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Guide to the East Neuk of Fife

This favourite little watering-place is two miles further up the Firth than St Monans.

The Name, which is sometimes spelt Ely and Ellie, is supposed to be derived “from A Liche, in Gaelic, ‘out of the sea, or out of the water,’ the town being built so near the sea that it washes the walls in some places.” Dr Milligan, on the other hand, held that it had “sprung from the Greek word, ‘elos’ a marsh;” and Wood, dissatis­fied with both theories, thought it meant “‘the island,’ that is, the island of Ardross, and the land at the harbour being surrounded by the sea before the dyke was built, probably was the origin of the name.” In the parlance of the district it is commonly called the Elie.

The Town is older than the parish, but how old is uncertain. In 1586, James Melville speaks of landing in a boat at the Alie, “efter a maist weirisome and sear day.” It has long been a burgh of barony; and it con­sented by its deputy to the union with England, in 1651, on which occasion it was styled in the records Elymburgh. In 1672, the weekly market was changed by Parliament from Sabbath to Tuesday. Two yearly fairs had been held, on the 1st of May, and the 20th of August, since the days of James the Sixth, who had granted the privilege; but, in 1672, they too were changed. Three were now to be held, viz., on the 13th of January, 7th of July, and 20th of October; but the market and fairs have long been discontinued. In 1699, the proportion of taxa­tion payable by the unfree traders of Fife, for the communication of trade, was set down at 17s 5d. Of that sum the undermentioned places paid as follows

“By Elie one shilling six pennies.”
“By toun and paroch of Saint Minnans six pennies.”
“By the paroches of Kilconqr and Newburne eight pennies.”
“By toun and paroch of Largo eight pennies.”
“By toun of Leven and paroch of Scoony one shilling.”

An offer of eight pence by Elie in 1700 was rejected as too small. In 1705, Sir Robert Forbes, in name of the Royal Burghs, protested against this burgh receiving the privileges of a Royal Burgh. It is described, in Chambers’ Gazetteer of Scotland, as “an ancient little town of no trade,” and as “excessively dull.” But though it is nine and thirty years more ancient now, it is certainly not excessively dull. It is a delightfully quiet retreat, for those who wish to escape from the din and bustle of the city, to rusticate where they can enjoy the combined advantages of a sea-side resort and country town. The streets are wide and clean, the air is clear and bracing, the beach is splendid for bathing, the rocks are wild and rugged, the water supply is abundant and excellent, there are many beautiful walks and drives in the neighbourhood, and the golfing links of Earlsferry are close at hand. There is an “Elie Golf-House Club,” an “Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club,” and also a Cricket Club, a Lawn-Tennis Club, and a Curling Club. As Elie is likewise easy of access by rail, road, and sea, it is sure to rise much higher in popular esteem. Although Earlsferry is so near that it seems to be part of the same town, it is in the parish of Kilconquhar, and is under different municipal control. I therefore treat it in a separate chapter. Elie is governed by nine Police Commissioners, of whom three are Magistrates. These also form the Local Authority, and the Police Act of 1862 has been wholly adopted.

The Parish Church stands in the burying-ground in the middle of the town. From a lengthy Act of Parliament passed on the 17th of November 1641, it appears that the then lately deceased Sir William Scott of Elie was anxious to build a kirk in the town of Elie, within his lands and barony of Ardross, and left 5000 merks for that purpose. His son and heir built the church, and mortified a stipend for the minister with a manse and glebe. The patron and minister of Kilconquhar consented that Scott’s lands should be erected into a separate parish. The Presbytery of St Andrews, the Synod of Fife, and the General Assembly all agreed, and therefore the King and Estates now ratified the mortification and contracts, and erected the lands into a separate parish and the new kirk into a parish kirk, to be called the parish and kirk of Elie. The building cannot have been very substantial, for in 1670, William Scott of Ardross was empowered to lift the vacant stipend, that he might repair the kirk and manse, which had become ruinous, and like to fall to the ground. The steeple was built in 1726, and the church “underwent a complete repair in 1831.” In the east gable of the church, on the south side of the porch, the top of an old table stone has been built in. It has a richly carved border, and is in memory of Thomas Turnbull, sen., of Bogmill—a pious, upright, and modest man, who died in 1650. A bull’s head occupies a prominent place in the coat of arms. A much more remarkable tomb­stone has been built into the outside of the north wall of the porch, in memory of Elizabeth,. second daughter of Thomas Turnbull of Bogmill, who died on the 3d of January 1658. It shows a full-sized skeleton, covered from the breast to the ankles by a cloth, which is attached to a roller on either side, and on this there is a winged hour-glass. Altogether, it is most peculiar, and almost conveys the idea of an Egyptian mummy, with the head and feet protruding. There are engravings of several stones of somewhat similar design, in Cutts’ Manual of Sepulchral Stabs and Crosses of the Middle Ages. The first minister of the parish church has also been its most eminent. Robert Trail, a descendant of the Trails of Blebo, was born in 1603, and after finishing his course at St Andrews University went to France. He returned to Scotland in 1630, and became chaplain to. the Marquis of Argyle. He was presented to Elie by the Laird of Ardross, and admitted on the 17th of July 1639. When the Scots army was in England, he attended it for several months as chaplain, and was present at Marston Moor. He took an active part in the public affairs of the Church, and was translated to the Greyfriars’ in Edinburgh in 1649. In the unhappy controversy which soon afterwards divided the Scottish Church, he took the side of the Protestors; and was one of the few who met on the 23d of August 1660, to draw up a supplication to Charles the Second. For daring to prepare a petition, they were seized and imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. Next March, some of them were brought before the Lords of the Articles. Trail alone seems to have been brought before Parliament. His manly Christian speech on that occasion has been preserved by Wodrow, in his History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland. On the 11th of December 1662, the Privy Council banished him forth of his Majesty’s dominions. He went to Holland in March 1663; but even there persecution followed him. Steven, in his history of the Scottish Church in Rotterdam, says that the King, in 1670, formally asked their High Mightinesses to expel Trail and other two Scotch ministers from Holland. Steven adds that he “secluded himself for a while, and afterwards lived unmolested in Holland till his death, which took place several years afterwards.” Wod­row states that he returned and died in Scotland, and Hew Scott gives the 12th of July 1678, as the date of his death. But in a letter written by Macward—one of his fellow-exiles—in 1677, he is spoken of as already dead, and it may be inferred from that letter that he died abroad. Macward places him among the great luminaries who had preached to the Scottish congregation at Rotterdam, and describes him as “fervent, serious, and zealous.” He had three sons and three daughters. The eldest son William became minister of Borthwick, and his son, grandson, and great-grandson successively occupied the pulpit of Panbride from 1717 to 1850. His third son James was Lieutenant of Stirling Castle; and his second daughter Agnes was married to Sir James Stewart of Goodtrees, one of the authors of Naphtali, and Lord-Advocate after the Revolution. But his second son Robert, who was born at Elie in 1642, was most widely known. He was a staunch Presbyterian, and was bold enough, when only nineteen, to accompany James Guthrie to the scaffold. Six years later he had to fly to Holland to his father; but in 1670 he was ordained in London, and preached in Kent for several years. In 1677, he returned to Edinburgh, where he was seized by Major Johnston, who received £1000 Scots for apprehending him. He was sent to the Bass for three months. Often would he look wistfully across the water, from his sea-girt prison, to the peaceful little town where he had first seen the light, and spent his early years. After being released he returned to Kent, and for many years was minister of a congrega­tion in London, where he died in 1716, having lived to see the overthrow of the Stuarts, and the union of the two kingdoms. “His writings are essentially English— clear, nervous, and Saxon—while the catholicity of their sentiments made them a favourite with every class of religious men both in England and Scotland.” Of those printed in his lifetime, his Discourses on the Throne of Grace are best known.

Antiquities of South Street.—There is a fine old door-way at the east end of this street, a very good drawing of which is given in Leaves from my Sketch Books. Mr Small there says that :—“ It is rather unique in its heavily trussed pilasters, elaborately carved on both face, and ingoe, which is much weather worn, as well as the frieze and cornice.” He remarks that Elie does not possess any other old remains of value. The next door to the west, save one, is surmounted by an ornamental stone showing the sun, moon, world, and three stars. The door imme­diately to the west of this has a most imposing stone door-case, with a frieze, crowned by a composite sun-dial, and dated 1682. It bears the initials of Alexander Gillespie and his wife, Christian Small, and also the Gillespie arms. [On the west side of the church-yard gate, there is a mural monu­ment, bearing the same arms; but the old inscription has been hewn off to make way for one more modern.] A large building called the “Muckle Yett,” stretching half-way across the street, formerly stood here, and this door-case belonged to it. Two centuries ago the Duke of York, afterwards the ill-fated James the Seventh, lodged in it, when he came to see the Earl of Balcarres and the Laird of Ardross. “There is a dim recollection of a bed,” says Wood, “with satin hangings, apple-green, and a darker shade of the same colour, and the arms of Scotland on the bolster-piece, which the Duke used to occupy when he came over from Holyrood, and his barge cast anchor in the road-stead of Elie.” The coxswain of his barge fell in love with the daughter of Turnbull of Bogmill, and the Episcopal minister of Kilconquhar married them privately. That York might not be blamed for carrying her over in his barge, the bride consented to be put into a barrel with a sparred top. Those who were inquisitive enough to ask what was in the barrel were promptly told that, it was a swan from Kilconquhar Loch. Wood has preserved the old song written on this episode :—

“At Elie lies a gallant barge,
And her sails as white as snaw,
With the royal standard at her mast,
And her gilded sides and a’.
Sing a’ and sing a’; sing Elie leddies, a’,
Bewaur the Duke o’ York’s lads when they
come here awa’.

“Up the lang turnpike,
And at the brass Ca’;
The leddy liked the sailor weel,
And wi’ him she ran awa’.
Sing a’, &c.

“They stowed the maiden in a cask,
and bore her to the shore;
And it’s fare ye weel my father’s house,
And Elie evermore.
Sing a’, &c.

“Old Bogmill he took it ill,
That his daughter was awa’,
And to Holyrood, and to the Duke,
And telt him o’ it a’.
Sing a’, &c.

“Oh! woe be to Kinneuchar priest!
An ill death may he dee!
He’s wed my lass to an English loon,
And that has ruined me.
Sing a’, &c. 

“The Duke he answered by his faith,
Likewise his royalty;
No lady was aboard the barge,
That ever he did see.
Sing a’, &c.

“Stand up, stand up now, gude Bogmill,
From off your bended knee;
I’ll mak’ your son a captain,
And he shall sail wi’ me.
Sing a’, &c”

The Subscription Library, containing about 4000 volumes, is open daily to town and country readers. Membership only costs 6s per annum.

Elie House was built by Sir William Anstruther, who bought the estate in or about 1697. Mr Baird is now the owner, and the grounds are kept strictly private. Within them, not far from the Railway Station, stands an obelisk nearly thirty feet high; but no one seems to know what it was raised to commemorate. Some suppose that it was in memory of a great battle, others imagine that it was in honour of the union of the kingdoms, while some authoritatively assert that it only marks the burial-place of a favourite dog! On the east and west sides there are panels for inscriptions, which have never been lettered. On the south side there is a head carved in high-relief which might pass either for a dog’s or a lion’s, but it is much wasted. On the north side there is a slab bearing the arms of the Anstruthers, which are also very weather-worn, both of the supporting falcons having lost their heads, and each being minus a foot, while only the last word of the motto remains. The carved stones look much older than the monument. Sir John Anstruther, the third baronet of this branch of the family, wrote a book on drill husbandry, which was published in 1796. One of his friends remarked that no one could be better qualified to write on the subject, as there was not a better drilled husband in Fife.

The Harbour.—Wood states that a royal charter of the port was granted in 1601. Lamont relates that on the 20th of July 1651—” The towne of Bruntellande did render to the English armie; the garesone ther had libertie to goe foorth with flieing coullers and bage and baggage. The said day also, a pairtie of ther horse came alonge to the Ellies towne, at which tyme Jhone Small’s ship was taken out of the harbery, and mead a pryse of.” In 1696, a petition was presented to the Privy Council craving help to repair the harbour, as it was in a ruinous condition, and urging as a reason that three hundred of his Majesty’s soldiers would have been lost, had it not been for the conveniency and safety of this harbour. The Lords of the Privy Council were so impressed with the importance and necessity of the case, that, they authorised a collection to be made in all the parish churches of the kingdom. In 1710, Sibbald pronounced the harbour to be most con­venient and safe. “The water in it at spring tides,” he says, is “twenty-two foot deep. A little to the east of this there might be a harbour made for ships of the greatest burden, and in which lesser ships might enter at low water, and be as safe as the other.” In 1795, William Pairman, the minister of the parish, said it was again “going fast to ruin,” though it could be repaired at an inconsiderable expense. He declared it to be “the resort of more wind-bound vessels, than any other har­bour, perhaps, in Scotland.” And he thus refers to the haven on the east side of it:— “ To the east end of the harbour of Ely, and at a small distance from it, Wade haven is situated; so named, it is said, from General Wade, who recommended it to government as proper for a har­bour. Others call it Wadd’s Haven. How it got that name, if the right one, is not known. It is very large, and has deep water, in so much that it would contain the largest men-of-war, drawing from 20 to 22 feet water.” In John Ainslie’s map of Fife and Kinross, published in 1775, it is neither called Wade nor Wadd, but Wood Haven. Pairman also states that, in 1 795, there were, “belonging to this place, seven square-rigged vessels, carrying 1000 or 1100 tons, all employed in foreign trade, and one sloop used as a coaster.” He further notifies that “vessels of a considerable size are built here;" and that there were eight fishermen, who had houses rent free from Sir John Anstruther, on condition of supplying the town with fish at least thrice a week. The harbour of Elie now serves for Earlsferry as well, and yet there are only twelve fishing-boats, with twenty men and boys. There is a rocket apparatus in connection with the Coast-Guard Station.

The Lady’s Tower - Sauchar Point, is a conspicu­ous and picturesque object. It was built as a summer­house for one of the Lady Anstruthers, and there were old people, twenty years ago, who remembered when it had a roof and glazed windows. The diameter inside is about 15 feet, and it has been lathed and plastered. There are three pointed windows and a door-way, and also a fire-place and a press. A bathing place, with a sluice, was close by. Some people have made a livelihood by gathering Elie rubies or garnets, which are found here. Searching for these gems is an agreeable pastime to visitors.

Ardross Castle, which was long the seat of the Dischingtons, and afterwards of the Scotts, stood half-way between Elie and St Monans. It has fared much worse than Newark Castle, for only a vestige remains, on the cliff between the railway and the beach. A sheep-wash­ing apparatus has been fitted up in one end of it. In one of the fields near this, a curious subterranean building was discovered last century. Several coffins are said to have been found in it, “ranged in the shape of a horse-shoe,” and some of the bones were of “a remarkably large size.”

Bucklevie was the name of a village, which stoodbetween Elie House and Kilconquhar Loch, and which was cleared away by Sir John Anstruther, about 1760, to please his wife, who is said to have been “a very superior woman.” According to tradition, an old woman, who lived in it, predicted that the family should not flourish for seven generations. Dr Milligan, in 1836, says : — “The prophecy is still devoutly believed by a number of people; and the fact has added strength to their faith,—the sixth proprietor, within the memory of middle-aged men, being now in possession, and some disaster having occurred in the history of them all.” Another version will have it, that the old woman stood on a stairhead, when the demolition had begun, and cursed the lady and her race to the third generation. Whether this was the cause or not, the unlucky estate has passed out of the hands of the family. The effigy of “Jock o’ Bucklevie” is in the burying-ground of Kilconquhar.

Praying Society and Covenanters’ Conference. —During the persecution, under Charles the Second, and James the Seventh, many of the Presbyterians kept up praying societies in the districts in which they lived. The stricter and more uncompromising of these—the followers of Cameron, Cargill, and Renwick—were emphatically known as the “Society People.” The Records of this “suffering remnant in the Church of Scotland, who subsisted in select societies, and were united in general correspon­dencies during the hottest time of the late persecution, viz, from the year 1681 to 1691,” were published by John Howie of Lochgoin, in 1780, with the appropriate title of Faithful Contendings Displayed. Some of the Society People doubtless showed “more zeal than knowledge, more honesty than policy, and more single-hearted simplicity than prudence,” in their anxiety to avoid “the defections, compliances, sins, and snares of the time;” yet “the unbiassed and unprejudiced may discover much ingenuity, and somewhat of the Lord’s conduct, and helping them to manage and keep up the testimony, according to their capacities, and stations in these meetings.” On the 11th of June 1681, one of these societies, in Fife, agreed to a paper called A Testimony against the Evils of the Times; and on the 11th of next month, three of the members, to wit, Laurence Hay, Andrew Pittilloch, and Adam Philp, were tried before the Justiciary for signing it, and were sentenced to be hanged in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh on the next day save one. There is reason to believe that Hay was born in West Anstruther in 1649, and Wodrow says he was a weaver. Pittilloch was a land-labourer in the parish of Largo. Both of them were executed on the 13th of July, and, in conformity with their sentence, their heads were stuck up on Cupar tolbooth. As Crookshank has justly said, their dying testimonies, which are in the Cloud of Witnesses, “breath a spirit of true piety.” Philp seems to have been respited, and to have afterwards escaped. James Russel—” a man of a hot and fiery spirit “—who had taken a leading part in the death of Bishop Sharp, introduced dissension and confusion, at a general meeting of the Society People, held at Tala-linn, in Tweedale, on the 15th of June 1682, by endeavouring to make the paying of customs at ports and bridges a testing question. He afterwards prevailed on the Fife Society to withdraw from the others; and to adopt his extreme views on that point, and also on the names of the days of the week and months of the year. At a general meeting, convened near Glasgow, on the 28th of November 1683, a deputation was appointed to go to Fife, to invite that society to come and hear the Gospel preached by Renwick, who had returned from Holland. It was risky for these people to travel, and highly danger­ous to hold meetings; nevertheless, on the 14th of December 1683. “three men and a boy, and about seven or eight women” convened at Elie to meet the deputation. Before imparting their commission, the deputation wished one of their own number to pray, but as the Fife folk refused to join in this with them, they forbare, and delivered their message after this manner :—“ The General Meeting hath sent us to acquaint you, that the Lord out of His free love and infinite mercy bath visited His poor people in their low condition, in giving us the sweet and precious Gospel again, in stirring up Mr James Renwick a minister, faithfully to preach the same, and freely to testify against the sins and abominations of the time, to which we have been witness both in private and in public; and considering our being bound in cove­nant together, and out of brotherly love and kindness to your souls, they earnestly desire and invite you to come and hear the same, and be partakers of that rich and unspeak­able blessing the Lord hath bestowed.” The dozen Fifers, however, were immovable. They would hold no communion with those who paid customs at ports and markets, although they were willing to pay them at boats and bridges. None of the Society People would pay cess expressly ]evied to maintain soldiers to hunt them down; and the deputation acknowledged that they would not justify the paying of customs; but they said they “could not drive so abruptly and inconsiderately to such a height of separation on that head.” And yet the representatives of the Fife Society would not give way. “All the ground they gave for refusing to hear the said Mr James preach, was only this, that he does not as yet see the paying of customs, and joining with those who pay the same to be a ground of sepa­ration, and of debarring from the privileges of the Church.”

The Parish, as already mentioned, was erected by Parliament in 1641. Altogether it contains fully 2241 acres, including 210k of foreshore; but as Scott’s lands were not all contiguous, 650 acres are detached from the rest. Population, Public Buildings, &c.—In 1755 the population of the parish was only 642, and in 1790 it had decreased to 620. In 1831 the inhabitants had increased to 1029, but in 1881 they had sunk to 670. At the latter date there were 625 people in the town, of whom 79 were in Kilconquhar parish. In Elie, there are two hotels, a branch of the National Bank, a Savings’ Bank, a Post and Telegraph Office, and a gas-work. The Free Church, which is dated 1844, is a peculiar looking building. In 1795, Pairman wrote:- “There are a few Seceders, Independents, and Bereans; but the great body of the people belong to the Established Church. The stipend of Ely is £80 old stipend, and £20 lately given voluntarily by Sir John Anstruther—in all £100. The schoolmaster’s salary is £11.” The valuation of the parish in 1855-6 was £5053 18s. It has gradually risen until it has now reached £7333 12s. In 1836, Dr Milligan said :—“There are no antiqui­ties in the parish, nor yet any modern buildings worthy of notice:" but, “it has often been remarked by strangers that on Sundays the church, from the cleanliness of the people, and in many instances the handsomeness of their dresses, presents much of the appearance of a city congrega­tion.” At that time, there was no Dissenting Church in the parish, and not more than 15 of the parishioners were members of Dissenting Churches; but these were “divided among perhaps half a dozen different sects.” Under the head of “eminent persons,” Dr Milligan stated:- This is a production in which the parish does not appear to be very prolific.” Since that time his own eldest son has risen to great eminence in the Church, but he was not born in Elie. In the very year, however, in which he wrote, a most dis­tinguished native rested from his labours. Few men have done more for the safety of their fellows than James Hors­burgh, the self-taught and enthusiastic hydrographer, who was born at Elie in 1762, who died in 1836, and was buried here.

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