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Guide to the East Neuk of Fife
Earlsferry


This small, but ancient, burgh, which seems to form a western continuation of Elie, is in the parish of Kilconquhar. Sibbald grants this "little fisher town," as he calls it, barely five lines in his History of Fife. Wood says that "there is a tradition that, in a fearful storm, the whole boats of Earlsferry were lost, and the whole fishing population perished;" and he seeks to identify it with a dire storm so far back as 1579. Archibald Symson, of Dalkeith, in his Sacred Septenarie, says, that he saw "eight score and ten boates" swamped in a sudden, tempest, at Dunbar, on a Sabbath, about 1577. But this Earlsferry tradition seems much more likely to refer to a tempest, in 1766, in which seven of these men were lost in one boat. Prior to that time there were eighteen fishermen in Earlsferry; but this disaster so affected them, that, in 1792, there were very few employed in fishing, and these only occasionally.

Name and Origin.—That this burgh is a very old one is undoubted, although its precise age is unknown. "The original charter," says Dr Ferrie, "was destroyed by fire in Edinburgh, and its date is not ascertained." But he proceeds to relate, that, James the Sixth granted a new charter, in 1589, in which it is stated, that, "the burgh of Earlsferry of old, past memory of men, was erected into ane free burgh." The popular account would, if true, explain the origin both of the name and the burgh; but grave doubts have been thrown on it, and the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland emphatically declares that "the legend on the face of it is false." The story goes that Macduff, when fleeing from Macbeth, hid himself in the cave which is now known by his name, where he received much kindness from the fishermen of the place, who also ferried him over the water; and, that, out of gratitude, he afterwards induced Malcolm Canmore to erect the village into a royal-burgh, calling it Earlsferry, with the privilege that when a fugitive crossed the Firth from this town, no boat should start in pursuit until he was half-way over. This would make the burgh fully eight centuries old. But, in this restless age of enquiry, traditions long accepted as true are ruthlessly sacrificed on the altar of scientific criticism; and the tragedy of Macbeth has been rudely handled. Some are now inclined to look on the Usurper as a kindly King, with a lawful right to the Crown; while others boldly assert that "the good Macduff" never existed. Dr Skene, in his edition of Fordun, not only considers that historian to be "solely responsible" for the "ingeniously imagined interview" between Macduff and Malcolm, but is "inclined also to accredit him with the entire invention of Macduf, Thane of Fife, and the part which he plays in the reigns of Macbeth and Malcolm." So far as the strictly local associations are concerned, Earlsferry is not indebted to Fordun, as he does not even mention the name of the place from which Macduff sailed; but, of course, if Fordun actually invented Macduff, the details of other chroniclers are worthless. While freely admitting that the historical facts on which the tragedy is built are very meagre; still it must be said that there is some difficulty in assenting to Skene’s supposition, as Wyntoun, who was a contemporary of Fordun, also mentions Macduff. It is true that, according to Skene, Fordun wrote his part of the Scotichronicon. between 1384 and 1387; and according to David Laing, Wyntoun did not finish his Cronykil until about 37 years afterwards. But David Macpherson—Wyntoun’s earliest editor—asserts positively that although Wyntoun survived Fordun, "it is certain that he never saw his work." Thomas Innes, in his Critical Essay, expresses the same opinion; and Dr Skene himself says, in the very first page of his Preface to the Chronicles of the .Picts and Scots, that Wyntoun "does not appear to have known of Fordun’s history." Now, if Fordun invented Macduff; and if Wyntoun never saw Fordun’s work, it is passing strange that they both tell substantially the same story regarding that hero. Most people will be inclined to think, in the circumstances, that if the narrative is untrue, they must both have taken it from a common Source, and that Fordun could not be the inventor. Skene, however, does not stand alone. Mr E. W. Robertson, in his Scotland under her Early Kings, boldly says, that, Macduff "must be set down as a myth." Whether that opinion is well-founded or not, it was excessively rash to allege that he was "a being unknown to Wyntoun." Of course, Wyntoun could not know him personally, for Macduff lived 300 years before him; but Robertson is not referring to that kind of acquaintanceship. The chronicler was so far from not knowing about Macduff, that more than eight of his pages are spent on him! The principal argument, urged by those who do not believe in the existence of that Macduff, is that not only is there no mention of him in any of the chartularies, but that an entry in the Register of the Priory of St Andrews militates against him. This entry is a memorandum of a donation to the Culdees of Loch-Leven by Ethelred, son of Malcolm, King of Scotland, Abbot of Dunkeld, and Earl of Fife. Because the donation was made when he was of juvenile age, it was afterwards confirmed by his two royal brothers, David and Alexander. Skene holds that Ethelred "is the first Earl on record;" and that "the Earls of Fife of the race of Macduff first appear in the reign of David I.," that is between 1124 and 1153. While Robertson agrees with him in believing that Ethelred was the first Earl, he maintains that Dufagan or Duff, who witnessed the foundation charter of Scone in 1114 or 1115, was "the first Earl who cannot be traced to the reigning family." But there may have been an earlier Earl than Ethelred who is not recorded—many chartularies being lost, and others imperfect. Moreover, an Earl was quite a different title from that of Thane, and Hector Boece’s statement that Macduff was exalted to the dignity of an Earl, soon after Malcolm's accession to the throne, is unsupported by the older authorities. Many will hold, therefore, that Ethelred may have been Earl of Fife while Macduff was Thane, or Toshach, or Maor. But there are several reasons for suspecting the genuineness of the document on which the difficulty is founded. The monks had a strong inducement to forge titles to their possessions in those days, when few except themselves could read them; and the placing of David’s name before his elder brother’s looks like the act of a later age. The Irish annalists do not mention Macduff; but, as Dr M’Lauchlan says, it is quite possible, nevertheless, that he may have had "an active share in restoring the line of Athole to the throne of Scotland." The references of these annalists to Scotland are few and brief, and therefore their silence regarding Macduff is not to be wondered at. We are asked to believe that the old chroniclers of Scotland had a special motive in assigning Macduff such a prominent place in the restoration of Malcolm Canmore to the throne of his ancestors—as it was the only way in which they could account for the special privileges pertaining to the Earls of Fife. But the ingenuity and imagination of modern writers have been strained in vain to supply a better theory. Hill Burton avows that, "the privileges of the clan Macduff is one of the questions which recent archaeologists have been loath to touch." Stronger reasons must therefore be produced before Fifers in general, and Earlsferry folk in particular, can be expected to acquiesce in the opinion that there never was such a man as "the good Macduff." After relating how the Thane’s wife held Macbeth in "fayre trette," until she saw the sail carrying her husband over the water, Wyntoun adds :—

"That passage syne wes comownly
In Scotland called the Erlys-Ferry."

These words do not necessarily imply that it was immediately called the Earls-Ferry, for syne, or sythyn, means afterwards as well as then. This is the only occasion on which Wyntoun refers to Macduff in any way as being an Earl. The precise time when Earls were created in Scotland has not been ascertained, but it took place about the period of Malcolm Canmore, who reigned from 1057 to 1093; and it cannot be proved, even by those who regard Ethelred as the first Earl, that Macduff was not raised to that dignity before Malcolm died. The legend, therefore, that he got that King to erect this place into a royal burgh, and that it was called Earls-Ferry after him, is not false on the face of it. In the Brevis Descriptio Regni Sotie, written between 1292 and 1296, " Erlesferie" is mentioned, so that it must have been known by that name at least 130 years before Wyntoun wrote. And Wood refers to a document of 1250 in which Earlsferry is mentioned. In his own quaint manner, Wyntoun gives the regulations concerning the traffic of the Ferry

"Off that ferry for to knawe
Bath the statute and the lawe,
A bate suld be on ilk syde
For to wayt, and tak the tyde,
Till mak thame frawcht, that wald be
Fra land to land beyhond that se.
Fra that the sowth bate ware sene
The landys wndyre sayle betwene
Fra the sowth as than passand
Toward the north the trad haldand
The north bate suld be redy made
Towart the sowth to hald the trade."
And thare suld nane pay mare
Than foure pennys for thare fare,
Quha-evyr for his frawcht wald be
For caus frawchtyd owre that se."

Wyntoun does not say whether these rules were adopted after Macduff’s crossing, or whether they were in force at that time; but there is some reason to believe that it was a recognised ferry long before the Thane’s day. Indeed, both Skene and Robertson think it probable that St Cuthbert, who flourished in the middle of the seventh century, crossed at this ferry. In speaking of Earlsferry, Wood says:-

"Stone coffins have been discovered at various points along the shore, and, in 1857, in lowering the level of the road at the north-west corner of Earlsferry House, a whole range of them was exposed to view. They lay side by side, and were formed of rough slabs of stone, evidently brought from the shore. The bones which they contained were much decayed, and appeared to have belonged to men of mature age. The place of burial must have been at the time just above the high-water mark, as the land has been gradually gaining upon the sea all along this bay, owing to the sand-drift." Wood infers from this discovery, that the Danes had landed here, fought a battle, won it, buried their slain, and formed a settlement.

Decline of the Burgh. "A considerable trade," says Dr Ferrie, "seems at one time to have been carried on here. By the charter, the Provost and Bailies are authorized to hold two annual fairs and two weekly markets, and to levy dues and customs." These fairs and markets, however, have been long discontinued; and Dr Ferrie attributes the decline of the place to the want of a proper harbour, the trade having naturally been transferred to Elie. The old harbour of Earlsferry, such as it was, lay near the "Cadger’s Wynd;" but it has been entirely sanded up. "Some of the stones of the pier may occasionally he seen near high-water mark." Prior to the Union, Earlsferry was "relieved from the burden, as it was then esteemed," of sending commissioners to Parliament. Of the 70 royal burghs in Scotland at that time, Auchtermuchty, Earlsferry, Falkland, and Newburgh—all in Fife—were not included in the classes of burghs then formed to send members to the British Parliament.

The Town Hall, which is dated 1872, is a small neat building, with a tower and slated spire. In the olden time there were 3 Magistrates, 15 Councillors, and a Treasurer—the oldest Magistrate acting as Provost. In spite of the loss of Parliamentary rights, these local dignitaries were all retained. But when the Burgh Reform Act was passed, "it was found," says Wood, "that there was no constituency of ten pounders to elect the Council. Consequently it has since been governed by managers appointed. by the Court of Session." By the Act of 1852, the number of Councillors was limited to 9, including 2 Bailies. The municipal constituency now numbers 63, and the revenue of the corporation is about 78.

The Links are narrow and not very extensive, but are pleasantly situated on the western side of the town. Besides the "Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club," there is also the "Earlsferry Thistle Golf Club."

Chapel-Ness is at the south-west extremity of the town, and derives its name from the small

Chapel, which has been a plain parallelogram standing east and west, and measuring about 40 feet in extreme length, and about 19 in breadth. The east gable is entire; but little is left of the other walls. This is believed to have been the chapel of the hospital, which was erected here for the convenience of travellers crossing the Firth, in the 12th century. That Duncan, Earl of Fife, who wrote himself, in right royal style, Earl by the grace of God, granted to the nuns of North Berwick, by charter iu or about 1177, the two hospitals, which his father had erected—one on each side of the Firth—for the reception of the poor, and of strangers, or pilgrims. A copy of the document will be found in the Carte Monialium de Northberwic, printed for the Bannatyne Club in 1847. The editor—Cosmo Innes—says, in the Preface: "On a little promontory, which defends the harbour of North Berwick on the west, are the remains of a vaulted building, perhaps one of the two hospitals for the reception of poor wayfarers crossing the Firth, given by Earl Duncan of Fife to the nuns. There has been probably a chapel and cemetery attached to it. The soil of the promontory is full of human bones, which are washed out by the sea, every high tide." Here, then, on the Chapel Ness stood the corresponding hospital for the Fife side. These erections recall kindly features in the arrangements of our ancient ancestors. "As the dwellings of the upper classes," says E. W. Robertson, "increased in size and importance... . . . . the greater nobles and dignified clergy kept open-house in their own hospitalia, one of which, containing six travellers, was the invariable appendage of every Culdee monastery; but as this good old custom died away, the name of hospitale was transferred to the house of public entertainment or ho’tel where ‘a night’s feorm' scarcely answers to the old-fashioned idea of ‘free quarters’ ; whilst the hospitaler, or functionary attached to the hospital, has long since dwindled into the hos’tler."

Macduff’s Cave is situated in the face of the bold and precipitous rocks at Kincraig Point, about a mile to the west of Chapel-Ness. In the old Statistical Account of Kilconquhar, it is said that this cave "penetrates into the rock about 200 feet, and the roof, being the summit of the rock, is supposed to be at least 160 feet high, forming a grand alcove, projecting over the cave and the sea at full tide." Some of the roof must have fallen since that time, making it less like a cave than ever. The writer of the old Statistical Account of Elie aptly characterised it as "a stupendous arch." The roof is so high that a stranger, on first entering it, is unable to realise that he is in a cave; but on proceeding to the inner recess, and from thence gazing upwards and outwards, the magnificence and magnitude of the place and its surroundings are almost overwhelming. It is well-nigh impossible to convey a vivid idea of such a place by any picture, and the foregoing illustration merely gives a tame representation of the outlook towards the sea. The cave has obtained its name from the tradition which bears that Macduff hid within it when flying from Macbeth. That he may have hid here for a short time is quite possible, though there is no historical evidence of his having done so; but the theory, which converted the remains of a wall, which were visible at the end of last century, into the remnants of a fortification constructed by Macduff, may be abandoned without any scruples. In his Sculptured Stones, Dr Stuart says:- "The surface of this kind of rock is liable to frequent disintegration, and if there ever had been any sculptures on the walls of the cave, they would have been obliterated long ago. Another cave, called the ‘Devil’s Cave,’ is about a mile further to the west. It is also formed in a mass of trap, but as the sea rushes into it at every tide, it is not likely that it was used for habitation." The rocks immediately to the west of Macduff’s Cave will amply repay those who are venturesome enough to clamber among them; but care must be taken lest the advancing tide cut off the retreat, and caution must be exercised in climbing over those rocks whose surface is too friable to afford a secure foot-hold. The gigantic masses of basaltic formation are the most striking. Those who do not wish to run any risk can have a splendid panoramic view not only of the rocks, but of the land and water to a great distance on either side, from the top of Kincraig Point, which is 200 feet high. There is not a more delightful walk in the district than that which leads from the end of the Links to the top of this hill. On John Ainslie’s Map of Fife and Kinross, published in 1775, Kincraig Point is called "Heughend," and the cliffs behind—" Craigheugh."

Population, &c.—In 1792 the population of the burgh was estimated at about 350; in 1837, it had risen to 649; but in 1881 it had fallen to 286. The fencible men were called out in 1689. The valuation of the burgh for the year 1855-6 was only 493 2s 6d, but it has now risen to 1038 1s.


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