Three Thousand Years of Transport across the Tay
Although we can assume that people in Tayside would have found ways of crossing the longest river in Scotland once they had found anything that floated, we do know from the log boat recovered in 1996 near Carpow, near Abernethy, that by 1,000 years BCE they had the knowledge to create a nine metre craft from a solid oak tree trunk. It had a detachable transom-board in its stern, a feature which is still found in boats today. It would have been a cargo vessel to ferry people, livestock and produce, such as animal hides or carcasses. Cargos could have included stone, timber or grain and a logboat could also help people to fish in different parts of the Tay.
Fast forward 1200 years and the river craft that are documented were those of the Roman Emperor Severus when in CE 208 he built and garrisoned forts, such as at Carpow where the logboat was found (see Romans). The legions would have crisscrossed the upper Tay as they carried out manoeuvres and might also have had a ferry between where Tayport and Broughty Ferry now are. Roman pottery has been found on the Law in Dundee, which may have been an obvious lookout tower across to Fife. A piece of sculpture known as the Cramond Lioness is in the National Museum in Edinburgh which marked the Roman ferry at Cramond. Might there still be something similar to be found for a Roman ferry to Fife?
After the Romans left Britain supposedly came the Dark Ages, about which we’re learning more and more. We do know that early Christian missionaries like St Ninian (about 400 CE) and St Columba (170 years later) travelled widely around Scotland and their sailing craft would have been wicker currachs covered with leather. Although the larger ones were surprisingly sturdy sailing craft, nothing remains of them as they would disintegrate over time, unlike the log boat. However, currachs are still made with pride in Ireland where St Columba came from. They are still raced today.
By the early 11th century Viking traders from Denmark and Norway were sailing up the Tay with their longboats and they founded a church to their patron Saint Clement (which would now be under City Square) and they called a rocky outcrop that juts into the Tay and looks like a serpent in the twilight ‘Wormit” (the place of the ‘Worm’ or serpent). They would probably have brought their Scandinavian four-oar rowing boats for inshore working with them such as the Sunnmørsfæring.
One of the oldest passenger ferry crossings over the Tay is that from Tayport (known as Ferryport on Craig or South Ferry) over to Broughty Ferry (known as Bruch-Tay or North Ferry). Folklore has it that when MacDuff, Thane of Fife, was fleeing home to East Wemyss from Macbeth’s Castle in 1040 after the murder of King Duncan I, he paid the ferry man with all that he had left – a loaf, after which this ferry route was known as “The Ferry of the Loaf”. By 1040 it would have probably be a boat like the Sunnmørsfæring rather than a currach that he would have escaped in.
Fast-forward another 150 years and we come across a ferry for the upper classes that we know would definitely have existed. Lindores Abbey, near Newburgh, was founded in 1191 by David, Earl of Huntingdon, who gave it income from his burgh, later to be called Dundee, and the Church of St Mary (now the City Church). The south of Coutties Wynd, now next to Tony Macaroni, is one of the oldest streets in Dundee and would have been on the original shoreline. Its previous name was Abbot’s Wynd, so there would have been frequent direct passage by boat from there to Lindores.
The principal ferry across the Tay from the 15th Century onwards would be the route from St Nicholas Craig (now under Discovery Point) across to Seamylnes (the water mill by the Sea). This area on the South of the Tay in the 18th century would later be called The Newport of Dundee (now shortened to Newport) when the Dundee Guildry built a pier and a granary there. Up to 1890 the mill could still be see. But all that can be seen now is the hole in the wall for the shaft.
Although the fares that the ferrymen could charge were regulated, the ferries themselves were not and ran haphazardly both in timing and in safety. This was all to change after the morning of Sunday 28th May 1815 when a pinnace (a small rowing and sail boat), overloaded with twenty four people, capsized. Other ferries, similarly overloaded, dared not help lest they also capsized and so seventeen passengers and crew drowned. The resulting enquiry laid down strict regulations about safety, and following the introduction of steam vessels such as the UNION in 1820, there would be a regular ferry service for nearly 150 years. You can see a National Library of Scotland online clip of the paddle steamer SIR WILLIAM HIGH leaving Newport in 1939 and crossing the Tay. Dundonians would call the ferries “Fifies”. The last two diesel-powered Fifies, the SCOTSCRAIG and the ABERCRAIG, would be sold and towed to Malta when the Tay Road Bridge opened in 1966.The SCOTSCRAIG would go on to star in 1980 as the Popeye Barge on the film set in Malta. She later sank and is now a tourist underwater diver attraction. The Dundee ferry harbour now is home to RRS DISCOVERY and you can enjoy viewing the Newport ferry pier from the comfort of the Boat Brae restaurant which is on the site of the ferry offices.
The other major crossing, the ancient “Ferry of the Loaf” would proceed to have a remarkable world-beating engineering record for a few decades in the 19th century before the Tay Rail Bridges were built. Ferryport-on-Craig harbour terminus was opened in 1848 by the Edinburgh & Northern Railway, who found the name was difficult to fit onto the tickets so shortened it to Tayport in 1851. Engineer Thomas Bouch, infamous for his unsuccessful design of the first Tay Railway Bridge, was successful in his revolutionary “Floating Railway” Ro-Ro (roll-on roll-off) goods train ferry to Broughty Pier. A sister to the LEVIATHAN rail ferry service from Granton to Burntisland. You can see a model of it in Broughty Castle museum.
Closed when Bouch’s Tay Rail Bridge opened in May 1878, it was brought swiftly back into service after the calamity of 28th December 1879 and ran for almost another ten years until the present rail bridge was opened in 1887. The harbour branch line ran across Castle Green onto the wide pier at the west of the harbour and you can still see the landing slip in Tayport Harbour. The wooden Pile Light was a beacon to the ferries from Broughty Ferry at night.
A passenger rail ferry also operated on this route and the paddle steamer was called the DOLPHIN, which name is remembered in the burgh’s community centre.
With the news in December 2020 that Forth Ports, the owner of the Port of Dundee, that its investment of £40m would include the replacement of the Caledon East Wharf with a quayside capable of Ro-Ro, it looks as though ferries on the Tay could be about to start a new chapter.
Feature image courtesy of Mairi Shiels, Newport History Group
Cramond Lioness: National Museums of Scotland
Currach: Meitheal Mara
Currach making way: Moy Boat Club
Rowing boat: Wikimedia
Coutties Wynd: Dundee Leisure and Culture
Seamylnes: Newport History Group
Union in 1820: Iain Flett
Floating railway: National Library of Scotland
Ferry model: Iain Flett and Leisure and Culture Dundee
Dolphin: Leisure and Culture Dundee