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Issue 57 - Wild Corner of the Country

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011

 

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Wild Corner of the Country

In the second part in our series exploring Scotland's coastline, Sally Toms leads us from the Firth of Forth up to the Firth of Tay

The coast line which runs from the Forth to the Tay has been a busy one for centuries, affording goods and other vital effects for the country to be delivered directly into the heart of the nation’s capital. This east coast stretch also has seen the rise and decline in fortunes of the fishing fleets. Once massive flotillas of trawlers followed the herring shoals down the entire east coast of Britain, and the effects of the loses are still felt in communities up and down this coastline.
Leith
Leith has been a busy port for more than1,000 years. In 1329 King Robert I gave control of the port to the city of Edinburgh, and ever since the two have been growing into one another until it’s difficult to tell them apart. But historically, the two towns have two very distinct identities.
After Edward I sacked the port of Berwick in 1296, Leith took over as Scotland’s principal port and commercial centre, at least until the 18th century when the torch passed to Glasgow.
By this time ships from Leith were world famous. They had circumnavigated the globe and exported goods around the world. Leith’s
wealthy merchants traded in sugar, glass, timber, whisky and wine, flour, soap, lead, rope, biscuits, even whaling.
Though most famous for shipbuilding, this busy port was once the battleground upon which Scotland’s religious future was decided.
During the 16th century, the infant Mary, Queen of Scots had been removed to France following the Rough Wooing of Henry VIII. Her mother and ruling Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, had set up court in Leith from where some 8,000 French resisted attacks from Scottish protestant lords, who had sided with England against the Catholic French.
In 1560, an army of 6,000 soldiers marched to the town from Berwick, to put an end to the French soldiers’ 12 year encampment. But so skilfully had the French fortified the town that every attack delivered by the protestant army was thwarted. The best documented day of the siege was 7 May 1560, when the enemy charged the walls of Leith with ladders that turned out to be too short. English sources report 1000-1500 casualties, many of which were attributed to the women of Leith throwing stones from the ramparts.
Mary was delighted by the failed attack, but she was already ill and quickly died of natural causes. Soon after the Siege of Leith was put to an end. The Treaty of Leith, which became known as the Treaty of Edinburgh, secured the withdrawal of both French and English troops from Scotland, and effectively dissolved the Auld Alliance, leaving the future of Scotland in the hands of the pro-English protestants.
The docks at Leith underwent decades of industrial decline after the Second World War, with the area gaining a rather sour reputation. Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting and the film that followed used Leith as a backdrop for drug-taking and violence. Since then Leith has undergone significant regeneration and is once again a busy port with trendy bars and restaurants, boasting visits from cruise liners and also the permanent home of the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Islands in the Firth
There are numerous islands in the Firth of Forth, many sprinkled with lighthouses, ruined castles and navigational markers. Inchcolm is the only inhabited island, whereas the Island of May is a nature reserve renowned for its seabird colonies; also on the island are the remains of Scotland’s first lighthouse built in 1636, and a slightly more recently one built in 1816 by Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather.
Inchkeith was the site of a bizarre social experiment in 1493, when a dumb woman and two babies were sent to live on the island. King James IV desired to know what language the children would acquire when isolated from civilisation, as he believed this would be the ‘true language of God’. Contemporary historian Robert Lindsay reported the children spoke Hebrew, but other accounts suggested that the infants did not speak at all.
The Forth Rail Bridge dominates the skyline above the Firth, and to this day the bridge remains an incredible feat of Victorian engineering. Erected in 1883, more than 60 men died during its construction – a fact digested among other more prosaic facts, such as the bridge is 1.5 miles long, took seven years to build and carries 180-200 trains a day. But the website of the Forth Bridge Memorial Trust (www.forthbridgememorial.org) names every man, their age and exactly how they met their fate – and suddenly the fact is not so easy to digest.
On the other side of the Firth of Forth is the historic Kingdom of Fife, the subject of our Regional Focus this issue. This area has played a huge part in the nation’s history, and reminders of its wealth and defensive importance are scattered all the way along the coast. Ruined castles rub shoulders with industrial relics, sandy beaches and quaint fishing villages. The Fife Coastal Path is a great way to explore this section of coast, and runs from for 150kms from the Forth estuary to the Tay estuary in the north.

St Monans
The crumbling ruins of Newark Castle, for instance, occupy a dramatic position on a rocky outcrop above the sea, southwest of the village of St Monans. The castle dates from around 1200, when it was the home of Sir Alan Durward, the brother in law of Alexander III. Much later, in 1649, it belonged to Sir David Leslie, one of the
most influential men in the Scottish and English Civil Wars.
In the village itself is St Monans Auld Kirk, a charming 14th century seaside church which is one of the oldest in Scotland still used for worship.
Further up the coast brings you to St Monans Salt Mill, a tangible albeit odd-looking reminder of an industry that so heavily impacted these coastal communities during the 17th and 18th centuries.
At the time, salt was in great demand as a food preservative, especially in the export of fish from Scotland’s burgeoning sea ports. While salt panning may not seem like a natural industry for Scotland, the Forth Valley lay at a distinct advantage in the production of salt, having a productive coal industry on hand to provide
the necessary fuel to evaporate the gigantic iron pans of seawater. It was not, however, the most environmentally-friendly practice. To make just one ton of salt took around 32 tons of seawater and eight tons of coal, and the thick fumes and smoke from the fires would have choked the entire coast.

Pittenweem
The pretty village of Pittenweem is today a lively little fishing port, where brightly coloured boats jostle for position up and down the harbour. The village name means ‘place of the cave’, referring to St Fillan’s cave in the town itself, which was used as a chapel by St Fillan in the 700s. St Fillan apparently had a glowing arm which he used to illuminate his writing the darkness of his cave. The cave is now one of the most important religious sites in Scotland.
But in 1704, Pittenweem was the scene of a much darker chapter in local history. Beatrix Lang, a local woman, was accused of witchcraft by the blacksmith’s apprentice. A minister with his own agenda pointed the finger at other villagers, and all were imprisoned in the tolbooth and tortured viciously. One man died of starvation in his cell. Beatrix was released with a fine, but chased out of the village to die soon after. Another woman, Janet Cornfoot, managed to escape but was captured by the villagers and dragged to the beach where she was beaten, pelted with stones, and covered with a door which then had boulders placed on top of it until she died. For good measure the villagers drove a horse and carriage driven back and forth over her body. Thankfully this was one of the last witch hunts in Scotland, and can be regarded as one of the catalysts in bringing more enlightened views within the Church of Scotland to the fore.

St Andrews
Such medieval barbarism contrasts sharply with nearby St Andrews, which was once the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland and a centre for learning, being the home of Scotland’s oldest university – dating back to 1410.
Today this beautiful town is well served by students, as well as golf and tourism. The cathedral now lies in ruins, a victim of the violent Scottish Reformation, but is still a wonder to behold, especially from the top of St Rule’s tower.
North from here the coast dissolves into a beautiful expanse of farmland and flat sandy beaches. Nestling between the Firth of Tay and the aptly named Eden Estuary, is the Tentsmuir Forest; a nature reserve of forested dunes recognised internationally for its rich habitat and varied wildlife. It is well worth spending a day or two revelling in the unspoilt glory of this quiet coastal corner. Paradise indeed.