Fired up with their usual enthusiasm and filled with anticipation, the crew from Newhaven Coastal Rowing Club eagerly push their skiff, The Wee Michael, from her lockup in Granton to the jetty. Normally, launching is limited to a couple of hours on either side of high tide, but today is a virtual rowing day so let’s take full advantage of being able to launch her at very low tide!
Granton Harbour dates from 1837 and was originally constructed as an addition to Leith Docks. Robert Stevenson, from the family of famed lighthouse designers, constructed the outer breakwaters.
Queen Victoria landed at Granton pier in September 1842 on her first official visit to Edinburgh. During the First World War, the harbour was used as a base for the storage of mine-sweeping equipment.
Leaving the harbour, the waters of the Forth River become slightly rougher but the crew quickly coordinate and establish a pace, punctuated by the click-clack of the oars between the kabes, and we begin to make steady and rhythmic progress.
We row past the breakwater which is populated as usual by its loyal clutch of optimistic anglers and into the calm waters of Wardie Bay.
Wardie Bay is a small, little-known beach but much loved by locals and enthusiastic swimmers alike. It’s a somewhat unkempt space bordered by both low-lying cottages and larger houses situated further up the coast, perched on the overlooking slopes.
After Wardie Bay we come to Newhaven which is noted for both of its lighthouses … and its fish and chips. Traditionally, Newhaven housed Edinburgh’s fish market and was also well known for its oysters. Newhaven retains an enviable reputation as host to several excellent fish restaurants.
The original lighthouse was built in 1837 and is noted for its relatively short, distinctive dome. The taller, outer lighthouse was built almost 40 years later, in 1876, and is no longer used officially; however, it frequently provides an attractive display consisting of many coloured lights shining in the evening twilight.
Keeping up the pace, our crew edges the skiff past the Western Harbour with its jagged skyline of multi-storey tower blocks as we progress towards Leith docks. However, we give the entrance to the docks a wide berth – there can be some seriously large boats coming and going from the dock. Today, there are two passenger/Ro-Ro cargo ships in harbour. These are the Pride of Burgundy, and the Pride of Canterbury. Both are taking leave from their usual Dover/Calais crossing during lockdown. Interestingly, both vessels are now flagged to Cyprus as their owners had to seek out the most beneficial scenario regarding taxation, because of the situation created by Brexit.
On each side of the dock entrance, we find a stubby, octagonal tower complete with its own light. Beside these we see a bell with an electric clapper which is dated 1878. However, it was never used for very long because ships had to be almost on the rocks before the crew could hear it!
And so, as we hand the baton to Portobello, it’s time for a well-deserved break. After coffee, the crew have a quick changeover; the cox wants to stretch his arms and join in with the rowing and the rowers swap places, each taking up a position on a different side of the skiff. Then, having completed our virtual row, its straight back to Granton for The Wee Michael and her crew. Well, perhaps just a small detour for fish’n’chips and then home to watch a video of our day’s rowing?
Stories from The Wee Michael – a right royal row!
Step back in time and row with us from Granton to Leith, it may be a short stretch but it’s certainly rich in royal stories.
A King and a pirate are rowing across Wardie Bay; the King is James IV and the pirate is his good friend Sir Andrew Wood from Largo. The King needs a new haven or harbour to build his Royal Scottish Navy and the pirate knows the Firth of Forth like the back of his hand.
The recent launch of The Margaret, the ship named after his queen and built in Leith, proved to be a PR shambles as she got stuck in the shallows and had to be dismantled to float her off the sandbank. ‘The troubadours’ – the storytelling spies of their day, had a right royal scoop reporting back to Queen Margaret’s brother, Henry VIII, who was currently planning his own flagship, The Mary Rose.
Deciding on the deeper waters betwixt Granton and Leith and King James, commissioned a huge ship, The Great Michael, and a new haven was founded (Newhaven). The keel was laid in 1507 and, so the songs tell us, they felled the forests of Fife to build her; her oak sides were ten feet thick to protect her from enemy cannon balls. The pirate oversaw the build and best shipwrights were shipped in from France and Flanders. The building of this Super-Ship was sure to put Scotland on the maritime map. Launched in 1511, she was twice the size of King Henry’s Mary Rose and weighed in with more firepower but even Sir Andrew Wood found her difficult to steer. When James died three years later on Flodden Field, with the royal coffers bare, The Great Michael was sold to the King of France.
The French connection continued as Mary de Guise, who shunned King Henry’s advances, married James V and later set up court in Leith whilst her daughter went off to France. Leith wine merchants got the pick of the Burgundy crop and it was in Leith that Mary Queen of Scots landed…
The shipwrights who built James’s boat stuck around but decided to keep themselves to themselves. Taking to fishing and dredging oysters, they kept their foreign customs as they fought off fashionable progress.
Society photographers Hill and Adamson discovered the quaint fishing village and made the hard-working Newhaven Fishwives the cover girls of their day. Their gala dress of yellow and red striped petticoats became high fashion and Queen Victoria dressed her daughters in the latest look.
Victoria’s first state visit in 1842 took the good burghers of Edinburgh by surprise. When the Royal Yacht arrived into Granton early one foggy morning the welcoming party were found snoozing. To avoid another potential PR debacle, riders were dispatched to Leith and Edinburgh and the race was on – the Provost of Leith won and was first to welcome the Queen to Scotland. Leith’s motto is Persevere so this one-upmanship was important for Leithers were always, and still are – in spirit at least, fiercely independent of Edinburgh.
The annual Newhaven Gala sees the pupils of Victoria Primary School dressed in their gala best down at the harbour to welcome the P7’s Fisher Queen and King who sail in from Granton. The Newhaven Community Choir sing the traditional songs, like the former Fishwives choir, and the parade leads us up Main Street from the harbour to the school playground. Our skiff, The Wee Michael, always rows in to welcome them, too.
Introducing Newhaven Coastal Rowing Club
Newhaven Coastal Rowing Club was established by a group of parents at Victoria Primary School in Newhaven.
The Wee Michael (number 9) was one of the earliest St. Ayles skiffs to be built, being launched at Newhaven Harbour in November 2010. The Wee Michael has a very traditional design, being one of the few skiffs still to row with the traditional kabes, rather than pins.
From very early in the history of the club, The Wee Michael has been launched from Granton Harbour (just along the road from Newhaven) and stored at the Forth Corinthians Yacht Club. The spirit of the Corinthians club ties in well with Newhaven’s ethos of welcoming all, regardless of age, background, athletic ability or rowing experience.
We love an adventure around the Forth, often around the islands of Inchmickery, Cramond, Inchkeith and Inchcolm, downstream to Portobello, upstream to Cramond or the beaches of the Dalmeny Estate, or occasionally across the water to Fife.
Inchmickery is a small island, but the one local to Newhaven, and very popular with the club. A row round the island, a quick break at the far side for coffee and crew change, collection of any flotsam and jetsam that’s floating around before rowing back is an excellent workout for anyone! The island is small and during both world wars it was used as a gun emplacement with most of the concrete superstructure remaining largely intact. From a distance it looks like a battleship. The island is now an RSPB reserve. The highlight of any row is being met by the Inchmickery seals who often follow the boat (it’s not for the singing!) and then see us off as we leave for home.
We regularly attend regattas, both locally and further afield and host our own Forth Midsummer Challenge incorporating rowing, running and sailing in a unique relay event.
As Edinburgh’s most central club we are always looking for new members, both for competitive and social rowing. We have strong links with other community organisations in Newhaven and join in the flotilla for the Newhaven Community Fair in May each year.
What rowing means to me:
I love …
… the freedom, camerarderie and adventure.
… being on the open water, feeling the wind in my hair and the salt spray on my face.
… the peace and tranquility, the splash of the oars, the warmth of the sun.
… the waves and the wind, the bounce of the boat, the exhilaration that borders on fear.
… being at one with your crew; the rhythm of the stroke, the sound of the skiff as it moves through the water.
… the excitement of the race, the adrenline rush, the speed, precision and complete concentration.
… the enjoyment of a social row, the random destination, the spontaneous picnic with Niall’s cheese scones.
… being in nature, seeing seals and sea birds, leaving the city and real life behind.
How rowing makes me feel:
– When the waves are up – challenged and invigorated.
– When the water is quiet – at peace…
– Rowing has been fantastic for my mental health and helps me feel tranquil
– Great camaraderie on board and working as a team
– Exciting and calming
– Being out on the water makes me feel part of something bigger and better.
– Seal spotting and island hopping
– Sense of connection
– Collaboration and connection
– Fun!! And good exercise
– Cake well earned
– Joyful when it’s bouncy
– There’s nothing better than an early morning row on a clear day. The water is like glass, there’s a gentle calm. It really does feel like a brand new start.
– Seals, puffins … even dolphins!
– Using the skiff as a means of transport. To Cramond for coffee, Newhaven for fish’n’chips, otherwise inaccessible beaches, any island at all to explore.
– Eating mince pies on a cloudy Christmas eve in the middle of the Forth.
– Some days the sea looks as calm as glass, and we zip through it; on others we bounce about never seeming to get anywhere, but enjoying all the sea bluster and camaraderie immensely.
– Calm energy. Fast energy. Team energy. Nature’s energy. And calm once more.
– Just messing about.
– I think we relish that moment when, synchronised and steady, we power into the choppy waters beyond the harbour mouth. Like a portal into another dimension, we pass as guests into a world of seals, gannets, puffins, eiders, and terns. As a poet said, ‘peace comes dropping slowly’, that is until the waves get whipped up, then it’s ‘adrenaline rising quickly’ and the teamwork comes into its own. In these wilder conditions, an awe sets in at the genius of the skiff’s design, calibrated for exactly these waves. Even more important to keep synchronised and steady, to feel the power of unison that brings us back to harbour, invigorated, wet and together.