Return to Itinerary
The East Neuk of Fife
The East Neuk, or corner, is one of the main attractions of Fife. It is a stretch of coastline dotted with a series of delightful fishing villages, each clustered around its harbour. The villages are a joy to discover with their wealth of vernacular architecture. This is the area of Scotland in which I was raised, in the old fishing village of Cellardyke, often referred to as East Anstruther, but not by me, for I am "Dyker" through and through.
The golden fringe As early as the 11th Century Fife was the very hub of the Scottish nation, with Dunfermline as the political and St Andrews as the ecclesiastical centres. The villages flourished as active trading ports with the Hanseatic League and the Low Countries. King James VI described Fife as "a beggar's mantle with a fringe of gold". It was the royal burghs along the coast, with their profitable activities of trading, fishing and smuggling, which were the "fringe of gold". With the development of the trans-Atlantic routes, the villages concentrated on fishing.
Era of the China Tea Clippers In those heroic days of the China tea trade prior to the opening of the Suez Canal, every day counted. Two masters of these magnificent vessels came from East Neuk ports: Captain Alexander Rodger (1802-77) and Captain Keay. The latter was skipper of the Ariel which held the all-time sailing ship record of 83 days from Gravesend to Hong Kong. He is also famous for his race with Rodger's Taeping.
Crail This busy resort is the most attractive burgh. The older heart of the burgh is clustered down by the harbour while the upper town is altogether more spacious. Upper Crail Standing alone in a prominent position overlooking the spacious market place, the tolbooth (1598), a tiered tower, is graced by an attractively shaped belfry. The weather vane. a gilded capon (dried haddock), is a reminder that capons were the town's staple export. Behind the tolbooth at nos 62-64 is a small museum which gives an insight into the burgh's history, its main buildings and activities. The tree-lined Marketgate is bordered by elegant two-and three-storey dwellings. Of particular note are nos 30 and 44 on the south side and Auld House (16th Century) and Kirkmay House (early 19th Century) opposite. The "Blue Stone" just outside the churchyard on the left is said to have been thrown by the devil from the Isle of May in an attempt to destroy the church.
Old Centre Sloping down to the harbour, Shoregate is bordered by an attractive group of cottages (nos 22-28). Crab and lobster boats still use the inner harbour with its attractive stonework. On the waterfront is the three-storey Customs House (no 35). Note the boat carving on the pend lintel. The adjoining group of buildings surround a paved courtyard. On the way up, note no 32 Castle Street and the delightful 18C no 1 Rose Wynd with its forestair and attractive door surround.
Anstruther and Cellardyke ( where I was raised ) This linear settlement includes the once independent communities of Cellardyke, Anstruther Easter and Anstruther Wester. There is still some creel-fishing (for lobster and crab) and white fish activity from Anstruther, but most of the fishermen now operate from Pittenweem, a mile to the west, which is home to the East Neuk fishing fleet of trawlers, seiners and creel boats. On the shore-front, The Scottish Fisheries Museum is one of the best Museums in Scotland. Boat trips to the Isle of May Created a nature reserve in 1956, the island has an important breeding population of seabirds (puffins, kittiwakes. guillemots. shags, eider ducks, razorbills and fulmars). Scotland's first lighthouse (1630s) is still visible alongside its 19C successor. The beacon consisted of coals burning in the rooftop grate.
Pittenweem This burgh is once again on two levels. Kellie Lodge (private) in the High Street is the 16C town house of the Earls of Kellie from Kellie Castle. Corbelled, pantiled and crow-stepped, it is an excellent example of the vernacular style. St Fillan's Cave Cave and Holy Well, is said to have been the sanctuary of the 7C Christian missionary Fillan. Many wynds down to the harbour which is today Fife's busiest fishing port. Of particular interest on the waterfront are The Gyles at the east end and no 18 East Shore, a three-storeyed building with its Dutch-style gable.
St Monans The village is tightly packed around its small harbour. Wynds and closes lead off into the usual maze of lanes, back alleys and yards; a smuggler's paradise. The church was probably begun in the 11 C by Queen Margaret. A large part of it is 13th Century and the choir was rebuilt by King David II in 1346. Inside, look for the hanging ship, the coats of arms and the painted panel from the laird's loft, and the groined stone roof.