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Issue 91 - Along Fife's South Shore

Scotland Magazine Issue 91
February 2017

 

This article is 10 months 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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Along Fife's South Shore

John Hannavy travels from North Queensferry to Dysart – the slow way

Perhaps it was quite used to people walking along the Fife Coastal Path, but the young seal basking on a rock on this balmy summer evening barely gave us a glance. How I wished that I had picked up my whole camera bag rather than just the camera and one lens. My telephoto lens was in the boot of the car, at least half a mile back the way we had come, and I suspected that even if I did go back for it the seal would be long gone before I completed the round trip.

I had actually thought twice about even bringing the camera as the sky was overcast and threatening, while the temperature was unusually low for the time of year. But, in the course of that half-mile walk, the clouds had begun to dissipate and the temperature had started to rise. By the time we reached the seal the climate had become very pleasantly warm. Parts of Scotland can, notoriously, cycle through all four seasons in a single day and parts of Fife regularly manage two! As we continued our walk along the coastal path towards the crumbling vestiges of Seafield Tower, coats and sweaters were abandoned and to our left the sea took on the wonderful deep azure hue of an early summer evening.

While not exactly a forgotten coastline, the south coast of Fife often seems to be overshadowed by the picturesque and renowned fishing villages of the East Neuk. Nevertheless, along a 20-mile stretch of the coast between North Queensferry and Dysart there is just so much to see — some of it surprising and all of it fascinating.

Our journey to this part of the Kingdom of Fife had initially been set up so I could take some pictures of both the partly-built Queensferry Crossing and Burntisland’s fascinating Museum of Communication for my latest book — the third volume of my Britain’s Industrial Heritage series — and the trip turned out to be a fascinating journey of discovery.

We had driven up from the picturesque village of East Linton, where we had stayed the night at the delightful Crown & Kitchen. While in East Lothian I had taken some pictures at Myreton Motor Museum, in Aberlady, for an article on Scottish-built cars (See: Scotland Magazine #89) and afterwards we travelled west, arriving at North Queensferry beneath a dramatically changing sky.

From there I got the required views of the construction work on the new bridge – a surprisingly delicate and fragile-looking structure when compared with the 1964 road bridge and even more so when compared with the railway bridge. Originally set to open before the end of last year, May 2017 is the new completion deadline — so if all has gone according to plan the opening should be just a few weeks away by the time you read this!

Over the next few days we visited castles, ancient churches, beautiful villages and some stunning coastline — oh, and an excellent café called Sands, A Place by the Sea at
Silver Sands Beach in Aberdour, which has a truly excellent lunch menu served by delightful staff.

From North Queensferry we negotiated the many B roads and diversions to avoid the construction sites of the new bridge’s approach roads and eventually picked up the A921, which meanders around the coast.

Just past Dalgety Bay, a tantalizing Historic Scotland sign pointed off to St. Bridget’s Kirk. Recently, Historic Scotland has had a name change to Historic Environment Scotland that will no doubt trigger the replacement of thousands of metal signs. In the case of St. Bridget’s Kirk, however, there are so few that replacement will not cost a lot — unless, that is, they actually decide to put up enough signs for visitors to be able to find the place. After a while, we realized we hadn’t seen a sign for some time and retraced our steps back to the A921 road junction. Two miles later we were lost again, so we stopped and asked some locals. Following their directions we finished up in a farmyard; but still no sign of the kirk. Two girls riding horses showed us the way down a private road to the shore and, in the end, it was well worth it.

The ruins of the church are remarkably well preserved and tell the story of its 500 years of existence. Probably built in the late 12th or early 13th Century, the church was a single rectangular building until after the Reformation in the mid-16th Century. Subsequently, three aisles were added housing burial vaults for eminent local families. There are some fine memorials and monuments including the richly carved mid-16th Century graveslab of William Abernethy, set into the north wall, and another, on the wall of the tower, for a local man who had surprisingly died in Wigan in the 18th Century.

Further along the coast and also cared for by Historic Environment Scotland is Aberdour Castle, which is much easier to find and has plenty worth seeing. I first visited the castle more than 55 years ago on a day out with my father that also included the short sail to Inchcolm Island and its beautiful ruined abbey, in those days reached by an open motorboat from Aberdour beach.

Our next port of call was Burntisland, which was once a major centre for shipbuilding and aluminium processing. Our reason for visiting, however, was its fascinating Museum of Communication — the only such museum in Scotland. It is run by a group of enthusiastic volunteers and home to a growing collection of equipment and memorabilia tracing the story of communication from the earliest days. The exhibition is only open during the summer months, with very restricted times, but visitors are welcome on Wednesdays and Saturdays when well-informed staff will explain the histories of the items on show.

Each year the museum puts on a themed special display and in 2016 this was a series of fascinating exhibits based around communication during the First World War. At the time of writing, the 2017 theme has not yet been revealed. Admission is free, but donations are welcome and a visit is thoroughly recommended. It is amazing how much has been squeezed into a small gallery space; more than 90% of their collection is in a large storeroom, but the volunteers seemed quite happy to get stuff out to show me.

Heading east again, back through Burntisland and Kinghorn, the next stop was Seafield Tower. There was no other reason for our visit than, having read what a parlous state it was in, we wanted to take a look before it finally fell in to the Firth of Forth. You never know when these things are going to happen. For example, I recall visiting Duntulm Castle, on the Isle of Skye, many years ago on a cold, cloudy, grey day and then returning years later (hoping to photograph it in sunshine) only to find most of it had collapsed.

Seafield Tower was built around 1500 and it is thought to have been commissioned by the Multrare family, whose lands were near Edinburgh. The tower house was perhaps no more than an occasional retreat but it offered easy access across the Firth from Granton and spectacular views back across the water to Edinburgh. In the middle of the 17th Century it became a favourite retreat of the Archbishop of Glasgow but it is believed to have been in ruins by the 18th Century.

We had approached the site from the Kirkcaldy end and on our walk back to the car, to my surprise, the seal was still dozing on its rock, paying no attention whatsoever to passers-by. Emboldened by his apparent lack of interest — I referred to ‘him’ as a ‘he’ but perhaps ‘he’ was a ‘she’ — I moved ever closer, until I was within just a few metres of his rock. At that point he half-heartedly raised his head and turned towards me while I took a couple of pictures. Does he appear to have a sort of resigned ‘Oh get on with it’ look on his face? Just a few moments later he turned away from me again and went back to the important business of soaking up the sun, while we continued our gentle walk back to the car park.

Our next stop was Ravenscraig Castle, the austere ruins of which stand on a rocky promontory that is protected on three sides by sheer rock faces and overlooks the shore at Kirkcaldy. Now accessed through the park of the same name, the castle was built around 1460 and was once the home of Queen Mary of Gueldres, the Dutch wife of James II. It is important for being one of the first castles built in Scotland that was designed to be defended by artillery and to be able to withstand an artillery attack. That was only put to the test once, when Cromwell’s forces attacked it in the mid-17th Century. Although damaged, it stood up well. By that time the castle was owned by the Sinclair (or St. Clair) Earls of Roslin or Rosslyn.

The last stop on this short and history-filled journey was Dysart, which is every bit as picturesque as the more famous villages along the East Neuk. For a time it was also owned by the Sinclairs and was once a thriving centre for the export of coal and salt. The harbour owes much to the work of the civil engineer Robert Stephenson, but the most interesting parts are around the area known as Pan Ha, where the tower of the medieval St. Serf’s church dominates the skyline. Here one may view the harled and whitewashed 16th – 18th Century Dutch-style cottages with pantiled roofs that have been recently restored.

Total distance covered from North Queensferry: less than twenty miles. Total time period covered: more than five and a half centuries. That’s just part of the magic of Scotland.

Visitor Information
St Bridget’s Kirk Dalgety Bay, KY11 9LH www.historicenvironment.scot
Aberdour Castle Aberdour, KY3 0SL www.historicenvironment.scot
The Museum of Communication Burntisland, KY3 9AA www.mocft.co.uk
Seafield Tower Kirkcaldy, KY1 1GL www.historicenvironment.scot
Ravenscraig Castle Kirkcaldy, KY1 2QG www.historicenvironment.scot
St Serf’s Church Dysart, KY1 2TH www.scottishchurches.org.uk