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Issue 35 - Come hell or high water

Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007


This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Come hell or high water

James Carron explores the Elie chain walk, one of Fife's most unusual coastal walks

The Elie chain walk is one of Scotland’s best-kept coastal secrets. To call it a walk is not strictly accurate; it is more of a scramble, requiring a healthy spirit of adventure, a good measure of agility and a strong head for heights.

Created in the 1920s by a group of enterprising local people, it is the only trail in the country to utilise fixed chains and posts, a feature more common on continental mountain ranges like the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites.

They provide access to a fascinating stretch of the Fife coastline, one littered with secret coves and caves, all with a story to tell.

Although the walk is connected to the holiday town of Elie by name, it is geographically closer to the neighbouring royal burgh of Earlsferry, the older of the two communities. The village was the northern terminus of an early ferry route, linking lands owned by the earls of Fife here and at North Berwick, across the Firth of Forth. The route was well used by pilgrims heading for St Andrews.

The ferry service ceased in 1600 and although Earlsferry had by this time been bestowed with the status of a Royal burgh, allowing it to trade overseas, most skippers preferred to use the better harbour at Elie.

There appears to be no right or wrong way to do the chain walk; some traditionally start at the east end, others at the west. But all chain walkers must check the tides before setting out. The route is immersed at high water and can only be safely completed when the sea is out, or at least receding. The best bet is to start at least two hours after high tide, allowing plenty of time for exploration.

The approach from Earlsferry, in the east, starts with a pleasant stroll over Earlsferry Links, where golf has been played since the 16th century. The present course dates from 1895 and a track – part of the Fife Coastal Path – cuts across the fairways, leading to the golden sands of West Bay. Ahead Kincraig Point, a seemingly impenetrable wall of rock, blocks the horizon. The military made good use of this exposed outcrop during the Second World War, implanting big guns on the top to protect access to the naval dockyards at Rosyth.

In summer, the beach attracts sun seekers and sandcastle builders, but it is never as busy as the bay at Elie Harbour. In winter it is the preserve of hardy coastal walkers and fishermen digging for bait.

Sand gives way to rock at the western end of the bay, a narrow trail beating a path to the start of the chain walk where a notice pinned to the cliff advises of the potential dangers of proceeding further.

They include becoming trapped by the tide, being hit by falling rocks, or falling from the rocks themselves.

The chain walk has the feel of a Victorian enterprise, a gentrified seaside distraction for well to do holidaymakers. It dates, however, from much later – 1929 to be precise – when a group of Elie and Earlsferry residents took steps to make the shoreline around Kincraig Point more accessible. They raised £100 and commissioned a blacksmith from Arncroach to install posts and chains and carve footholds in the volcanic rock.

Pay heed to the warning notice, but do not let it deter you. Lingering here will only delay the inevitable – the first chains beckon ominously, a giant needle’s eye carved in the rock early indication of MacDuff’s Cave inlet.

According to local legend, MacDuff, the Earl of Fife, hid here as he fled from Macbeth until local fishermen could ferry him to safety across the Firth of Forth. Chains pinned horizontally to the rock guide the walker down into the narrow inlet where shingle rubbed smooth by the sea clacks noisily underfoot, echoing eerily from one hostile rock face to the other.

MacDuff’s Cave, a gaping mouth in the brooding wall of rock above, sits at the top of a slippery path strewn with loose gravel.

Standing in the cool air of the cavern, it is easy to imagine MacDuff hunkered down here, awaiting rescue, but all too aware that Macbeth’s men might just reach him first.

The climb out is tricky, the chain angled uncomfortably against the cliff. This is the most difficult part of the route, a real baptism of fire. But hold your nerve, seek out the narrow ledges and emerge unscathed above the needle’s eye.

Two small coves separate the inlet from the next chain. Moving from one to the other entails a hands-and-bottom scuttle over rough rock.

The shingle beach beyond is overshadowed by a vast vertical sweep of basalt columns rising skyward like the pipes of a mighty organ played by the sea. Bluebells and other wild flowers cling precariously to cracks in the hexagonal pillars. Ashort chain climbs out of the bay, but it offers scant preparation for what is to come – a stomach-churning, spine-tingling vertical plunge. The original iron chains and posts were replaced a few years ago with strong steel ones, all of which feel very secure and, provided you take your time, keep the chain between your legs and seek out the correct footholds, the descent over lichen-encrusted rock is straight-forward enough.

The landscape beyond is lunar in appearance, a flat tidal plain strewn with jagged volcanic rock formations. There are more basalt columns and, on the cliff top above, a wartime lookout post peers down inquisitively, scowling dark eyes lurking beneath a heavy brow of concrete.

The bay ends with another short chain ascent and a longer, but less steep, descent, a vertical chain followed by a horizontal one leading into a much narrower cove, where lurks Doo’s Cave.

The dark tunnel, named after the doves that shelter within its cool inner recess, cuts sharply into the rock. There is a shallower alcove next door; over centuries to come the sea will doubtless fashion another yawning cavern here.

Doo’s Cave conjures images of smugglers hauling their booty ashore and concealing it from the authorities in the secluded grotto, safe in the knowledge that the excise men would not venture here. Before the chains were installed, this would have been a perfect place for such illicit activities.

Indeed many visitors, who do not know the history of the trail, at first believe the chains and footholds formed part of a local smuggling route.

Ashort scramble leads to the final chain of the route, a moderate ascent followed by an easy walk over rocky ribs. The chain walk finishes on a flat grassy plateau but there is one last treat to explore – the Deil’s Cave.

Sitting in a wide bowl of rock, the square tunnel begins at the end of a narrow channel and runs for around 15 metres into the hillside. Steps cut into the rock provide access, but the cave can only be entered at the lowest of tides.

From the plateau of grass, a rough path zigzags up onto the headland where the return leg begins, following the Fife Coastal Path back to Earlsferry. Stone steps rise to a squat wartime building linked to the big guns that were located above Kincraig Point and a narrow path on the right, easily missed if you don’t know where to look, descends concrete steps to the lookout post seen earlier from the bay below.

The path climbs to a communications mast and trig point and the gun emplacements, deep concrete cylinders where heavy weapons protected allied shipping entering and leaving the Firth of Forth.

Aruined lookout post guards the start of the descent to Earlsferry Links, the stepped path levelling off to skirt between West Bay and the golf course. It is worth following this to Chapel Ness, where a ruined building on the headland marks the site of a medieval chapel built in 1093 by MacDuff as a thank you to the fishermen who helped him escape. It offered a rather more comfortable sanctuary than the dank cave he was forced to hide out in.

For more information
The Fife Coast and Countryside Trust
Tel: +44 (0)1592 656 080