictured below) was ordered.

PS Tantallon Castle (1899 to 1901)  210ft x 25ft x 8ft 

The new Tantallon Castle was built in Kinghorn in 1899 for GSSP.  She turned out to be badly designed, down by the head making her difficult to handle and lively in a sea, resulting in a lot of seasickness aboard.  Trials gave a top speed of 16½ kts and she was certified to carry an amazing 787 passengers. At only 210ft long, it is difficult to see where all the lifesaving equipment was.  GSSP were glad to sell her to new owners in England in 1901.  She ended up working in Portugal and was broken up in 1927. 

PS Stirling Castle II (1899 to 1907)

At the same time a replacement Stirling Castle was ordered and arrived 1899. Though as plush as Tantallon, she was smaller and built with one telescopic funnel to make it easier to work upriver to Alloa and Stirling. Built in Kinghorn for GSSP her machinery was disconnecting which meant that her paddles could be turned independently, meaning she was highly manoeuvrable and could turn in her own length.  She also had a telescopic funnel.  Possibly the best vessel that GSSP had owned.  Sold to owners in Southampton in 1907 for financial reasons. Requisitioned by the Admiralty and sunk by a mine off Malta in September 1916.


The 1890s have been described as the halcyon days of excursions on the Forth.  The boats started the season in April 1900 looking very smart, freshly painted.  Prices were relatively cheap.  The season was still spring to autumn.  Though the finances of GSSP were not in a great condition, hit with a lot of unbudgeted expenses, weather damage when boats laid up in Granton, repairs, breakdowns etc and Portobello Pier hopes were high for the new century.

Portobello Pier
Note the Elie destination board. 

Portobello Pier was built in 1871 by Thomas Bouch (Tay Rail Bridge and the Leven and East Fife Railway (which includes Elie).  It was similar to the large piers that were common in England and had tearooms, entertainment, promenade facilities and fishing on it.  Supposedly unique in Scotland and just over 1200ft long.  It was badly damaged in 1887 and was closed for a while. GSSP had given the owners financial assistance over the years to keep it open, for low water access, and finally bought it in 1891. Although thought of as a valuable asset it never made a profit and was a drain on finances, needing frequent very expensive maintenance, also repairs following bad weather or collision damage.  After many years of trying to keep it open, at great expense, it was finally declared unsafe early 1918 and demolished that year.

PS Red Gauntlet (on the Clyde) 1895


From 1900 financial worries were increasing and lots of unrest between GSSP and part owners NBR.  Threats of liquidations, debts not paid and existing boats in poor condition or unsuitable for the job.  In 1901 the North British Railway took over control, but GSSP was ran separately and in 1907 the NBR took full control. The reign of three generations of the Galloway family, who were the leaders of excursion trips in the 19th Century, was now at an end. This was not a good time to be in the paddle steamers excursion trip business.

The railway did not have a great impact on this business as trains had been running along the Fife coast for many years. Though with better roads and transport improving as the 20th century came in, and with workers being given annual holidays, there must have been some effect. Yet it was reported that 1912 recorded the highest passenger receipts for a long while. The centenary of Comet, marking the beginning of the end for paddle steamer cruising in the Forth.

SS Roslin Castle (1906 to 1908) 185ft x 26ft
Approaching Apple Rock Pier Elie

The SS Roslin Castle (note she is not a paddle steamer) was built in Leith in 1906 for GSSP (NBR), to replace the Wemyss Castle. She became very popular with pleasing lines, good seaworthiness and a high standard of accommodation.  At this time the Admiralty was searching the country to purchase boats to be used as fleet tenders and she was sold to them in 1908, the company unable to refuse the offer made.  She was renamed HMS Nimble.  After various subsequent owners and duties she was broken up in 1949.

PS Redgauntlet (1909 to 1916)  215ft x 22f
Approaching Apple Rock Pier Elie
Note the ladies walking on the pathway to the pier, the remains of which can still be seen today.

The PS Red Gauntlet was built in Glasgow in 1895 and came to the Forth for GSSP/NBR in 1909. She was a twin propeller vessel and was surplus to NBR requirements on the Clyde, so brought to the Forth as replacement to Roslin Castle.  It soon became clear that she was not fit to cope with the different sea conditions in the Forth with rivets popping, being sea-sickness inducing, etc.  She was dry-docked and improvements made after which she became very popular. She would have been a common sight in Elie.  She was requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1916 and ended up in Algeria in 1921.  Her entry in the Registry closed in 1924.

PS Red Gauntlet alongside the Apple Rock Pier Elie.
Note the white cloths on the rocks – perhaps someone a bit of drying/bleaching going on.
Also note the ‘sailor’ sitting on the right watching events – possibly a Mars Boy.
Redgauntlet schedule – it is presumed that on Thursday and Friday those who joined at Elie would have been taken back there – or maybe this was them arriving at Elie by train then taking a cruise, returning to Leith by sea.


On the 2nd of August 1914 the Admiralty declared the Forth a controlled area with excursion sailings prohibited.  The GSSP fleet was laid up in Port Edgar.  Although owned by NBR it was still known as GSSP.

During 1914–1918 many ex-pleasure steamers were adapted as minesweepers, patrol and examination vessels and of course many of them never returned, lost in action or sold on. 

GSSP/NBR put on no services in 1919; they still owned a few piers and a ticket kiosk in Elie.  All were in a poor condition and with no boats running, the Company decided not to continue with excursion trips on the Forth.  It was too expensive to build new boats and none returned from war duties.  Elie Pier was put up for sale, but there was no interest and all leases were cancelled in 1921 (these presumably with Elie Estate).

Paddle Tug Conqueror  (1897 to 1934)  131ft x 22ft

Sea cruises with Conqueror were reintroduced in 1922.  She came from the South Coast of England and had been used for trips across the Channel. Supposedly using the Galloway Pier at Elie, time was allowed ashore so the Apple Rock Pier must have been usable by then.

East Fife Observer August 1922First Sunday landing since railway started of SS Conqueror, short cruises carried out throughout the afternoon – the tide having to be reckoned with. 

Edinburgh Evening News 1 August 1924.  Conqueror calling at Elie, Apple Rock still serviceable and visited occasionally. Believe this was the end of Apple Rock. Was it just allowed to deteriorate?  Was a use was found for some of the timber?

A small number of paddlers remained in the Forth still cruising and doing ferry work up to the outbreak of war in 1939 and of course at the Queensferry Crossing until the road bridge was opened.  There were some cruises, mainly from Leith, along with non-landing trips to off North Berwick, off Elie Ness and upriver to Grangemouth.  There were also trips around the May Isle and the Bass Rock.

Paddle tug Elie

To finish off, this last photo (above) is of a paddle steamer, though unlike the others we have seen there is no record of her calling at Elie, but as you can see she is named Elie.

Built in 1912 for the Great Western Railway Company for service at Fishguard.  In 1927 she moved to work on the Tyne and in 1932 moved to the Forth when purchased by Grangemouth & Forth Towing Company and given the name Elie.  She was based at Methil, but sometimes worked at Rosyth.  There is every chance she would have found her way to Elie as she worked in the Forth, until being scrapped in 1962.


Steamers of the Firth of Forth (Ian Brodie).

Steamers of the Firth of Forth Volume 2 (Ian Brodie). 

Firth Services and Excursions (Ian Brodie)

Various newspapers articles from both sides of the river

Photographs & postcards from the Alan Provan Collection.

3 thoughts on “Paddle Steamers at Elie

  1. Another brilliant effort – this site never fails to please. I wrote an article on John Key t/a Abden Shipbuilding in Kirkcaldy’s Heritage in 50 Objects. It is so hard to believe that a Kinghorn shipbuilder build ocean going steamships on the shores of the Forth. Well done.

  2. Hi, that was a very interesting piece. Both my Great Grandpas on my father’s side were connected with this post. My grandmother’s father (William McGregor b. 1874 approx) ran a tug boat called “The Gannet.” My Grandfather’s father James Stuart Wilkie (born 1867) was a marine engine fitter at Anderston, Glasgow before relocating to Kinghorn in about 1907. I suspect he worked for the company that produced two of the boats mentioned above. If you have any more information or can direct me to any more interesting websites I’ll be very grateful. A distant relative of mine was born up in Elie about 100 years before James, (I believe his great grandma), maiden name Agnes Robertson. I believe the Wilkies first settled up there (St. Monans) before the 1600s coming up from Edinburgh. I don’t believe I’ve been to Elie – but finding about our history has been fascinating and I’ll go when I get the chance.

  3. This is a really interesting read, especially with the photographs. I wonder if you have a photo of SS Xantho which belonged to the Anstruther and Leith Shipping Company, which also operated as a pleasure steamer from time to time. I have been contacted by a museum in West Australia which has its engine , salvaged after it foundered out there. Best wishes,
    Kevin Dunion. Kilrenny and Anstruther Burgh Collection

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