A ‘Lang Toun’ of great men and an old port re-created
On this stretch of the Fife coast, busy, thriving Kirkcaldy contrasts oddly with quiet little burghs which have seen their ancient occupations-seaport, fishing, coal-mining-taken away, and have set themselves instead to entertain the visitor. They have much to offer; pretty streets of old houses, tales of famous men, fishing and sailing, and safe bathing-though some of the beaches are stained with the coal dust of the coastal mines.
Most of the village consists of neat modern houses surrounded by expertly tended gardens. The outlook comprises a vast panorama of the Forth, with its bridges, bulk carriers riding at anchor, and, on the far side, the landmarks of Edinburgh in perfect silhouette. Perhaps the best place to see the view is from St Bridget’s Kirkyard, full of massive, romantically tumbled tombstones. The ruined church, which dates from 1244, is maintained as a National Monument. From it a footpath leads down through a wood to a sandy cove.
Among the new houses and gardens stands the shell of Donibristle House. Close by, in 1592, the ‘Bonnie Earl of Moray’ was murdered by the Earl of Huntly, a deed immortalised in a ballad long familiar to Scottish schoolchildren.
The castle, dating from the 14th century and once a Douglas stronghold, is now a ruin cared for by the Department of the Environment. Together with its giant stone dovecot, it stands in the midst of an exquisite formal garden of sieved earth, superbly spaced mature plants and velvety grass. Unusually in a Scottish castle, the gardens seem to have had their beginnings as long ago as the mid-Kith century.
Just over the wall is St Fillan’s Church. The interior is very quiet, with great round pillars and a little blue jewel of a window glowing through the Norman arch.
CASTLE WELL A well 52 ft deep in the east courtyard supplied water for Aberdour Castle, which fell into ruin around 1700.
The bay, appropriately called Silversands, is a favourite resort of Edinburgh people on summer weekends. There is a fine little harbour that offers water-skiing, sailing and moorings on both sides of a central quay, and looks out upon the island of Inchcolm with its ruined abbey.
The harbour appears again and again in Scotland’s story, from the time that Agricola landed his legions there in the 1st century AD, to the mustering of convoys in the Second World War. Now the docks are mostly derelict, and Burntisland has dedicated itself instead to entertaining the holidaymaker. There is a wide sandy beach, backed by a promenade; there are summer regattas, and Highland Games are held in mid-July.
The spirit of the old port shines through, however. The parish church, with its attractive octagonal tower looking out upon the Forth, was the first post-Reformation church to be built in Scotland. It was there, in the presence of James VI (later James I of England), that the Authorised Version of the Bible was first suggested by the Assembly of the Church of Scotland. There are some fine 17th-century town houses in Somerville Street and Square – once called Quality Street because the ‘quality’ lived there.
A Royal Burgh since the 12th century, Kinghorn is now an attractive seaside resort whose Lowland virtues are solidly expressed in the grey sandstone of its buildings. There are good golf links, and magnificent sands at Pettycur Bay.
Along the road to Burntisland a monument marks the spot where Alexander III, one of Scotland’s wisest kings, was killed in 1286 when his horse stumbled in the dark and threw him over the cliff. Parking by the monument is not easy, but the place offers a grand prospect of the Forth, from the bridges on the right to Inchkeith island, with its battlemented lighthouse, 3 miles out, though it looks much closer.
The ‘Lang Toun’, so nicknamed because at one time it was little more than a mile-long street stretching down the Firth of Forth, is now the largest town in Fife. Its prosperity stems mostly from linoleum, but its most striking export has perhaps been great men. Adam Smith, the 18th-century economist and author of The Wealth of Nations, was born there; so too were Robert and James Adam, who had such a profound effect upon Georgian architecture, and Michael Scott, medieval wizard and court astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor. Thomas Carlyle was a local schoolmaster from 1816 to 1819, before achieving eminence as a historian. All are commemorated in the town by statues, plaques and the names of streets and public buildings.
There are some fine old houses in Kirkcaldy, notably the 17th-century Sailor’s Walk, now occupied by HM Customs. The town also has an ice-rink, a first-class theatre in the Adam Smith Centre, an art gallery and an industrial museum. The burgh’s wide sands are charcoal-grey with coal dust, and its docks covered with cut timber and the rusting debris of shipbreakers. But there is an excellent indoor swimming pool off the mile-long Esplanade, which in spring is the setting for the Links Market, one of the largest and oldest annual fairs in Britain.
The octagonal Ravenscraig Castle, built in 1460 and one of the first attempts to build a fortification that would withstand artillery, is surrounded by the lovely Ravenscraig Park. The park contains an elaborate children’s playground and a nature trail that, in embracing woodland, cliff and seashore, presents a comprehensive picture of the geology and natural history of the Firth of Forth.
In the 1960s Kirkcaldy Town Council and the National Trust for Scotland combined to rescue some derelict 16th and 17th-century houses in Dysart. The result was a perfect recreation of the old port, in which gaps between the ancient buildings – their walls and stepped gables white-plastered now below their red pantiles – were filled with new houses built in the same idiom.
St Serf’s church tower, stoutly built as a refuge from pirates, leans over little streets with enchanting names like Saut Girnal Wynd, Pan Ha’ and Hie Gat.
The Tolbooth, with its grim, barred windows, was a powder magazine during the Civil War. It had its roof lifted off when a drunken Cromwellian trooper wandered in with a lighted torch, but it has been restored since. Near by, in Rectory Lane, the John McDouall Stuart Museum commemorates the Dysart man who made the first south-to-north crossing of Australia in 1861-2.
By the cemetery at the north-eastern end of the village there stands the still mostly solid red block of Macduff’s Castle, maintaining watch over a shattered pepperpot of a dovecot. Tradition associates the castle with the character of Macduff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and indeed it may well have been the clifftop stronghold of the Macduff thanes of Fife.
A walk along the rocky shore below the castle reveals about a dozen caves whose walls bear inscriptions indicating human occupation from the Bronze Age to the medieval period. The Court Cave, so called 1SS church hall because James V supposedly received some gypsies there, contains a rough Viking representation of Thor with his hammer, and a number of earlier Pictish carvings. The Doocot Cave has rows of deep, squared niches that may have contained funerary urns but are more likely to have been the nesting-boxes of a medieval dovecot. Notices warn that some caves are subject to rock falls and should not be entered.
Formerly shuttered and empty cottages in both East Wemyss and West Wemyss, witnesses to the closure of the Michael coal mine in 1967, are being restored.
BUCKHAVEN AND METHIL
Railyards, gasholders and the paraphernalia of heavy industry are the visitor’s first impressions of the two towns that were united as a single burgh in 1891. But no place that has to do with ships and the sea can be dull, and the harbour is busy with the comings and goings of handsome little coasters from Hamburg, Copenhagen and ports of Spain. Near by, in the shipyards, there may stand a gigantic section of oil-rig, like a dinosaur skeleton.
Like so many Firth of Forth towns, Buckhaven and Methil grew out of fishing and coal – hard trades that brought the inhabitants periods of prosperity and troughs of depression. During one of the upswings, the fishermen of Buckhaven bought themselves a lovely little Gothic pre-Reformation church that had stood in North Street, St Andrews, for four centuries or so. They had it taken apart stone by stone and carried the stones by boat to be reassembled in their own town. There the Church of St Andrew stands still, with converted into a theatre.
The breezy golf courses of Lever and Lundin Links curve for some 2 miles round the eastern curve of Largo Bay, joining the little resort of Leven with Lower Largo. Fringing the links is a broad beach, part sand and part pebble, that to the east presents a panorama of the opening Firth all the way to Bass Rock.
For centuries, until shifting sands blocked its harbour, Leven was a port, and the sea-gate for Falkland Palace, a favourite residence of the Scottish Court, some 10 miles to the north-west. Later it became a coal port. Stolid, step-gabled buildings recall those times, but nowadays the town’s chief interest is to attract the holidaymaker by offering golf on two 18th-century courses, safe bathing, a children’s pool and playground, mackerel fishing and freshwater fishing in nearby streams. At The Centre, star-studded summer spectaculars, children’s weeks and ceilidhs follow each other through the summer. By contrast, there are quiet walks in Letham Glen, which has a nature trail, and at Silverburn.
A statuette of Largo’s most famous son, goatskin clad, gazes from a niche on the site of the cottage in which he was born in 1676. He was Alexander Selkirk, whose adventures as a castaway were the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe.
Lower Largo, where Selkirk was born, is a one-time fishing hamlet whose sandy, rocky beach looks out across the waters of the Forth to the distant Lammermuir hills.
Upper Largo, or Kirkton of Largo, is rather grander, with stone cottages draped with climbing roses. The spire of the 16th-century parish church is said to be unique in Scotland in being supported only by the chancel roof. Selkirk’s parents are interred there, and so is Scotland’s greatest admiral, Sir Andrew Wood, who, in his flagship the Yellow Caravel, led the Scots to victory against an English fleet in the Forth in 1489. When he retired, he dug a canal from his castle – of which a single tower remains – to the church, so that he might be rowed to the service by his old shipmates each Sabbath morning. In the churchyard is an early Christian Pictish stone carved with curious designs, including what appears to be a hunting scene with horsemen and hounds. Standing high above both villages is the 952 ft volcanic mound of Largo Law, a splendid point from which to view the entire Firth. The ruin at its foot is that of Largo House, 18th-century home of the Durham family, lairds of Largo for nearly two centuries. Though its windows now gape empty, its fine lines still bear witness to the brilliance of its architect, Robert Adam.