The Forth Pilotage Authority - Part 1

Forth Pilot Tom Hume
Posing on the Stern of Cutter No.1

Pilotage of ships on the Firth of Forth prior to the 1913 Pilotage Act was operated and administered by self employed Licensed Pilots who originated from the then thriving fishing village of Newhaven-on-Forth, gleaned from records of the Free Fishermen's Society dating back to the fifteenth century, the Pilots being originally fishermen.

With the progression of maritime trade and increase in the size of vessels using the harbours and havens within the Forth from its geographical boundaries, i.e. St. Andrews on the North Shore to Eyemouth on the South Shore, thence westwards through the tortuous river bends known as the Windings, to the upper navigable limits of the River Forth, terminating in the ancient Royal Burgh of Stirling; the volume of traffic increased to such an extent that Pilotage had to be reorganised in order to cope with the demand for this service.

Leith Harbour had been the centre of trade in the entire area, as other harbours were constructed on either shore which in turn increased further the number of ships calling on, Methil, Kirkaldy, Dysart, Burntisland, Inverkeithing, Rosyth, Charlestown, Alloa, Grangemouth, Boness, Port Edgar, and Granton, in addition to all the existing small harbours and havens which had been in existence for as long as memory went back.

Pilots came from a very close-knit group of Newhaven families, whose names were continually associated with Pilotage until the end of the twentieth century, many extending into sixth generation:

These same early Pilots were responsible for providing their own Pilot Cutters, and crews, originating from the locally built fishing boats, which on many occasions sailed far out beyond the Forth shores seeking work, these sailing cutters were built to the designs of the Pilots themselves and were regarded as the fastest and most sea-worthy available.

Following sailing boats there were several individual steam driven boats built, similar in size to the Royal Navy fast picket launches, although the Pilots preferred to rely on the sturdy sailing cutters, right up until the introduction of the petrol/paraffin engines at the beginning of the 1900's.

The first custom built boarding launch so powered being built at Cockenzie, in 1914, by Wm. Weatherhead, this was the Pilot Launch 'TIGER', based at Leith as a boarding and landing boat which also serviced the Sea Cutter stationed at Inchkeith, this launch, which proved to be an outstanding sea-boat, served right up until the 1960's, then relegated to the position of relief boat for most of the Forth out-ports.

Two cruising sea-cutters, built at the Miller yard of St Monance, re-placed the earlier MFV type boats during the early 1920's, named (with not too much imagination) Forth Pilots No. 2, and No 3, they were re-named shortly afterwards as, LARGO LAW and TRAPRAIN LAW (after prominent landmarks to be seen from the Forth), a third cutter was added in 1938, named BERWICK LAW - which replaced the old Cutter No. 1, the Berwick Law being another product of the Wm; Weatherhead, Cockenzie boatyard.

In pre-electronic days of communication ships would literally turn up out of the blue, the old sailing cutters would then race to be first to 'speak with Master' (first come first served) strike a bargain then board the vessel to conduct it safely to whichever port it was bound. In later years steam tugs would also be on station to acquire a towage job in the case of sailing ships.

With the coming of steam a more up-to-date approach had to be instigated with Government legislation, hence the 1913 Pilotage Act made drastic alterations, requiring all Licensed Pilots to be qualified as a Board of Trade Certificated Foreign-Going Ship-Master, with a minimum service of sea-time as Master of a British Registered Vessel, and be under thirty five years of age - an extremely difficult condition to fulfil.

The men coming in after such time had to be fortunate to be accepted when a vacancy arose, many applicants missed their chance through being at sea, were then required to pass the rigorous examination held at the Leith Trinity House, by very strict examiners, all of whom being Past Masters, and Elder Brethren of the Trinity House of Leith, this ancient body, with its origins in a charitable hospital for the benefit of impoverished mariners, had and has no connection with the English counterpart, Trinity House of Deptford.

Upon being granted a Pilot License a probationary period had to served, License was renewed annually, coupled with a strict medical examination to ensure fitness to carry out the exacting task, several Pilots with acknowledged exceptional skills were selected by shipping Companies as Choice Pilots and held in high regard.

With the advent of the 1914 - 1918 war against Germany, great emphasis was placed upon the Forth Pilots, by which time they had collectively used the Isle of May as a look out post for their activities.

The Admiralty realised that if an enemy craft were to approach such a venue and take the said Pilots prisoner, it would have been extremely embarrassing, not to mention the inconvenience - the Pilots were instructed to abandon their 'look out' immediately, and pursue their calling from steam sea-going vessels - known universally as Pilot Cutters.

The Pilot Cutters were stationed near the west side of the May Island, until it was found in practice to be much more convenient to use North Berwick Harbour, avoiding the use of feeder launches from Crail and Dunbar harbours, this outer station, which became known as the Bass Station, was adopted right up until the modernisation of the Forth service around 1960's.

With North Berwick being a tidal harbour the Cutter usually lay-off at mooring close to the East side of Fidra Island, with an alternative mooring on the West side in the event of adverse weather.

The 14/18 war duly came and went, Pilotage looked for betterment to the service and it was decided to create an 'inward' service, with a cruising cutter, stationed around the Forth estuary, in the vicinity of the Bass Rock, to be known as the 'Bass Station', and 'inner' service, with a cruising cutter, stationed at Inchkeith, to known as the 'Inch Station', additional boarding and landing stations were to be at Methil, Burntisland /Kirkaldy, Leith/Granton, North Queensferry, and Grangemouth/Boness.

There were some twenty six licensed Pilots stationed at Leith, and empowered to conduct vessels to and from any port, harbour or haven within the Forth Pilotage district, several were also licensed as North Sea and West Coast of Scotland Pilots, although had to hand over to local Pilots in such ports such as Dundee, Aberdeen.

Some of the Licensed Pilots Circa 1930-1960:
BUTT James.
BUCHAN William.
CARNIE Thomas.
DAWSON William.
DUNCAN George.
FORBES Johnston.
GRAY Alexander.
HUME Thomas.
HUME Alexander.
HUME James.


LISTON Thomas.
LYLE David.
LYLE William.
NOBLE James.
WATSON Wiliam.
WILSON Thomas.