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Issue 97 - Fabulous Fife

Scotland Magazine Issue 97
February 2018


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Fabulous Fife

Christopher Coates takes a trip around the old Kingdom

Though I live in Edinburgh and it is just a short drive away across the Firth of Forth, I rarely find myself in Fife. Ever keen to power my way north to the lush glens of Perthshire, the rich farmland of Aberdeenshire, the whisky capital of Speyside or (if time permits) even further afield, I can count the days I’ve spent in the region over the past few years on one hand - shameful, I know!

Recently, a new App was launched by the organisation Welcome To Fife (just 99p in the Apple and Google Play stores) that promised to be packed to the brim with self-guided tour itineraries that cover everything from golf to whisky, local produce to Outlander.

Even ghost hunters are catered for by way of a tour called ‘Fife’s Five Most Haunted’. Keen to try out some of the highlights, I decided to take a couple of days to explore the fabulous Kingdom of Fife.

I based myself in the small coastal town of Kinghorn, a charming place with two sandy beaches and a thriving local community. The settlement’s history can be traced back to the 6th Century, when a church was founded there by St. Maline, and its coastal position made it ideally suited for the development of a trading community. This led to Kinghorn being granted Royal Burgh status by King William the Lion in 1285.

Wanting to relax in historic surroundings, I chose to stay in the historic Kinghorn Town Hall, which can now be rented out in its entirety and boasts ample space for families or groups. Built in 1826 and designed in the Tudor Gothic style by Thomas Hamilton, the town hall is fully equipped with all the necessary amenities and boasts an expansive, yet oh-so-cosy, lounge area that’s perfect for dinner parties. But it wasn’t always this way. After being at the heart of civic life in Kinghorn for more than 150 years, the town hall fell into disrepair in the late 1980s and seemed destined to become little more than a derelict eyesore. Thankfully, in 2009 the hall was fully refurbished by the Fife Historic Buildings Trust, who continue to manage this much-loved landmark today.

Also worth mentioning here is Kinghorn Gallery, which is housed in the former stationmaster’s house and run by artist Lynette Gray. The gallery opened in 2011 after a twoyear restoration project and today also offers art classes and framing services. If passing on a Saturday (the only day it is open), be sure to drop by and take a look.

Up bright and early, the first day of my tour involved a trip to visit a couple of Outlander filming locations, one of which I’d heard might soon be getting featured for the third time! My first destination was the village of Falkland, which stood in for 1940s Inverness during the filming of episode one. Fans of Outlander will recognise many features of the main square, such as The Covenanter Hotel, which was Mrs Baird’s Guesthouse; Fayre Earth, which - although considerably more colourful today - was transformed into Farrell’s Hardware and Furniture Store; and the central Bruce Fountain, beside which viewers first glimpsed Jamie’s melancholy ghost.

The village itself was declared a Royal Burgh by James II in 1458, which allowed it to elect officers for justice, hold weekly markets and also an annual fair. In 1500, James IV built the now famous Falkland Palace, which replaced an earlier castle that had belonged to the MacDuffs. Ruins of the original building can still be seen in the Palace gardens. Of particular note is the Royal Tennis Court that was built in 1542 and is one of the oldest surviving examples in the world.

Next on my Outlander itinerary was Aberdour Castle, which stood in for the abbey to which Jamie is taken by Claire and Murtagh at the end of season one, in order to recover from his ordeal at the hands of Black Jack Randall.

In truth, the structure is no abbey and instead started life in the 12th Century as a hall-house, built by the Mortimer family, which became a tower house overlooking the Dour Burn by the 1400s.

The remains of the original structure, which can be found hidden away in the complex, arguably represent the oldest example of a standing stone castle in Scotland. Its cubed ashlar masonry walls bear a striking resemblance to those found at the nearby St Fillan’s church, and evidence suggests that it could have been built around 1150. If correct, this would allow it to clinch the title of ‘Scotland’s oldest castle’.

However, before heading to Aberdour I had something a little different in mind - it was time to try my hand at archery and clay pigeon shooting! This meant dropping by the acclaimed Cluny Activities centre, which offers a superb day out for all the family.

With a fully qualified shooting instructor on hand to guide me, I was taught how to safely handle the shotgun before enjoying a bit of 'down the line' action. Although at the start I didn’t know one end from the other, by the end I fancied myself as a bit of a dab hand - until I was shown how it’s really done by the instructor, who is on the Scottish National Shooting Team! Next came a trip to the archery range, where a group of youngsters were reliving their favourite moments from the Disney movie Brave. From Segway rides to cricket, air-rifle shooting to golf, Cluny Activities gives visitors the chance to enjoy a range of rural pursuits just an hour’s drive from Edinburgh.

That evening, a superb dinner was had at the aptly named Room With A View seafood restaurant, which is tucked away at Hawkscraig point. Boasting breathtaking views across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh, the restaurant has only 24 seats but makes up for its small size with its very high standard of cuisine. A familyrun affair, the restaurant is clearly a labour of love and dishes are prepared using the very best local seafood. As a result, this little restaurant is incredibly popular (especially on warm days when guests may dine al fresco) so be sure to book ahead.

On the second day I continued to explore Fife’s foodie scene with a visit to the Bowhouse Market, near St Monans. Taking place once per month, this event is a superb showcase of the Fife larder and was founded with a view to re-forging the missing link between farmers and consumers. Visitors are free to peruse local art, crafts, food and drink, or even attend cookery masterclasses in the chef’s theatre. A microbrewery and distillery have also recently been founded within the venue.

Next came a stroll into St Monans proper, with an obligatory visit to this quaint fishing village’s famous ‘wiggly pier’. Known locally as ‘the Blocks’, this breakwater has become a popular spot for photographers. St Monans is just one of a string of small seaports and fishing villages that are collectively referred to as the East Neuk of Fife. With their narrow streets, picturesque pan-tiled dwellings and harbours, all of these hamlets provide first rate holiday accommodation.

Next my tour continued on to 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 Wemyss 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.

The distillery celebrated its first ‘birthday’ on St Andrew’s day 2015 and this year is set to release small quantities of its first fully matured single malt Scotch whisky. A tour of the distillery, lunch at its delightful coffee shop and a dram comes highly recommended. Further up the coast, 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.

My tour along the Fife coastline ended with a sumptuous meal at The Newport, a relaxed fine-dining restaurant with an adjoining bar, art gallery, and rooms. This fine establishment is run by Chef Jamie Scott, a past winner of Masterchef Professionals, who has succeeded in creating what must surely be one of the very best places to eat in Scotland. Panoramic windows take in the superb view from Newport-on-Tay across the Firth of Tay to Dundee, with the historic Tay Bridge in view.

Inventive, yet unfussy, dishes highlight the very best of Fife's producers. Presentation is executed flawlessly, yet no part of the six-course tasting menu feels pretentious or over-egged. From beginning to end, diners are treated to a perfectly balanced culinary experience that is nothing short of a masterclass in contemporary Scottish cuisine.