The Cambuskenneth Ferry

Cambuskenneth Ferry, between 1709 and 1935

Author Linda M. Chapman, member of Central Scotland Family History Society

5 North Street, Cambuskenneth,Stirling FK9 5NB

This article was first published in the Scottish Local History Forum Newsletter, Issue 69, Spring 2007.

The opening of a footbridge connecting Cambuskenneth (or ‘Abbey’, to give it its old name) to the rest of Stirling in 1935 marked the end of an era. Until then a small ferry had been used to transport passengers to and from Cambuskenneth, avoiding a much longer journey by way of Causewayhead and Stirling Bridge.

The lands of Cambuskenneth acquired by Cowane’s Hospital from Sir John Erskine of Alva in 1709 included “the ferry boat of Hood”, which had been in use for “several years” (1). A petition (2) from Cambuskenneth residents in 1933 asking for a bridge claimed that the ferry (although not the physical boat!) had been in existence for over 600 years. It is tempting to speculate that the 6th century boat which was excavated from the river at the Hood Farm in 1881 was an ancient ferry since there is evidence of an old pier at that spot. Perhaps this was the site of the original crossing, serving the Abbey and the old village, moving up-river when the Abbey ceased to function and the modern village was developed.

It seems clear that after Cambuskenneth Abbey was founded by David I in 1147 boats must have been used for easy access to and from Stirling and the Castle. It is less easy to discover when a regular ferry service was introduced. In 1529 an overladen boat returning to Stirling after a religious festival or fair sank. “Fifty persons of distinction, besides many others, were drowned.” (3) The boat has been described as a ferry but surely it must have been a work boat, used for the occasion, since any vessel capable of holding so many people, even if overladen, would have been much too large for everyday use.

This article covers the period when the Patrons of Cowane’s Hospital ran the ferry, between 1709 and 1935. they had overall charge, organising a roup (sale) of the tack (lease) when necessary. A local man was usually appointed. In return for an annual payment of rent the boatman collected fares from the passengers and was provided with a house and attached pendicle of land. He had to provide at least one cautioner (guarantor).The system varied occasionally. Sometimes there were two boatmen, sometimes an assistant and, for a while, the job was given to a Council employee, with a fixed wage. The Patrons also had to deal with many complaints and petitions from the boatmen and from Cambuskenneth inhabitants.

The names of most of the boatmen from 1716 onwards, some two dozen, can be traced through the minutes of Cowane’s Hospital (4).

The boatmen in the early eighteenth century.

The Court Book of Cambuskenneth (5) contains a couple of references to the ferry. In 1726 James Glen spotted a number of boys in his boat which was tied up by the Hood Farm. Claiming to be afraid for the safety of the children he pulled the boat ashore and removed the boys. Some force must have been used since he admitted that one boy’s leg went into the water and that he had given another a “scuff with his hand”. He also threw some of their hats and wigs into the river. When told by a passer-by that the boys included Lord Elphinstone’s sons, he had replied that he did not care whose sons they were. Lord Elphinstone and Provost James Johnstone (whose sons were also involved) then took Glen to court, accusing him of “gross ryot, assault and battrie”.

A complaint against Patrick Dickson in 1733 was made by a man called Morrisone. After taking him across the river Dickson said that the two pennies offered were not enough since Morrisone and his brother had failed to pay him on a previous occasion. This Morrisone denied and after a scuffle Dickson grabbed his bonnet, and with it his wig. He claimed that his offer to return the wig immediately was refused. The court found in favour of Dickson. Morrisone then paid the money owing and Dickson returned the bonnet and wig.

In Stirling Council Archives there exists a petition of 1739 (reproduced and transcribed at the end of this article) addressed to the “Honourable Magistrates & Counsell, together with the Masters and Managers of the Abbey of Cambuskenneth’, requesting the replacement of the drunken Cambuskenneth ferryman. It seems that this boatman not only refused his customers ‘ready service’, but cursed and swore, so that the good people were upset by his ‘rude behaviour … and unchtistian cariage’. One of the complainers adds that he signs ‘because he [William Garrow, the ferryman] said in a company that he would rip me up’. Even after this complaint, however, Garrow was not sackedand continued to run the ferry until 1754.

The Jacobite Rebellion

During the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 all boats on the Forth were tied up at Stirling Bridge to prevent the rebels from crossing the river. This included the ferry boat acquired by William Garrow the previous year. In December 1746 he complained to the Patrons of Cowane’s Hospital of the loss of income and was given 24 pounds scots in compensation. In 1753 he presented a petition (6) to the Town Council along similar lines – his boat had been secured at Stirling Bridge between August 1745 and May 1746, by which time it was “intirely broke”. A new boat was built, but that too was taken to the bridge and used to carry sand to rebuild an arch of the bridge. The ferry could not operate on either occasion and Garrow was deprived of his income. He did not mention the 24 pounds which Cowane’s paid him in 1746!

The boatmen in the late eighteenth century

The ferry continued to cause trouble and dissension in the second half of the eighteenth century. John Glen, who took over from Garrow in 1754, died at his post, leaving rent arrears of four guineas for his successor, James Mathie. Mathie, who took over in 1763, undertook repair work of garden walls and houses in Abbey which turned out to be too costly for the managers‘ liking. They also asked for confirmation that he had not been paid already. In 1780 it was reported that he had failed in his circumstances and deserted, leaving James Garrow in charge. Cowane’s resolved to prosecute him for unauthorised sub-letting, and organised a roup. At this point several new conditions were introduced in an attempt to ensure proper maintenance of the house, boat and land and to prevent the ferry crossing being used for customs duty avoidance. Fares were greatly increased, encouraging a competitive auction for the position of boatman. A final hefty bid of £16 from James Garrow (doubtless a relative of William’s) was successful but soon he asked to be relieved of the tack which was much less remunerative than expected because people were going round by Stirling Bridge to avoid the higher fares. Abbey inhabitants were also complaining about the situation so Cowane’s reduced the fares and organised a new roup. This turned out to be a devious affair – Robert Watson, indweller in Abbey, successfully bid 5 guineas on behalf of Alexander Mathie but it seems that Alexander acquired the tack for James, who was probably his cousin. So despite his controversial record James Mathie returned to his old position at very nearly the old rate. Watson himself became tacksman at a later date.

The boatmen in the early nineteenth century

Archibald McLellan was boatman from 1813 until his death in 1831 but after that the turnover was rapid. When his successor William Dawson died in 1836 Mrs Dawson took over the tenancy. It would be nice to think that she rowed the boat but it is more likely that she paid the rent and her son did the hard work. By June 1839 Thomas Dawson was referred to as the tacksman. His successor John Ferguson lasted for less than two years and was replaced by Alexander Connal who resigned after only a few weeks in the job. David Stewart of King Street was next. The 1851 census for Cambuskenneth includes an innkeeper called David Stewart, presumably at the Abbey Inn, with a 17 year old son Robert who was a ferryman. By 1854 the tacksman was William Dawson, perhaps another descendant of his namesake. His request for a reduction of his rent because of a change to the law regarding public houses was refused by a large majority.

The boatmen in the late nineteenth century

During this period there were many instances of a boatman resigning after only a couple of years and there were many complaints from Cambuskenneth residents. In January 1879 Mr Laurence Hunter requested help from Cowane’s in making a passage for the ferry boat by breaking the ice and clearing the same from pier to pier. (Hunter was a cabinet maker who also owned the Abbey Inn.) In February there was a petition from Abbey inhabitants complaining about the manner in which the tenant was working the ferry. Eventually the job was taken on by Robert Jackson, following the death of his brother John. Robert was a great success. The few complaints which he made to Cowane’s were dealt with sympathetically. In January 1883 there was a petition from Abbey inhabitants asking that the ferry should be relet to him. The lease was later renewed until 1885.

The next boatman, Alexander Paton, made many complaints about the state of the piers, about mud and about boats plying on the river and landing passengers on and near the piers. It seems that a large sum of money would be needed to clear the mud properly. There were also several complaints about Paton himself, particularly his manner of attending to the passengers, and it was decided in May 1890 that he should be removed. In August it was reported that the ferryman’s cautioners had been trying to persuade him to give up the lease but that their solicitor had been unable to contact him. In September it was reported that no progress had been made. The tenant was not attending to the premises and no responsible person was in charge. In October, Abbey inhabitants asked that Paton should be allowed to operate the ferry until he could be removed officially. (This seems a most unrealistic proposal.) It was decided to give him another chance but in November it was reported that he had left the ferry the previous day, leaving no-one in charge. The cautioner’s agent suggested that Cowane’s should find a replacement. They agreed to do so but at the cautioners’ and tenant’s expense.

A week later it was reported that Paton had signed a renunciation of his let and it was agreed to advertise the ferry to be let for seven years. The lease was to allow for an early termination in the event of a bridge being constructed, with six months notice in writing, or if the tacksman did not conduct the ferry properly. The lease was also to stress the need for a proper substitute of at least 16 years of age when the tacksman was unable to attend, and stipulated that he should not hire out pleasure boats on Sundays. The competitive auction was won by Thomas Watson with an annual rent of £57 10s.The house and boats were repaired and a new boat purchased while proceedings continued against Paton and his cautioners. A compromise was finally reached in February 1892. By early 1893 complaints were being received about Watson. He was reminded several times about the need to provide a suitable substitute. In May 1894 his rent was reduced permanently to £50 after he had submitted a statement of his takings to justify his claim.

Boatmen in the twentieth century

After a series of complaints and resignations the master of works appointed Thomas Dow, one of his workmen, to take charge of the ferry from December 1900, at a weekly wage of £1 10s with a free house. In 1906 Dow decided that his state of health would make alternative employment more attractive and the lease of the ferry, house and grounds was offered to Sam McAdam. McAdam, too, seems to have had heath problems. In 1913 he was unwell and a substitute was provided. McAdam was paid his full wage for a month, less money received from National Insurance. In 1916 he sustained a knee injury in the course of his duty and was unable to work for four months. The insurance company gave compensation for half his wages and Cowane’s made up the rest. Again, a temporary substitute was employed. After a request by the village committee for a second boatman was refused McAdam resigned. The job was offered to Robert Christie at £1 15s per week and a free house (the same terms as McAdam). Almost immediately there were complaints from the inhabitants of Cambuskenneth that the ferry had not been in operation at certain times recently. The ferryman’s excuse was that there had been of ice on the river and he submitted his resignation. It was agreed to use one of the town’s workmen in the meantime. The following February Thomas Dow, the former ferryman, took charge of the ferry again and moved back into the house vacated by Christie. Thomas Dow remained in the job until his retiral in August 1933 when his son Thomas took over. Thomas was the last ferryman of Cambuskenneth.

The Boathouse

The building, which still exists at the bottom of South Street, was the subject of many complaints. In 1785 James Mathie was given £2 2s for repairs to the house and boat and was allowed to make an additional room for the house out of the barn, at his own expense. A new house was built in 1814. It was rough-cast in 1836 and repaired and extended 3 years later. More repairs were needed in 1840 and a “necessary” was built. A new kitchen grate and chimney head were supplied in 1895. By 1933 the house was said to be damp and in disrepair. Thomas Dow jun. remained there as a tenant until the 1970s in spite of having said that he would prefer a house in Stirling.

At times the boathouse doubled as a public house. According to Agnes Ewing, an elderly resident interviewed by the Stirling Sentinel in 1951(7), whisky was sold not by the glass but by the pail.

The boats

The state of the boats was another subject of many complaints from the passengers and the tacksman. Cowane’s sometimes paid the bills but often insisted that it was the boatman’s responsibility to provide and maintain his vessels. William Garrow was give 40 pounds scots for a new boat in 1736 but in 1744 was told that he himself must provide a replacement. In 1754 Glen was given £24 but in 1770 James Mathie was given only scraps of timber from Abbey to help him build a new boat. In 1819 Archibald McLellan was given £5 5s towards a new boat and in 1831 William Dawson was given £2 for oars and anchors on the understanding that he would leave them as well as two “sufficient” boats at the end of his lease. He was also given £2 towards a new boat two years later. In 1855 William Dawson requested a new boat. A new boat was bought from Messrs Darroch & Elspie of Glasgow in 1891 for £15 10s. In November 1898 the spare ferry boat was carried away in a flood and recovered by T. McNair of Alloa who claimed 25/- salvage. After consideration had been given to the purchase of a second hand motor boat in 1918 a rowing boat was ordered from Messrs McCall and Wishart in Newburgh. In 1927 a letter was received from the principal officer of the Board of Trade in Leith, saying that he had received complaints about the running of the ferry and the condition of the boats. It was agreed to inspect the boats and to inform the Board of Trade of the negotiations for a bridge at Cambuskenneth. Councillors Forrester and Wilson were asked to advise on what boat or boats should be procured, and to consider the possibility of a motor boat. It was decided that a rowing boat should be bought, and life-saving apparatus was to be carried on board. A £53 offer from Messrs Andrew Campbell & Co., Glasgow was accepted. After its delivery the Patrons met at the Ferry to inspect the new boat. It was agreed that in view of Councillor Wilson’s long association with Cambuskenneth (his parents lived in North Street for many years) and the traffic on the river, and the interest he had displayed in obtaining the new boat, it should be named “Cameo III”. (Wilson and his father were both master mariners and had named two of their boats Cameo.) The Patrons thereafter crossed the river in the boat, rowed by Councillor Wilson.

In the 1951 Stirling Sentinel interview Jimmie McKenzie mentioned the use of church boats on Sundays. These were extra large craft which tended to grate on the stones at the bottom of the ford.

Rules and charges

The rules and fare structure were revised many times. In 1902 a deputation of Abbey residents requested that the rules should be formalised and displayed. They are still on display in the Smith Museum and Art Gallery. Generally, the boatman was expected to be on duty between 5 a.m. and 10.30 p.m. leaving a competent deputy in charge during any absences. In 1902 the rules specified that the deputy should be an approved male of at least 14 years of age and that he should be in charge for no more than five hours each day. In 1918 the boatman was granted a dinner interval between 2 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. during which time the ferry would not be used. Councillor McLellan (grandson of the 1813 boatman) argued that the ferry should not be closed during the day but he was out-voted. The boatman was allowed to charge extra for any crossings outside the regular hours. The 1919 rules stated that a ticket was to be issued for each payment and that no coal was to be carried.

Abbey residents paid a yearly sum which varied according to the size of the household. For a family of four or more this was one pound scots in 1780, 3s in 1902 and 6s in 1919. The equivalent sums for families of fewer than four people were one merk, 2s and 6s. In 1902 a monthly charge of 1s for visitors and lodgers was introduced at the request of Abbey residents. This was increased to 2s in 1919. “Strangers” were charged a farthing per passage in 1780, a halfpenny in 1902 and a penny in 1919. From 1919 the cost for ferrying a bicycle, pram or parcel without an attendant was one penny.

The only people who were consistently granted free passage were Council officials, employees of Cowane’s Hospital and the schoolmaster or schoolmistress. In 1906 Thaddeus Kettrick, lessee of Borrowmeadow Fishings, asked for a reduction for three fisherman residing in the bothy at Broom Farm between February and August. The boatman was told to charge them 2s 6p each. Jubilee nurses were given permission in 1910 to use the ferry free of charge. (This was a district nursing service introduced at the time of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.) The postal authorities stopped payment the same year, claiming that the Post Office Act of 1908 entitled them to free use of all public ferries for transport of mail etc. Girls attending the Industrial School, with their attendants, were given free use in 1911. A request by bakers James Millar & sons for a reduction for their employees was refused. In 1914 the village committee asked for, and was granted, free passage for the burgh band to perform at a concert. But in 1928 the ferryman was informed that no passengers were entitled to free use except for the servants of the Patrons when on duty.


The first action of a new boatman was often to complain about the state of the boats and of his house. On many occasions a string of complaints from both the boatman and the residents preceded the resignation of the boatman. His resignation was usually accepted on condition that he paid the expenses of advertising the vacancy and running a roup.

Other problems included mud and other obstructions in the river and loss of business through other boats landing passengers at the pier. In 1898 John Rolland complained that the tacksman of the Forth Navigation Dues was letting out boats for hire and depriving him of business. The remedy was usually to prevent use of the pier, and to try to reach an amicable agreement.

Passengers tended to grumble about the state of road leading to the ferry, mud on the piers, lack of lighting and the behaviour of some of the boatmen. The waiting room on the Stirling side of the river was the subject of many complaints. The boatman was supposed to keep it clean and tidy but it frequently became filthy and in need of repair. In 1887 the front was removed – perhaps it had become too smelly. Cambuskenneth residents made several requests for a waiting room on their side. Cowane’s obtained a few estimates but they came to nothing. There was some kind of hut used by the boatman, and residents were occasionally able to make use of this.

The footbridge

In 1822 there was a proposal to move Stirling Harbour to the back of the Abbey and to construct a bridge, as part of a scheme to improve the navigation of the River Forth (8). Later in the century the idea of replacing the ferry with a bridge was mooted several times. Funding the project was always going to be a problem, but by 1897 the potential benefits to commerce and tourism were recognised and a resolution in favour of a bridge was proposed at a public meeting chaired by Provost Kinross (9).

The difficulties of operating the ferry in increasingly shallow water, caused by the deepening the river’s fords by the Forth Navigation Commissioners, further strengthened the case for a bridge but in the end the matter was dropped. Interest revived in 1917 when Stirling Town Council was considering applying for a boundary extension to take in Cambuskenneth with a view to provision of housing for the working classes there. Councillor Derrick envisaged electric trams crossing the bridge. Cowane’s committee was asked to consider the matter but decided that although it was basically a good idea it should be shelved till after the war.

By 1925 discussions were again under way but again there were difficulties. The estimated cost of a light traffic bridge had risen to £9,000 and the Ministry of Transport was advising a higher loading capacity than the one proposed. New designs were obtained but doubts were expressed whether an even larger structure would be needed to cope with the rapidly increasing volume of traffic. The estimated cost was now thought to be prohibitive. Nevertheless, when the launch of the new ferry boat in 1928 was being celebrated in the Abbey Inn hopes were expressed by various speakers that when they met again it would be at the opening of the “bridge across the ferry”. Negotiations between the town and county councils were fraught with difficulties, however, with Councillor Dick censuring “dilly-dallying methods” while Dean McAllister made it clear that he disapproved of the project.

Probably provoked by all this, Cowane’s Hospital resolved in 1930 to give due notice that the ferry service would be discontinued, since it was not obliged to provide one, and derived no benefit from it. Later Alexander Dewar submitted a petition from a large number of Cambuskenneth inhabitants to both councils. His accompanying letter suggested that the ferry was dangerous as well as inconvenient and that if a vehicle bridge was too expensive a foot bridge would be an acceptable alternative. By this time the County Council was considering an alternative, much more expensive, scheme for a bridge crossing the river at Forthbank connecting with the Alloa Road by another bridge across the railway near Craigmill. Consideration of this scheme was deferred because of the proposal to build a bridge at Kincardine. The Ministry of Transport and the Unemployment Grants Commission were asked what grants would be available for respectively a two-way traffic bridge, a one-way bridge or a footbridge, at the ferry. The following March the decision to build a foot bridge was announced. The Patrons agreed to donate the necessary ground both sides of the river and to tell the boatman that his tenancy would end when the bridge was opened


Stirling Council Archives for use of their facilities and records.

Campbell Chesterman for photographs.

Edna Robertson for help in writing the article


(1) The Cartulary of Cambuskenneth, 1872, Edinburgh, page cxv111.

(2) Stirling Council Archives, Stirling town council minutes, SB1/1 30 November 1933.

(3) William Nimmo, The History of Stirlingshire, 1880, Thomas D. Morison, Glasgow, page 122.

(4) Stirling Council Archives, Cowane’s Hospital minutes, SB5/1 1709 – 1735..

Most of the unattributed material came from this source.

(5) Stirling Council Archives, Court Book of Cambuskenneth, 1709-1773, B66/24/1.

(6) Stirling Council Archives, Petition by William Garrow, 1753, B66/25/472.

Thanks are due to John Harrison for this reference.

(7) Stirling Sentinel, 26 June 1951, page 4.

(8) Observations on Improving the Navigation of the River Forth near Stirling, 1822, Stirling

(9) The Stirling Journal & Advertiser

Most of the material relating to the footbridge came from this source.