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Issue 86 - The Kingdom of Fife

Scotland Magazine Issue 86
April 2016


This article is 2 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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The Kingdom of Fife

Charles Douglas ventures across the Firth of Forth to Dunfermline and beyond

According to the Victorian Chronicles of William Forbes Skene, Fife’s famous title of ‘Kingdom’ has its origins in it having long ago been a Pictish realm presided over by Cruithne, son of Cinge, son of Luctai, son of Parthalan, son of Agnoiun and so on, way back into the mists of time. A more recent attribution of the regal distinction is that Dunfermline, being strategically situated on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth, was for four hundred years the principal seat of Scotland's monarchy.

Entered from the south across the 1964 road bridge – a second, The Queensferry Crossing, A977 is on schedule for completion by 2017 – and by A823 rail over the iconic Forth Bridge, the east coast Kingdom of Fife embraces a complex mix of historic treasures, rich farmland, holiday resorts and industrial endeavour. To its west can be found Clackmannanshire and Kinross, with the M90 motorway streaming north toward the City of Perth.

The settlement at Dunfermline, originally home to Neolithic settlers, sprang up around the great abbey building raised in the year 1128 by David I, and the graveyard there contains the tombs of the Scottish kings and queens who once occupied the adjacent, now ruined, palace. Much of this history is associated with the marriage here of Malcolm III to the saintly Anglo-Hungarian Princess Margaret Atheling circa 1068.

A significant visitor attraction is the Abbot House, the town’s oldest secular building, which was built in the mid-15th Century to house Abbot Richard Bothwell and his successors until 1540, when Commendator George Durie moved into apartments at the palace. Restored in the 1990s, the terracotta-harled Abbot House is indicative of the changing styles of Scottish architecture from the 16th to the 20th Centuries. Until recently the house featured a series of lively exhibitions, ranging from a replica of the Head-Shrine of St Margaret to memorabilia of the early Scottish Suffragette Movement and murals by the novelist Alasdair Gray; however following financial difficulties its future is currently uncertain.

The great transatlantic steel industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline town in 1835 in a humble dwelling at the corner of Moodie Street and Priory Lane; it is now transformed into a heritage centre. Pittencrief park was gifted to the people of the town by Carnegie in 1903, and today it hosts an annual festival to celebrate its associations with King Robert the Bruce.

Along the coast is the Royal Burgh of Culross, allegedly a port city founded by St Serf and now maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. Time has seemingly passed it by and today the village is one of the most complete examples of a 17th Century Scottish Burgh. At its heart can be found a grand lodging created by the successful merchant and trader Sir George Bruce in 1597 and known as the ‘Palace’, having been visited by James VI in 1617. It is open to the public.

Stewart kings made use of the undulating and wooded Fife hinterland for hunting; basing themselves at Falkland Palace which, having been much improved in the renaissance style by James IV and his son James V, provided a safe childhood retreat for the latter's daughter: Mary, Queen of Scots. A prominent feature above Scotland's first conservation village is one of the Lomond Hills, popular with hill walkers and paragliders.

On the outskirts of Dunfermline, sport of a very different kind can nowadays be enjoyed at Knockhill, where a motor racing circuit was established during the 1970s. For those who favour a smaller vehicle, at Kirkcaldy there is KartStart racing and if piloting a hovercraft takes your fancy, this can be done at Craigluscar. If a gentler pace is preferred, one can pursue a day of fly fishing and clay-pigeon shooting at Newton Hill Country Sports, near Wormit.

In the 18th Century, the pier at Aberdour, facing the Firth of Forth, was kept busy with shipments of coal before becoming a popular tourist destination for pleasure steamers from Leith. Aberdour Castle, now under the care of Historic Environment Scotland, is one of the earliest stone-built fortresses in the country and was occupied by the earls of Morton.

It was at nearby Kinghorn, on a stormy night in 1286, that King Alexander III, having crossed over the Forth to meet up with his second wife Yolande de Dreux, fell from his horse and was killed; this ignited a Royal succession crisis that would last until 1292. Alas, all trace of his castle had disappeared by the end of the 1700s, but there is a memorial on the road to Burntisland.

In the forest of Carden, adjacent to the former mining village of Cardenden, falconry was practised in pursuit of deer and wild boar. The last public duel on Scottish soil took place in a field to the south of the village in 1826, when a Kirkcaldy merchant named David Landale exchanged pistol shots with George Morgan, a Kirkcaldy banker.

Kirkcaldy, tucked into a sheltered east coast bay, is Fife's largest settlement, originally a trading port servicing the Low Countries of mainland Europe. Known as the “Lang Toun” because of its mile long main street, the town prospered through its salt panning, coal mining and nail manufacturing activities, and more recently the production of linen and linoleum, which grew into a global industry. It was also the birthplace of the economist Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations.

There are three public parks – Beveridge, Ravenscraig and Dunnikier – and Kirkcaldy boasts a fine museum at the Kirkcaldy Galleries. To the east of the town are the ruins of Ravenscraig Castle, begun in 1460 by James II for his queen Mary de Guelders and granted to William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, in exchange for Kirkwall Castle and the earldom of Orkney by James III in 1470.

At the heartland of the Kingdom, and encroaching upon the agricultural Howe of Fife, one finds Glenrothes. The town acts as the regional administrative centre and contains the headquarters of Fife Council and Fife Constabulary. One of the first post-WWII ‘new towns’, it is a hub for manufacturing and engineering industries, houses the Adam Smith College and Fife's largest indoor shopping centre. The Rothes Halls complex is the town's main theatre, exhibition, conference and civic arts centre.

Alongside the most northerly stretch of the Firth of Forth, beyond Kirkcaldy, lies a string of small seaports and fishing villages collectively referred to as the East Neuk of Fife: Elie, Lundin Links, Colinsburgh, St Monans, Lower and Upper Largo, Pittenweem, Anstruther, Cellardyke, Crail and Kingsbarns.

With their narrow streets, picturesque pan-tiled dwellings and harbours, all of these hamlets provide first rate holiday accommodation and it is said that over the summer months the population of the coastal community trebles. Every year in April, the Fife Point to Point takes place at Balcormo Mains, near Leven; it is one of the first fixtures of the horse racing calendar. The Anstruther Lifeboat Gala and Crail Festival, both in July, and Pittenweem Arts Festival in August are popular visitor attractions.

At Anstruther, an opportunity to visit the 14th Century Kellie Castle, managed by the National Trust for Scotland, should not be passed over. Once lived in by the youngest daughter of Robert the Bruce, it was saved from demolition in the 1950s by the sculptor Hew Lorimer. On the High Street at Ceres, there is the Fife Folk Museum, a celebration of local life. At Troywood is the Secret Bunker, 100 feet underground, which was used to help safeguard Scotland against nuclear attack during the Cold War.

Christianity arrived in Fife as early as the 4th Century when certain body parts – a tooth, an arm bone, a kneecap and some fingers – belonging to Saint Andrew, who was martyred at Patras, were brought ashore by a fugitive Greek monk called Saint Rule. Other relics followed in the 7th Century, and by the 9th Century the spot where Saint Rule landed had grown into a flourishing Culdee religious community named St Andrews. Created a bishoprick in the 11th Century, the burgh rapidly emerged as the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, with routes of pilgrimage threading through the coastal and inland landscape, north from the Firth of Forth and south from the Firth of Tay. All of this ended with the Reformation when the vast and imposing St Andrews Cathedral was dismantled, but you only have to stand at the centre of the ruins to appreciate just how enormous the cathedral must have been. The Reformation was preceded by much cruelty and martyrdom, with 16th Century reformers such as Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart being burned at the stake in view of St Andrews Castle. Along with the cathedral, St Andrews Castle was pounded by the canon of the French fleet during its brief Protestant occupation; however it was a further two centuries until the keep was considered to have outlived its usefulness and abandoned. Afterwards, the town fell back on its university which, founded around 1413, is the third oldest in Scotland and widely known to have been where Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, met his future bride Kate Middleton, while both were studying there. University staff and students amble through the quadrangle of St Salvator's College, where the chapel is used for religious services on Sundays.

Famously, the opening scenes of the iconic 1981 film Chariots of Fire were filmed on the two mile stretch of the town's West Sands beach.

In addition to all of this, St Andrews is globally acknowledged as the home of golf. This is principally because the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, founded here in 1754, exercises legislative authority over the game worldwide – except in the United States and Mexico. Secondly, it is because the famous links, acquired by the town in 1894, has become the most frequent venue for the renowned Open Championships, the oldest of the game's four major trials of skill and ability. The Senior Open Championship will be held at St Andrews for the first time in 2018.

To exit Fife from St Andrews, the road travels north to Wormit and Newport-on-Tay, before connecting with the Tay Road Bridge which opened in 1966. To the west from St Andrews, the A91 swings towards the market town of Cupar and onwards to Auchtermuchty and Strathmiglo to connect with the M90 motorway near Milnathort.

A major visitor attraction at Cupar is the Scottish Deer Centre, which accommodates fourteen species of deer from around the world, Fife's resident wolf pack, otters and wildcats. Not far away, the little town of Auchtermuchty, sometimes called ‘Tattie Capital of the World’, became the setting for the fictional Tannochbrae in the popular 1990s ITV television series Dr Finlay's Casebook. Like many of Fife’s historic Burghs, it has not changed much in appearance since.

Finally, on the outskirts of Newburgh are the remains of Lindores Abbey; founded in the late 12th Century by David, Earl of Huntingdon, it is today recognised as the spiritual home of Scotch whisky. The first written record of "aqua vitae" is noted in the Exchequer as an order relating to Friar John Cor, a Tironensian monk domiciled at the abbey. On 1 June 1494 it records a delivery of: “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” Defunct as a measurement today, the boll was a measurement equating to approximately six bushels, where one bushel is equivalent to around 25kg; thus we can speculate that he received a total delivery of approximately 1200kg – no small amount! Although we are unsure of Friar John’s exact intentions for his distillate, the account nevertheless confirms the longevity of Scotland's national drink.

Today, Fife is no stranger to the production of Scotch whisky. Founded in 1824 by the Haig family, one of Scotland’s largest distilleries is Cameronbridge; it is able to produce 100 million litres of spirit per year – the majority of which is destined for blends such as Johnnie Walker. Fife is also taking part in Scotland’s current distillery-building boom, with four new distilleries coming into operation since 2005; perhaps the most famous is Kingsbarns distillery, which is owned by the Wemyss family of Wemyss Castle. Built in restored farm buildings of the Cambo estate, it was conceived by Founding Director Doug Clement in 2009, and a partnership with the Wemyss family was confirmed after the project won Scottish Government grant funding in 2012.

The family have a historic link to whisky production stretching back to Haig’s first distillery, which was built on their land, and more recently Wemyss Malts has operated as an award-winning independent bottler of fine Scotch whiskies since 2005. The distillery celebrated its first ‘birthday’ on St Andrew’s day 2015 and Doug now manages the site on a day-to-day basis as Visitor Centre Manager. Those following our suggested tour of the East Neuk would do well to conclude their journey with a tour of the distillery, lunch at its delightful coffee shop and, perhaps, even a drop of whisky.

Exploring The East Neuk

Encompassing the fishing villages of the northern shore of the Firth of Forth, these destinations are popular throughout the summer months.

The word “Neuk” is translated from the Scots as meaning “corner.” The route starts on the A921, which leads from Burntisland to Kirkcaldy, before hugging the coastand following the A917 to Kingsbarns.

Distance: 30 miles Approximate time by car without stops or delays: 60 minutes Kirkcaldy (A921) Inhabited since the Bronze Age. An important trading port for the Low Countries of Europe; flax, linen and linoleum became important industries in the 19th Century. It was the birthplace of the economist Adam Smith, and the Kirkcaldy Galleries display a fine collection of Scottish contemporary paintings.

Dysart (A955) Once held by the St Clair family, the town is associated with the legend of St Serf. The National Trust for Scotland has restored many of its houses.

West Wemyss, Coaltown of Wemyss and East Wemyss (A955) Ships exported coal, which returned with timber and iron from the Baltic countries. The towns take their name from the Wemyss family, who continue to occupy Wemyss Castle where the gardens are open to the public. The Wemyss School of Needlework is located in Coaltown of Wemyss. At East Wemyss there are caves and the ruins of MacDuff's Castle, ancient home of the MacDuff earls of Fife.

Buckhaven (A955) Situated on the Fife Coastal Path, this was once a thriving fishing and weaving village. There are splendid displays on sea fishing in the Buckhaven Museum.

Methil (A955) Once an industrial and maritime powerhouse, its actual power station was demolished in 2011 and Methil has embraced a green energy future with wind turbines.

Leven (A955) The opening of the Leven Railway in 1854 linked the East Neuk with Edinburgh. Today, Leven, with its long sandy beaches and play parks, is a popular tourism resort. With courses at Scoonie and Leven Links, golf is a major attraction. The drinks giant Diageo has a bottling plant in the town and owns the Cameron Bridge Distillery at Windygates.

Lundin Links (A915) There are two golf courses in this village, the 18-hole Lundin Golf Club and Lundin Ladies' Golf Club. The latter features impressive standing stones on the course.

Lower and Upper Largo (A915) This is an ancient fishing village that has become famous as the birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, who allegedly inspired Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe. There is a statue of him by Thomas Stuart Burnett in the harbour and a signpost which points to the Juan Fernandez Islands, 7,500 miles away.

Elie and Earlsferry (A917) MacDuff, Earl of Fife is said to have landed here having escaped from King Macbeth in the 11th Century. The Golf House Club was founded in 1875. With its beach, restaurants and sailing, the town is a popular destination over the summer months.

St Monans (A917) A pretty, vernacular village with houses from the 17th Century. The name is derived from St Monance who was killed by the Danes circa 875AD along with 6,000 Fife Christians. There is an excellent smoke house on the east pier.

Pittenweem (A917) Translated from the Gaelic as “The Place of the Caves”, this attractive fishing village has a breakwater to the east that creates a safe harbour. Pittenweem Priory, a monastery, was built over an ancient sacred cave associated with St Fillan. Rediscovered, this is now open to the public. There is a vibrant annual Arts Festival held in August.

Anstruther (A917) Home of the Scottish Fisheries Museum, there is a golf course and sailing vessels moored in the harbour. A secret nuclear bunker was built during the Cold War and has become a major tourist attraction. Nearby is the 14th Century Kellie Castle, restored by the Lorimer family and owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

Cellardyke (A917) Another treasure of a fishing village; today the harbour largely caters for pleasure boats.

Crail (A917) Many of the buildings around Crail’s harbour have been immaculately restored by the National Trust for Scotland. The Tolbooth dates from 1600.

Kingbarns (A917) A pretty village adjacent to the Cambo estate, where there is a golf course and a large Victorian walled garden that is open to the public. The new Kingsbarns Distillery is open for tours.