The village of Charlestown, which lies on the south coast of Fife between the Kincardine and Forth road bridges, was established in 1770 by the 5th Earl of Elgin, Charles Bruce. The village, which is on a ridge overlooking the harbour, was laid out in the shape of an inverted ‘C’ & ‘E’, for Elgin and Charles.
The inner harbour and the lime kilns were built at about this time, the harbour being used to ship both lime and coal (mined from Lord Elgin’s estates) to other parts of Britain and the Flemish/Baltic region of northern Europe.
The lime kilns at Charlestown were built to replace those at the village of Limekilns a mile or so to the east.
Initially there were 9 kilns built on the site in 1777, but this was extended to 14 lime kilns in 1792, making this the largest single group of lime kilns in Scotland. A horse tramway with wooden rails was also built, to carry coal to the site and the lime to awaiting ships in the harbour. The kilns were still being used at Charlestown until the middle of the 20th century, they finally closed in 1956.
For those that worked at the lime kilns, the conditions were pretty grim, especially early on. The coal and limestone was manually loaded into the top of each kiln, a trip into this 12ft wide hole would mean certain death. The fumes and dust would have been highly noxious and unhealthy, and the final product, the quicklime is very corrosive and quite toxic. However, the workers at the Charlestown lime kilns were paid relatively well, with skilled workers getting 20p per day (12 hour shifts) and unskilled labourers getting half that amount. They also had regular work, good housing and schooling provided for their children.
When I read about the conditions that people used to work in, only a hundred or so years ago, it brings home to me the fact of how lucky we are to live in the present time.
With the increasing output of quicklime from the kilns, for use on farmland and for building purposes, the harbour was increased in size, with the outer harbour wall being built in 1840.
Shipbuilding took place in Victorian times, and ship breaking took place towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Ships from the German Imperial Fleet which were scuttled at Scapa Flow, at the end of the 1st World War, were brought here to be broken up.
Nowadays, the harbour is primarily used for private pleasure boats, mainly small yachts, and the odd small fishing boat.
NB Charles Bruce’s second son (Thomas), was the person responsible for the removal of the ‘Elgin’ Marbles from the Parthenon in Greece, in the early 1800’s.