Burntisland (surveyed in 1894)


The coastal town of Burntisland lies within the parish of the same name, in the county of Fife, and is situated on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. The name is thought to be a corruption of 'Bartland' or possibly 'Burnet's land', although some locals suggest it relates to the burning of fisherman's huts on a small island located close to the harbour. In 1541, the town was recognised as a royal burgh by James V and, as such, enjoyed a degree of self-government. At the time it was surveyed, Burntisland consisted primarily of two main streets, connected by a number of lanes, which terminated at the harbour. Prior to the construction of the Forth Bridge (1890), Burntisland was the northern terminus for the ferry traffic of the Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee section of the North British Railway. In 1891, the population numbered 4,692 and the main source of revenue for the town came from the harbour and its related industries.

Town Planning

Although somewhat overshadowed by the presence of the large natural harbour and the railway, the centre of Burntisland saw a considerable amount of development in the nineteenth century. The construction of a town hall (sheet XL.10.5) in 1846 was soon followed by a music hall, with a seating capacity of 400. Built in 1857, the music hall cost approximately £2,000 and was paid for by Messrs John and Joseph Young of Dunearn. Presented to the town in 1869, it was used for public meetings and also served as a venue for entertainment. The United Free Church was also constructed around this time, as was a fever hospital, police buildings and a public school. The extent of these improvements suggests that Burntisland was a thriving and prosperous town.

Trade and Industry

At the time of survey, the harbour at Burntisland was considered by many to be the best on the Firth of Forth. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s it underwent major expansion and development, including the construction of a wet dock and a sea wall, the cost of which, along with other work, amounted to £150,000. Although an expensive process, the improvements resulted in a massive growth in harbour revenue, from around £200 in 1860 to over £16,000 in 1891. Originally a centre for herring fishing, the focus in Burntisland turned towards cooperage and curing following the appearance of the fishing stations further north. Fishing was soon supplanted by the exporting of coal, and distilling was in evidence throughout the nineteenth century. Although shipbuilding would play a prominent role in Burntisland during much of the twentieth century, its impact on the local economy prior to this was marginal.


With around three miles of coastline in the parish of Burntisland alone, a large number of people living in the area surrounding the town were involved in fishing the local waters and searching the sands for cockles and other shellfish. There is also mention, in Wilson (1857), of a distillery north of the town at Grange and two corn mills, one of which was powered by the sea and described by Wilson as 'a rare object of its class in Scotland'.

Religious Life

In the late nineteenth century, there were at least four different churches in Burntisland. The oldest and most established was the parish church, which was built in the 1590s and contained seating for 900. According to Groome (1894-5), the design of the parish church was based upon that of the North Church of Amsterdam and included 'a curious square edifice, surmounted by a squat, van-capped tower'. Other places of worship in the town included the United Free church, the United Presbyterian church and St Serf's Episcopal church.


At the time of survey, the educational needs of the young people of Burntisland were principally served by the public school, which was built in 1876 at a cost of £6,000. There was also an Episcopal school in the town and a public school at Binnend.


The people of Burntisland were well catered for by a large number of commerical institutions. By the late nineteenth century there were branches of the Commercial and National Banks and a savings' bank all located in the town centre. The post office, which was first opened in 1756, also included a savings' bank and insurance departments.

Culture and Society

A popular destination throughout the summer months, people flocked to Burntisland for sea-bathing and other recreational activities. The large stretch of sandy beach to the east of the town, on the opposite side of the railway tracks, was entirely devoted to bathing. The eighteen-hole golf course on the links to the east of town also proved popular with holiday makers and locals alike, as did the annual fair held on the third Friday of July. A number of cultural institutions and societies existed in the town at this time, including a science and art institution, a railway mechanics' reading-room and library, a masonic lodge and a golf club.