The small uninhabited island of Inchkeith lies in the middle of the Firth of Forth, the estuary between Edinburgh and Fife. The current 1803 built lighthouse is unmanned, but the National Museums Scotland currently has an 1889 lighthouse optic from Inchkeith on display, and the island is the perfect place for those who are fascinated by ruins and abandoned places.
The island itself has an interesting history, from military sites to (aptly in 2020) a quarantine site for a syphilis outbreak and plagues, to the experiments of a King.
A military site
Inchkeith has been the site of a 16th century French fort, an 1880s Victorian fort and batteries that were then updated to be used during the First and Second World Wars. The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland held a lecture in 2017, about this ‘Fortress Forth’ for those looking for more information.
Several gun emplacements can still be found on Inchkeith and although not used as much during the First World War, Inchkeith was an important base during the Second World War. It was allegedly used as a base using spoof radio traffic and double agents to try and distract Nazi Germany.
In the Firth of Forth, during these world wars, there were three lines of defence, with Inchkeith smack bang in the middle of the outer line.
But there is one story from the 1940s that I find somewhat intriguing. An event dubbed the “Battle of Salamander Street” – a street fellow Leith and Edinburgh residents will likely know of.
In February 1940, to alert a fellow ship coming toward the danger of a minefield, a shell was fired from one of the batteries on Inchkeith across the ships bows, to alert them to the danger. The shell ricocheted off the water, going through the roof of a factory and eventually going through the walls of a home on Salamander Street, before ending up in some sandbags by an Anderson shelter. A woman and her young son were injured but discharged from hospital fit and well. The decision to shoot the shell allegedly saved several on board.
Another image of the damage to the home can be found in this Facebook post.
Fans of Archaeology tv shows can also check out a 2002 episode of Two Men in a Trench: Defence of Inchkeith for some more information on Inchkeith as a military site (watch out for the nice early 00’s credits).
Inchkeith as quarantine
The first well recorded outbreak of what is now known as syphilis was in 1494 amongst French troops in Italy. Only a few years later, in 1497, Inchkeith was used as a quarantine and isolation area for victims of the disease, what was known then as “grandgore”.
A century later, in 1589, the island site was also used as a plague quarantine for ship passengers, and again in 1799 it is thought that Russian soldiers were buried on the site after contracting an infectious disease.
Island experiment of King James IV
Back in 1493, not long before the ‘grandgore’ quarantine, it is alleged that King James IV decided to conduct an experiment.
The King ordered two infant children to be sent, alongside a mute woman as a carer, to the island of Inchkeith. He believed depriving the infants of language and them being free from any outside communication would mean that when they began to speak it would reveal the original language of mankind, of the gods. Well OK then James.
There has been much speculation over what really happened to these children, as no full evidence is given of the experiment’s conclusion. Sir Walter Scott even commented on this event in his writings, stating that the children were more likely to “bleat like the goats and sheep on the island”.
Interesting place that Inchkeith.