Books  Regional Natural History  Europe 

The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History

By: TC Smout (Author), Mairi Stewart (Author)

306 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations, b/w maps, tables

Birlinn Publishing

Paperback | Nov 2012 | #201181 | ISBN-13: 9781780270647
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £14.99 $18/€17 approx

About this book

The Firth of Forth combines a rich wildlife with a history of long and intense human activity around its shores and in its waters. At one time, herring, cod and haddock, with many other edible fish, were vastly more numerous, but seals and seabirds much rarer than they are now. Once, the rivers running into the Firth were so polluted that people could set fire to some of the burns; now the water is often as pure as it has ever been since records began. Illustrated with black-and-white and colour photographs, this is a capitivating exploration into the life of the Firth of Forth which considers a wide range of questions.

How have people affected and exploited the wildlife, and how in turn has it determined the lives of people? What changes to the biodiversity of the Firth have taken place as a result of human interference? Why has pollution been easier to control than over-fishing? What were the unintended consequences to the natural heritage both of pollution and of cleaning-up, and what role has conservation had in bringing about changes? 

"This is not a bird book but it is nevertheless a fascinating piece of both social and environmental history, which quickly had me captivated. Drawn to the book by its title, since I live on the outer shores of the Forth, I began by looking for ornithological references, but soon found other distractions.

Much of the book deals with the sorry tale of the ebb and flow (mostly ebb) of natural resources harvested by people living along the shores of the Forth over the last 10,000+ years, although most of the detail covers just the last few hundred years, a period for which we have much more direct evidence. A succession of fish and shellfish harvests for various species have left us with a greatly impoverished marine fauna. Other problems that have affected the Forth are land claim and pollution. It is estimated that, in the last 400 years, 45–55% of the intertidal area of the Forth has been ‘reclaimed’. The impacts of pollution increased as the human population grew, although the sewage deposited off Leith supported flocks of over 40,000 ducks right up until the late 1970s. (In the winter of 1969/70 there were estimates of 30,000–40,000 Greater Scaup Aythya marila, up to 4,000 Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula and 5,000–8,000 Common Pochard A. ferina). Water purification laws and the decline of industry mean that the Forth is now much cleaner.

In the final chapters the avifauna of the Firth of Forth takes centre stage with chapters devoted to the Northern Gannets Morus bassanus of the Bass Rock and the seabird colonies, mainly on the Isle of May but also on other islands in the firth. These chapters are a real treasure trove of information about the history of the breeding birds of these islands. Being on an island provided little protection from egg-collectors and shooting ‘tourists’ but following protection the numbers have, until more recently, seen unprecedented increases. Part of the reason for this success is thought to have been the removal of competition for prey (smaller fish) from larger fish such as cod and herring. But the now-familiar tale of declines in some species in more recent years is also discussed.

This book is easy to read yet crammed with fascinating facts, so is excellent value at less than £15."

- Mark Holling, 21-05-2013,

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Christopher Smout is Historiographer Royal in Scotland and Emeritus Professor of Scottish History at the University of St Andrews. He has written widely on Scottish economic, social and demographic history, and since the mid 1990s has been much concerned with environmental history. ‘He was the first deputy chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage in the 1990s’.

Mairi Stewart is an environmental historian specialising in Scottish woodland history. She joined the staff of the UHI Centre for History in 2005 and is currently working on a four-year research project dealing with the social history of twentieth-century Scottish forestry.

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