In 1850 the first rail ferry in the world, the Leviathan, came into operation, linking Burntisland and Granton on the opposite side of the Firth of Forth. It was the concept of Thomas Bouch who was later to be responsible for the design of the ill-fated Tay Railway Bridge.
In addition to brewing and distilling, which was carried on from 1786 to 1916, Burntisland was a center of ship building for half a century between 1918 and 1968. The aluminum works founded in 1917 is still a major employer in addition to marine service industries.
Local landmarks include Rossend Castle, now restored and converted into offices, which dates from the 12th century; the Burgh Chambers (1843); Burntisland Library and Museum; Mary Somerville's house (1595), once the home (1786-1817) of a daughter of one of Lord Nelson's captains and pioneer of women's education who gave her name to Oxford's first college for women founded in 1879; and the octagonal-towered St Columba's Church, said to be the first church built after the Reformation and where the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, meeting in 1601, decided to publish the new authorized or 'King James' version of the Bible. On the Binn Hill just above Burntisland James 'Paraffin' Young started shale oil production and founded a village in 1878. Annual events in Burntisland include a Fair, Highland Games and the crowning of a 'Summer Queen' on the Links. A popular summer resort, Burntisland has a caravan site, bowling green, soccer ground and 18-hole golf course.
Burntisland's links with the sea have long been recognized. The Roman commander, Agricola, set up camp on Dunearn Hill, probably lured there by the natural harbor. He did not remain long in the area, however, and little more is known of Burntisland until King David 1 granted the lands for a church at Kirkton in 1130, though this assumes that there was a settlement in place here at the time. Rossend castle was built in 1119, and a settlement grew around the church, controlled by the Abbots of Dunfermline, known as Wester Kinghorn. The Bishop of St. Andrews consecrated the church in 1243. The castle was the residence of the Duries, who were the Abbots of Dunfemline, and remained in their care until the Reformation. Mary Queen of Scots stayed in 1563, and a French poet, Chastellard, was discovered hiding in her bedchamber, for which he was executed at St.Andrews (this was his second offence, the first occurred in Holyrood).
A Royal Charter was granted by James V in 1541, to form a burgh and utilize the harbor as a naval port. The Charter remained unconfirmed until granted by James VI in 1586. Burntisland flourished in this period, becoming the second most important seaport in the Forth after Leith. The harbor area prospered and expanded, to the detriment of the older Kirkton. Shipbuilding became a major industry, and would remain so for nearly 400 years. Due to the expansion of this area, and the running down of Kirkton, it was proposed to build a new church, started in 1592 and completed in 1595. The Reformation of 1559 may have influenced the design, as there is certainly a Dutch flavor with the square layout and central bell tower. The pulpit is also central, to emphasize the equality of all in the eyes of God. The church is still in a marvelous condition 400 years on, and the Guild seats, sailors loft, and marked pews for the gentry are all well worth viewing. The church is famous for having hosted the General Assembly in 1601, where King James VI (residing at Rossend Castle at the time), was instrumental in proposing a new translation of the Bible, which when complete was used for 350 years as the Authorized or King James Version. There is a carving of an inverted anchor over the main entrance to the church, symbolic of the sailor's and fishermen's faith in God to protect them from the sea. A model of the "Great Michael", a warship built in Burntisland during the late 1500's, hangs in the kirk from one of the pillars. An unusual feature is the external stairway on the east side which allowed access to and exit from an upper gallery known as the Sailor's Loft. This was to allow them to leave during a sermon if the tides clashed with the service. The church has recently undergone renovation inside after part of the roof collapsed.
Burntisland, as a naval port, was involved in various wars, French ships and troops being blockaded in the town by the English in 1560. The port was used as a muster area in 1588 during the threat of the Spanish Armada, and Charles I lost a large amount of treasure when the ferry "The Blessing of Burntisland" sank whilst crossing the Forth during his Royal Tour.
During 1651, when English warships bombarded the town and then Cromwell's troops took it, the garrison remained for 9 years, until 1660. They were not popular with the locals, as over the years several bodies clad in Roundhead equipment have been discovered under hearths and during harbor renovations. After this period, in 1666, Letters of Marque were issued to several local ship masters, acting as privateers against the Dutch, which led to a bombardment of the town by Dutch warships in 1667. Apparently nearly 500 cannonballs landed in the town. In 1689 government troops were shipped over to Burntisland to march to the Highlands against Viscount (Bonnie) Dundee. Ferry movements across the Forth were restricted during the 1715 Rebellion.
The herring fleets often anchored in Burntisland to land their catches, and at its peak around 1800 almost 500 fishing boats would be in harbor, offloading for the 8 curing factories near the harbor. The coal industry and the arrival of the railway ensured continuing prosperity. As an example of the amount of trade passing through Burntisland in 1894, The Fife Free Press of December 8th that year carried the following : "Harbor Trade" - Burntisland trade returns for November show that the shipment of coal is gradually returning to about its normal extent. During the past month 61 steamers and 17 sailing vessels cleared outwards with cargo, the total coal shipments amounted to 60,955 tons, as against 63,891 for the corresponding month last year. The import trade was fairly steady."
Around 1840 there was proposed a new railway line running north from Burntisland towards the Firth of Tay. Prince Albert Pier was constructed in 1844 to enable a regular passenger service between Burntisland and Granton, on the south side of the Forth. The railway station was built in 1847, and the first rail ferry in the world commenced in 1850. Burntisland gained enormously from this, but the building of the Forth Bridge in 1890 reduced its status to just another station on the line. Many service buildings were constructed however, and the North British Railway Company built and serviced engines, wagons and carriages here for many years.
Visitors to the town should visit the local library, gifted to the town in 1906 by Andrew Carnegie, where a small local exhibition displays some interesting items from the town's history. There is a good walk to be had by the energetic up and over the Binn, the 200m high volcanic hill at the back of the town, which affords a worthwhile view over the Forth, across to Edinburgh and up to the Bridges. The golf club is the 3rd oldest in Fife, after St. Andrews and Crail.