WHEN I ease out on the Maid of the Forth for an annual trip on the vast island-studded eponymous estuary I think of Stockholm, Athens and Venice, of the cities that fully embrace their islands in a way Scotland’s capital fails to.

“Sometimes it feels like Edinburgh turns its back on the Forth,” says Maid of the Forth skipper Scott Aston as he eases us under the Forth Bridge into the shipping channel that sweeps east in search of the isle of Inchcolm and the Edinburgh skyline. “That’s surprising when the islands are such a joy, there’s wonderful wildlife, great views back to the Edinburgh skyline and, of course, our unique trio of Forth bridges.”

This trim purpose-built maritime steed is busy today, with people from all over the world, people who’ve heard how special the Firth of Forth and its bridges are, how unique a sail from South Queensferry – just within the City of Edinburgh’s boundaries – is. I live here and I reckon half the people I know in the ferry haven’t been out on the waters they see every day.

The National: The forgotten archipelego

The way Edinburgh often ignores the Forth is surreal, especially compared to Glasgow, which firmly embraces the Firth of Clyde. Trips down the Clyde were de rigueur for Glaswegians every summer before the advent of cheap jet travel to the Spanish Costas. The Clyde isles and the “doon the watter” culture – whose living embodiment, the Waverley, spends much of her time on the Clyde – is still inexorably woven into the psyche of Scotland’s largest city.

Everyone from the Vikings and the Romans appreciated the Forth and they’ve all left their tantalising legacies on its shores. Even over in Fife they proudly celebrate the estuary with the Fife Coastal Path along its northern littoral. From it you can easily make out battleship-esque Inchmickery, tidal causeway-connected Cramond and a flurry of other isles and skerries.

One of the chief draws to the Forth for me is the sheer breadth of the history interwoven into the waters.

Passing under the Forth Bridge we peer down on unmistakable Inchgarvie, a rugged wee isle once garrisoned in the Napoleonic-era and alive with birdlife again now that the rats have been eradicated. We pass Barnbougle Castle on the Dalmeny Estate, Edinburgh old money that spawned a British prime minister. He strolled an estate that sports Roman graffiti at Eagle Rock.

The National: The forgotten archipelego

More history awaits on Inchcolm. You can book a cruise that skips the nigh two hours on the island. Don’t. Inchcolm is glorious: a bijou isle, the east-coast Iona with the best preserved medieval abbey in the country. We hop on to the pier bound for its old cloisters and the myriad nooks and crannies my girls love exploring. We always end up at the top of the tower, which offers epic views to Edinburgh Castle and the other Forth isles.

Inchcolm also offers swathes of First and Second World War history – after all, the first dogfight of the Battle of Britain was fought above the Forth. There are old gun emplacements, bunkers and a dark tunnel through the solid rock that you can still eke through for a bird’s eye view of where they would look out for German bombers.

Inchcolm – like all the Forth isles – is alive with birdlife in summer. We catch sight of a couple of lingering puffins, gannets circling who’ve probably come over from Bass Rock (the world’s largest gannetry) and cute kittiwakes, plus all manner of gulls. Seals too, popping their heads nosily out of the water as we picnic by the beach.

This morning, Scott tells me they have spotted a minke and a humpback off Kinghorn – the Forth is an estuary alive with marine mammals.

All too soon it’s time to turn tail back west. We still, of course, have the highlight to come – sailing under the Forth Bridges. I cannot think of anywhere in the world that has three architecturally significant bridges from three successive centuries in such proximity. And seeing them from the water is an experience you seriously cannot miss.

Arriving back into South Queensferry we’re finished, but the family-run Maid of the Forth is not. She is straight back out doing what she and Scott clearly love. They also lay on jazz cruises and BBQ nights, plus every autumn a couple of very special trips to Inchkeith, the second-largest Forth isle after the Isle of May, to witness hundreds of seal pups.

By coincidence, a few days ago I was talking to James Crawford, who filmed the BBC’s Scotland From The Sky, who has landed on Inchkeith. He described it as “one of the wildest places I’ve been in the world”.

That is my next target in an archipelago I’m determined, as a citizen of Edinburgh, not to ignore.

Maid of the Forth (www.maidoftheforth.co.uk) runs regular trips from spring to late autumn from South Queensferry to Inchcolm that also take in the Forth Bridges. The Sula, her sister ship, ferries passengers between North Berwick and Anstruther, and runs trips out to see the Bass Rock gannets