Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Guide to the East Neuk of Fife

The wind-swept town of Pittenweem is about a mile to the south-west of Anstruther-Wester. It has been well said that “the whole place exhibits an air of cleanliness, comfort, and respectability.” Many of the houses have evidently been the winter residences of the neighbouring gentry in times long gone by. There are also many modern houses, neat and nice. Unfortunately, though there are several places where gentlemen can bathe, there is no ladies’ bathing ground. But those who take up their summer quarters in this quaint old town can easily go by train to Elie for a dip.

The Name of the town is given as Sandness by Blaeu; but in this he seems to stand alone. It has been sup­posed that the first part of Pittenweem is derived from the coal-pits, which were early wrought in the neighbour­hood; but if that be so, coals must have been procured here at least seven centuries ago, and that is probably much earlier than in any other district of Scotland. More­over, there are too many Pits in Scottish topography for this theory. Dr M’Lauchlan would carry it much further back, for, in his Early Scottish Church, he states that Pit, or Pitten, indicates the existence of an ancient British population, and mentions Pittenweem as an example. There can be no doubt that the latter part of the name is taken from the

Cave, or weem, between the Priory and the sea. This cave is of a considerable size, and was probably one of the “steddis” which sheltered Adrian’s company, although they have left no crosses on its cold walls. There are a few “holdfasts,” in ledges of the rock, on the western side ; and, where the cave becomes narrow, there is a small well of water. About the middle of the main cave, a smaller one branches off, and there are several “hold-fasts” on its east side. Dr Stuart says that the cave looks out from the mass of sandstone rock on the Isle of May, which lifts up its rocky brow at no great distance. The cave certainly looks in that direction, but the houses round its mouth effectually shut out the May. There can be no doubt that, long after Adrian’s time, the cave was utilised by the inmates of the Priory and their visitors as a quiet entrance. In the old Statistical Account, the Rev. James Nairne, in 1792, said:- "At the junction of the two apart­ments, there is a stone stair, which carried you up a little way to a subterraneous passage, which led to the abbey, where was another stair, which landed in the great dining hall of the abbey. The two stairs still remain; but of late years the subterraneous passage was destroyed, by the impending earth sinking, and cutting off the communication. The subterraneous passage, I think, might be about 50 yards in length.” Dr J. F. S. Gordon, in his Monasticon, records that the Rev. James Crabb, who was translated from the Episcopal Church of Pittenweem to Brechin in 1866, dis­covered, and re-opened, in the south-west corner of the Priory garden, right in front of the Prior’s House, an inlet to the cave. “A flight of steps leads from the garden to a square door-way, within which is the cell of S. Fillan, one of the early anchorites here. The tradition of his luminous arm is well known, which, like Aladdin’s lamp, only required to be rubbed to be useful           The floor (roof) of S. Fillan’s cell, which seems to have been a low stone arch, had given way, and a wooden one is now (inserted) instead. The stair cut out of live rock leads to the cove.” Though the monks have long disappeared, the cave is still turned to practical account by those living in the immediate neigh­bourhood. It is now a very convenient “aumrie,” where old chairs, and tubs, and fishing gear are kept under lock and key. Like the old keeps, it has both an outer and an inner “yett.” In pre-historic times the coast line must have been by the mouth of the cave.

History of the Priory.—As has been already men­tioned (see p. 22), David the First gave the manor of Pittenweem to the. monks of May, and here they probably built in his days a religious house. The Prior of Pitten­wee m is first mentioned in a charter about 1221, that is, 68 years after David’s death. And the merk, which the monks of May agreed in 1225 to pay yearly to Dryburgh Abbey, is mentioned about 1300 as payable by the Prior of Pittenweem. When the Priory of May was transferred to the canons of St Andrews in 1318, they obtained the rights of their predecessors to Pittenweem, and the island monastery was deserted for this seat on the mainland. In 1452, James the Second erected certain lands of the Priory of Pittenweem into a free regality. When Pope Sixtus the Fourth made the Church of St Andrews a metropolitan see in 1472, he annexed the Priory of Pitten­weem or May, for ever, as a mensal possession of the Arch­bishops of St Andrews; Patrick Graham, the first and un­fortunate Archbishop, having “represented to him that the Priory of Pittenweem was not conventual, but only a small cell or chapel of the Church of St Andrews, whose annual revenues did not exceed a hundred pounds ster­ling.” On Parliament ratifying, in 1479, all annexations of benefices by the Pope in favour of that see, Walter Davidson, the Prior of Pittenweem, protested that this ratification should be no prejudice to him, or the Priory during his time, and to this the Archbishop agreed. It is questionable if the annexation to the see of St Andrews was ever acted on. John Rowle, at anyrate, disposed of the patrimony of the Priory, “without reference to the Archbishop of St Andrews, and simply with consent of the Priors of St Andrews, to whom the house of May had always been subject since its re-acquisition from the monks of Reading.” The lands, which had been in the possession of the Priory of May for nigh four centuries, were nearly all alienated during Rowle’s administration. “The deeds by which he effected this,” says Dr Stuart, “are recorded in a chartulary now in the charter-room at Elie House. They commence in 1532, and bear to be granted by ‘John, Prior of the monastery of Pittenweem and convent there­of with consent of Patrick, Prior of the metropolitan church of St Andrews.’ In 1540, the style is, ‘with consent of James, perpetual Commendator of St Andrews and con­vent thereof,’ and the seals of both monasteries are affixed to the deeds. At times, the deeds bear to be granted with consent of the chapter of St Andrews, as ‘superiors of Pittenweem in that part.’” Wood supposed that Rowie was one of the early favourers of the Reformation, but in this he was mightily mistaken. Mr Cook knew more about him when he said that “he was no friend to that great movement.” Melvil of Halhill and Kirkcaldy of Grange both spake of this Prior of Pittenweem as a vile sensualist, and their opinion is known to have been only too well founded. A favourer of the Reformation! “In 1543, he granted to William Dischintoun of Ardross a charter of the lands of Grangemuir, which sets forth the many benefits conferred by him on the convent, and then indicates that was expected of him amid the ‘Luthe­ran heresies and the corruptions of the time.'" It was either the Prior or a contemporary of the same name—a poet and a priest—who wrote a metrical cursing of 278 lines against those who robbed his poultry-yard and garden, and of which a copy will be found in Laing’s Select Remains of the Ancient Poetry of Scotland. Trusting to a passage in Dunbar, Laing thought the author must either have been Rowle of Aberdeen, or Rowle of Cor­storphine; but for aught that is known it may have been that Rowle who became Prior of Pittenweem. As the following specimen shows, the cursing is very vigor­ous :—

“Blak be thair hour—blak be thair pairt,
For fyve fat geiss of Schir Johine Rowlis,
With caponis, henie, and vthir fowlis,
Baith the halderis and conceilaris,
Ressettaris and the preve steilaris
And he that saulis, saifis, and dammis
Beteich the devii, thair guttis and gammis,
Thair toung, thair teith, thair handis, thair feit,
And all thair body haill compleit,
That brak his zaird and stall his frutt,
And raif his erbis vp be the rute.”

In a royal charter of 1540, the “Priory of May and Pittenweem” is spoken of as of small importance, and its revenues as arising from the honest labours of poor fishers. In 1552, Rowle, who was now styled the “usufructuar” of Pittenweem, granted a lease of the place and priory of Pittenweem, with all its profits, emoluments, and com­modities, for 19 years, to James, Commendator of St Andrews and Pittenweem, that is, James Stuart, who is best known as the Good Regent. “After this time, the deeds run in the name of ‘James, perpetual Commendator of Pittenweem;’ or, at times, ‘of Pittenweem and St Andrews,’ with consent of the chapter of St Andrews.” From 1559, that is, the year in which Popery was over­thrown, until 1565, the charters bear to be granted by “James, Commendator” in his own name. Sir James Balfour, of Pittendreich, afterwards received a gift of the Priory of Pittenweem for surrendering Edinburgh Castle.

He was forfeited in 1571. In 1574, James Halyburton, Provost  of Dundee, is styled Commendator  of Pitteuweem. On his resigna~  tion, William Stewart, captain of  the King’s Guard, obtained a gift  of the Priory and lands; and, in  1606, they were erected into a  temporal lordship, in favour of his  son, Frederick, with the title of  Lord Pittenweem. Most, if not  all the lands, had already been alienated, but the rights of superiority remained. This Frederick disponed the Lordship to Thomas, Earl of Kellie, and he,  according to the general sub­mission anent the superiorities of erection, with consent of his son, resigned the superi­ority into the hands of Charles the First. In 1671, Charles the Second granted a charter to Alexander, Earl of Kellie, of the lands and barony of Kellie, and of the lordship of Pittenweem, comprehending the manor place formerly called the monastery of Pittenweem, with its houses, yards, and pertinents, the burgh and town of Pitten­weem, and West Anstruther, together with the ports, anchor­ages and customs belonging thereto, and which formerly pertained to the Priory; as also the Isle of May, the monkscroft of Crail, the coal-heughs, and salt-pans of Pittenweem, with all the lands, &c., which belonged to the temporality of the Priory of Pittenweem. This charter, which also contained an erection of these lands and others into a haill and free earldom, to be called the Earldom of Kellie, was ratified by Parliament in 1672. The lands of Pittenweem afterwards became the property of - the Anstru­thers of that ilk, who sold them to Mr Baird.

Remains of the Priory.—In 1592, the King hap­ing attained his perfect age of 25, Parliament ratified the charters granted by William, Commendator of Pittenweem, and Walter Scott, of Abbotshall, conveying to the bailies, council, burgesses, and community of the burgh of Pittenweem All and haill that greit hous, or greit building, of the monasterie of Pettinveme, vnder and abone, with the pertinentis, contenand the channonis or monkis frater, and dortour of the said monasterie, with the cellaris beneth and lofts abone the samyn frater and dortour, and sic­lyk of the westries of the said monasterie, vnder and abone, with thair pertinentis, and of the chaptour chalmer of the same monasterie, and cellair beneth the said chaimer, vnder and abone, with all and sindre thair pertinentis, all lyand in the said monasterie of Pettinveme, within the shrefdome of Fyfi on the wast pairt of the inner clois of the said .monasterie, betuix the samyn clois on the eist, the new gairie at the east end of the hail of the said monasterie on the south, the commoun gait, kirkzaird, and houssis pertening to James and Williame Stevinsons respective on the wast, and the wast gardin of the said monasterie on the north partis.” These subjects were granted for the “edifeing and bigging” of the minister’s manse, grammar school, tolbooth, prison, weigh-house, cus­tom-house, and other necessary houses, for the public use of the burgh of Pittenweem and kirk of the same. The buildings of the monastery so conveyed were now to be held by the bailies and community, of the King and his successors, for the yearly payment of 6s 8d Scots. The charter, granted by James the Sixth, on the 25th of July 1593, to the bailjes, &c., of Pittenweem, conveying the great house and other buildings of the monasstery to them, was ratified by Parliament in 1633.

Perhaps the fullest and best account of the present con­dition of the remains of the Priory is that given by Dr Gordon, in his Monasticon published in 1875. He there says :—“ This Priory is situated at the east end of the little quaint town, overhanging the harbour and shore. The grounds enclosed within the Abbey-walls extended to about two or three acres, and formed a parallelogram. A considerable portion of these walls still exists. The site of the Priory is the most choice and commanding, in point of view, in the old burgh. The buildings appear to have formed the three sides of a quadrangle. At the north-east corner of the road called the Abbey Walk, there is said to have been a fortified tower, and an arch, with steps to the top, across the street. The wall pro­ceeds southward along the Abbey Walk (a road leading to the harbour), until it reaches the saw-mill and fish-curing premises of Messrs Welsh, Brothers, when it takes a westerly direction along the top of the cliff on which the town is built, turning northwards when it touches the Cove Wynd, and losing itself at the present Town Hall. The northern portion of the wall runs (ran) along S. Mary’s Street, from the Abbey Walk to the High Street, which was, perhaps, up to the time when it was taken down, fourteen years ago, the highest and best preserved portion of the whole. In this northern section of the wall stood the principal outer entrance, a Norman arch-way, surmounted by the coat of arms of one of the abbots, said to be John Forman, after­wards Archbishop of St Andrews. The wall was reported to have been sufficiently broad to admit of two sentinels walking abreast. When S. John’s Episcopal Chapel was built in 1807, this north gateway was re­moved, as occupying part of its site; and the coat of arms, which is carved on a large stone, and has a long illegible inscription, was placed on the outside of the middle of the east (north) wall of the chapel. About 30 or 40 yards west from the Episcopal Chapel, and opposite the foot of the Lady Wynd, partly within the present church­yard, stood what was popularly termed the Confessional, but which was, in reality, the ancient chapel of the Priory, dedicated to the blessed Virgin Mary. To straighten the street, this chapel was demolished about 20 years ago! It had a flagged stone roof, was nearly 20 feet square, and the walls from 12 to 14 feet in height. It was used as a watch-tower in the ‘resurrec­tionising’ days….. On the south side of what is called the Rotten Row—i.e., Routine or Processional Row—there is another lofty wall, with a doorway, on the lintel of which is a half-effaced inscription of two lines—the legible part of which is ‘God is Love,’ and the date 1661…… The site of the hospital is now the garden of Mr Bayne, postmaster…… Passing by the east side of the Episcopal Chapel, down the avenue, the chief entrance to the Priory buildings meets the eye. This fine ruin faces eastward, and is about 30 feet in height; is built of massive stones, having a row of projecting stones or corbels near the top; and is mantled with ivy. Over its Norman-arched gateway was a coat of arms. At the west side (or back), is a flight of stone steps leading to its broad top. The lower portion of the steps has disappeared, and only the upper part remains. At the foot or west side of this stair is the ‘witch corner,’ where the Pitten­weem witches were burned and buried. I ate the first crop of potatoes which grew on this spot of renown. (No wonder the Doctor is now a man of renown!)

The second flat of the ruin seems to have been the residence or lodge of the porter. Under the stair above alluded to, there still exists a well-built arch, about 14 feet across. This conspicuous lodge led to the ‘inner close,’ or paved court, of the Priory. Several pieces of encaus­tic tile have, from time to time, been dug up here. In later times, and in title deeds, this ‘ruin’ was called Bailie Hogg’s barn           Bailie Hogg was factor to the Anstruthers, and occupied the great house of the Priory after the Anstruthers. They had it from the Countess of Kellie, whose jointure-house it was; and the second floor or flat of it was for some time the Epis­copal meeting-house. The upper floor was let by the Anstruthers as a granary, which encouraged rats to such an extent as to necessitate the removal of the meeting-house to the upper floor of the town residence of the Arnots of Balcorrno, in the High Street. [In a foot-note Dr Gordon mentions that:- In the middle floor of this tenement in High Street, is a room called the Apostles’ Hall, from the fact of a wood-carving of the Last Supper being over the fireplace; some persons alleging that this carving was removed from the Priory, and others maintaining that it was taken from Carnbee House.” Mr Gilchrist, who now resides in this house, has recently transferred the carving to the session-house of the Parish Church] County people used the arched cellars of the great house as a stable. Bishop Low bought this por­tion of the Priory (including the ruin or barn), in 1812, from Thomas Martin, for £40! Thomas Martin bought it from the above-named Bailie Gavin Hogg, who was Provost of Pittenweem. It is tenanted by herring barrels, which pay rent, and are very quiet neighbours. From the interior court or quadrangle (now a garden), is a wide turnpike stone stair leading to the top of the great house. One of the steps, from its extreme damp­ness, prognosticates wet weather. There are no proper landings, but at every few steps there is a room or two branching off north and south. In the east face of this building, is a very good specimen of a Scotch oriel window of some pretentions; while the staircase also projects from the rest of the wall           As before mentioned, the middle floor was the Episcopal Chapel in non-juring times, and the pulpit stood close by this window. In the same floor is an arched recess in the west wall, about 6 feet high, and 6 wide; the north part joined the east wall…..The modern church-yard, or a portion of it, is supposed to be the Priory garden. At the west side of this great house, the ministers of the Established Kirk are buried, and some have monuments in the wall. At the north side, occupied by office-houses, the upper parts of the wall shew that the buildings extended a good space this way. Imme­diately to the south of the great house, and adjoining, is the present town-house, the front and west wall of which were re­built in 1821. It occupies the site of the Frater or Refec­tory of the Priory. (At the top of the south gable a stone bearing a shield has been built in upside down. The arms are those of Kennedy—perhaps, the good Bishop of St Andrews. There is a very similar shield and coat-of-arms in St Giles’ Cathedral.) The east wall (which contains another oriel, now built up), being considered safe, was allowed to remain. This portion was presented to the town by the Earl of Kellie in 1821. Still further south, forming a portion or corner of the conventual buildings, stood what was called Bishop Bruce’s Library, which has almost entirely disappeared. The whole of this line of buildings is prob­ably what was called the general house of the monastery, or the residence of the inferior brethren. Forming the south portion of the square, is what was the Prior’s hall, latterly the residence of Lord Pittenweem, eldest son of the Earl of Kellie.” Bishop Low “bought it from W. Baird, Esq., of Elie, with the burden of £10 annual feu­duty, and bequeathed it for an Episcopal parsonage. This part is best preserved, owing probably to its being occupied by respectable tenants. It is three storeys high, built on four arches, one of which seems to have been the entrance from the quadrangle to Cove Wynd. The middle-floor is said to have been the Prior’s refectory, as the east portion, or present ‘library,’ is raised up as a dais for the superior. If so, it must have formed a lofty well-proportioned hall, 12 feet high, 16 or 17 wide, and nearly 40 feet long, with four windows. The walls are upwards of 3 feet thick; and in the south wall of the present dining-room, is a small spiral stone staircase of 10 steps, leading down to a cellar or vault, probably the wine cellar of the establishment. Bishop Low used it as such, and fitted it with stone shelves, which still remain. This hall is now broken up into three apartments.

In the north-west corner of the Prior’s hall is a press with a recess, where a fluted stone pulpit, or lectern, for the reader at meals, stood. There is said to have been a passage from the south buildings to the west, entering at this press door. Probably this was the connection between the Prior’s house and the other parts of the Priory buildings, as a small built-up window in the south wall seems to have been for lighting this ‘trance. Access to the Prior’s house from the quadrangle on the north was by a turret with a spiral stone staircase, very narrow, and much worn; taken down about five years ago, to make room for the new kitchen and staircase of the parsonage.” In the University Library, St Andrews, there is a beautiful, fresh copy of the first edition of Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historia, which belonged to one of the canons of Pittenweem Priory. On one of the leaves may still be seen in a clear, bold hand :—“ Liber dni Alani Galt Canonici de pittynweym in vsu dni Willim Wilson mo d(ivi) Andree Religiosi Anno.” Unfortunately, the ruthless binder has cut off the three last letters of divi, and, what is much worse, the date.

The Burgh of Pittenweem has existed for four centuries. It was partly to strengthen his position that Rowle got James the Fifth to erect the lands of the Priory into the Barony of Pittenweem. And, at the same time, the King anew erected the town into a burgh of barony, as James the Third had previously done. This charter was confirmed by Parliament in 1526. Again, in 1540, says Dr Stuart, the King conveyed anew to Rowle “and his convent the lands forming the patrimony of the monastery, to be held as the free barony of Pittenweem,” and erected “both Pittenweem and Anstruther into burghs of barony.” But it must have been about this very time that, James raised Pittenweem still higher by making it a royal burgh; for the Act in favour of the burgh of “Pittinweyme,” passed by the Parliament of Charles the First in 1633, expressly ratifies the charter erecting the town and lands of Pitten­weem into a free burgh royal, granted by James the Fifth, in the 28th year of his reign, to the late John, Prior of Pittenweem, and his convent. In February 1547-8, Rowle by two charters granted the burgh with “the reid port heavine and harberie thairof,” &c., to the Council and community of the same, and these charters were also ratified in 1633. Considering that Pittenweem was bearing the burden of a royal burgh, and as it was “very populous,” and had “ane guid and saiff harberie” built at the expense of the inhabitants, Charles and his Parliament, in 1633, further erected it into a free burgh royal holding immediately of the Crown. On the same day the Earl of Kellie and his son protested, by their procurators, that neither the signature nor right, granted to the burgh, should be prejudicial to their rights to the lands and lordship of Pittenweem. In the hardship, loss, and expense of the Civil War, Pittenweem bore her share. “Successive contingents of town’s people,” says Mr Cook, “trained to arms at home, were sent to the Covenant­ing Army; forts were erected at different places in the burgh, and cannons mounted on them, and the sea-walls were made musket proof. Beacon lights were erected in the neighbourhoud, and a nightly patrol of men at arms watched the town           Documents preserved in the town’s archives testify to the loss sustained by Pittenweem (at Kilsyth). No fewer than forty-nine widows and one hundred and thirty fatherless children were left destitute by this terrible calamity. The masters and entire crews of six vessels . . . . had been slain, and these ships, which had been the pride of the port, and had furnished the means of subsistence to many families, were sold and removed to other places. The fishing boats in like manner lay useless on the beach for want of men to sail in them; and to add to the wretchedness of the place, the plague broke out amongst them in the same year.” Indeed, the burgh was brought to such a state of destitu­tion and poverty that, conjointly with Anstruther-Easter, she petitioned Parliament for relief in 1649. The inhabi­tants of both burghs were actually selling their furniture and clothes for meal! Pittenweem was charged with £600 monthly, besides £120 of ordinary maintenance paid to the collector of the shire. Not only so, but while Anstruther had eighty-four soldiers quartered on her, in­stead of twenty, which they esteemed the just pro­portion, Pittenweem had eighty - one, whereas she should have had “onlie threttine men and a third!” Moreover, they had no trade, and they dared not venture to the fishing, as the enemy took their vessels in their sight, and they could not prevent them. The Estates were so far moved by the appeal that, they ordered that soldiers in future should only be quartered on the two burghs in proportion to the maintenance payable by them, providing that no fewer than a company should be quartered in one place, and that that company should remove to another place when the maintenance was exhausted. The deputy, who was sent to Edinburgh by Pittenweem in 1652, speedily returned, as it was the time of the herring-fish­ing, by which he made his livelihood, and that was of far more importance to him than national business. In 1663, Parliament changed the weekly market from Sabbath and Monday to Tuesday. The affairs of the burgh are now managed by a Town Council of twelve, including a Pro­vost and two Bailies.

The Parish, which contains 772k acres, including 109 3/4 of foreshore, was formerly embraced in West Anstruther. In an Act passed in favour of the Kirk of “Pittinwemye,” in 1633, it is said that James the Sixth—in his letters of gift, dated the 30th of June 1589, granting a stipend to the minister of Pittenweem—mentions that the kirk had been lately erected into a parish kirk, and so ratified in the preceding Parliament. It is therefore three centuries since the parish was erected. But the Act of 1633 goes on to say that King James, by his signature, “superscryvit with his hand,” ratified the erection of the parish in 1611; not­withstanding of which, by the negligence of the parties entnisted with the management of the town’s affairs, the act of erection had gone amissing, and the signature, by the slackness of those employed therein, was never pro­secuted; and therefore the King—Charles the First—and present Parliament anew erected, created, and constituted the said kirk into a separate parish kirk, and disjoined and dissolved the burgh of Pittenweem, and haul lands within the parish of Pittenweem, from the kirk and parish of Anstruther-Wester, that they may remain in all time coming two separate and distinct parish kirks and parishes. The boundaries of the parish of Pittenweeni are carefully designed in the Act.

The Parish Church stands at the east end of the main street, and has lately been re-modelled. Internally it is now a very pretty building. The market cross, dated “July 4 Day 1711,” still stands at the west side of the church. The lower part of the steeple was for­merly utilised as a prison, and it must have been gloomy enough. The two bells are respectively dated 1663 and 1742. An excellent bird’s-eye view of the town may be had from the top of the steeple. In 1792, the Rev. James Nairne wrote :—“ When the church was built is uncertain. It certainly was not originally intended for a church. Concerning it there are two traditions, one of which is, that it was some of the cloisters of an abbey, and the other, that it was the large barn or granary where the corns of the abbey were deposited, which last seems prob­able.” The first minister of the parish, Nicol Daigleish, was settled here in September 1589; yet it does not ap­pear that the church was built at that time, although Scott of Abbotshall is said to have granted the Great House of the Priory to the burgh, by his charter, in 1588, “in order that they might erect a church ‘mair kirk-like and mair commodious than their present house.’” But Mr Cook has discovered a charter of 1549, from which it appears that a church or chapel must have stood very near the site of the present one. William Clark and James Melville must have had a church of some kind at Pittenweem, for the congregation there; and, no doubt, it was the house which was neither very kirk-like nor very commodious. Nevertheless, long after the Reforma­tion, reference is made to the tithes of the church of Pit­tenweem called Anstruther, and to the kirk of Pittenweem, Anstruther upon the west part of the burn. These refer­ences, however, do not prove that there was no parish church in Pittenweem in these days; for, in one of them, dated in 1672, the parish kirks of Pittenweem and West Anstruther are both expressly mentioned. In the south wall of the present church, there is an old stone bear­ing the date 1532; but it, of course, may have been in­serted at a much later period. George Hamilton, who was inducted as minister of the parish in 1650, soon after­wards gave £100 towards levying a regiment of horse. “He was stopped in his sermon 24th May 1653,” says Scott, “by a party of Fairfax’s regiment of foot, which caused a great uproar in the church, and with three of his co-presbyters was carried prisoner to Edinburgh by the English soldiers 12th Sept. following, for praying for Charles II. ; after being imprisoned eight days, how­ever, he was liberated on condition he and his brethren should do so no more.” After the Restoration he forfeited his charge, but was allowed to remain until he died in 1677. Patrick Couper was minister here from 1692 until 1740. His entry was opposed by some of the Jacobite heritors, who took possession of the church and barricaded the doors; but these were speedily broken open by the magistrates, who drove out the offenders. Couper is said to have been “small and thin.” When young he nearly lost the sight of one of his eyes, and yet when he was seventy-seven he could read the smallest print in candle­light without spectacles. He has been severely blamed for doing his utmost to repress the witches. James Nairne, who wrote the old Statistical Account of the parish, was the minister from 1776 to 1819. He was the son of John Nairne of Anstruther-Easter, and died father of the Presby­tery, as his father and grandfather had likewise done. John Cooper, who was translated from Arbroath to Pittenweem in 1834, was seized with epilepsy while preaching on the 26th of March 1854, and died after four hours’ illness.

Visit of Charles the Second.—Despite the poverty and sufferings of the burgh, the Town Council resolved, on the 14th of February 1651, to give Charles a right royal welcome, as he passed through the town on the following day. There were many old writings in the town’s charter chest which Nairne could not read, but he extracted the following entry from those records :—“ The bailies and council being convened, and having received information that his Majesty is to be in progress with his court along the coast to-morrow, and to stay at Anstruther House that night, have thought it expedient, according to their bounden duty, with all reverence and due respect, and with all the solemnity they can, to wait upon his Majesty, as he comes through this his Majesty’s burgh, and invite his Majesty to eat and drink as he passes; and for that effect, hath ordained, that the morn afternoon, the town’s colours be put upon the bertisene of the steeple, and that at three o’clock the bells begin to ring, and ring on still till his Majesty comes hither, and passes to Anstruther: and sicklike, that the minister be spoken to, to be with the bailies and council, who are to be in their best apparel, and with them a guard of twenty-four of the ablest men, with partizans, and other twenty-four with musquets, all in their best apparel, William Sutherland commanding as captain of the guard; and to wait upon his Majesty, and to receive his Highness at the West Port, bringing his Majesty and court through the town, until they come to Robert Smith’s yeet, where an table is to be covered with my lord’s best carpet; and that George Hetherwick have in readiness of fine flour, some great bunns, and other wheat-bread of the best order, baken with sugar, cannell and other spices fitting; and that James Richardson and Walter Airth have care to have ready eight or ten gallons of good strong ale, with Canary, sack, Rhenish wine, tent, white and claret wines, that his Majesty and his court may eat and drink; and that in the meantime, when his Majesty is present, the guard do diligently attend about the court, and so soon as his Majesty is to go away, that a sign be made to Andrew Tod, who is appointed to attend the colours on the steeple head, to the effect he may give sign to those who attend the cannon of his Majesty’s departure, and then the haul thirty-six cannons to be all shot at once. It is also thought fitting, that the minister, and James Richardson the oldest bailie, when his Majesty comes to the table, shew the great joy and sense this burgh has of his Majesty’s condescendence to visit the same, with some other expressions of loyalty. All which was acted.” It would be a shame to abbreviate such an entry, and yet that has been done in the New Statistical Account, where also the egregious blunder has been made of stating that these preparations were made in honour of James the Sixth. Poor man he had already been more than a quarter of a century in his grave. It is more wonderful that such all error should have misled the writer of the article on Pittenweem in the Ordnance Gazetteer. No doubt, he perceived that there was some­thing wrong, for he omits the date; but accounts for the generous hospitality by asserting, that the inhabitants were not unmindful of their royal benefactor!

The Witches who made Pittenweem notorious in former days are long since extinct. Chambers, in his Domestic Annals of Scotland, relates that in 1704 the magistrates, in a petition to the Privy Council, stated that Patrick Morton, a youth of sixteen “free of any known vice,” was engaged making nails for a ship in his father’s smithy, when Beatrix or Beatie Laing, “spouse to William Brown, tailor, late treasurer of the burgh,” requested him to make some for her, and on his alleging that those he was engaged on were required in haste, she went away “threatening to be revenged, which did some­what frighten him, because he knew she was under a bad fame and reputed for a witch.” Passing her house next day “he observed a timber vessel with some water and a fire-coal in it at the door, which made him apprehend that it was a charm laid for him;" and “immediately he was seized with such a weakness in his limbs, that he could hardly stand or walk.” In spite of all that physicians could do for him, he languished for many weeks, lost his appetite, and was strangely emaciated. He grew worse, and had such unusual fits that all onlookers were astonished. “His belly at times was distended to a great height; at other times, the bones of his back and breast did rise to a prodigious height, and suddenly fell,” while his breathing “was like to the blowing of a bellows.” Sometimes his body became so rigid that neither his arms nor legs could be moved by any strength. His head at times turned half round and could not be brought back again. Occasionally, his tongue was drawn back in his throat, especially when he was telling who were his tormentors. When the bailies or minister brought them to the house, he would cry out they were coming and name them before seeing them. Although his face was covered he expressed pain when his tormentors touched him. Beatrix and the others were thrown into the jail. As she refused to confess that she was a witch, she was pricked, and kept awake for five days and nights. At length she confessed. But afterwards denying that what she had said about seeing the devil and so forth was true, she was put in the stocks and carried to the Thieves’ Hole, and from thence to a dark dungeon, where she was not allowed any kind of light or human converse for five months. Through the influence of the Earl of Balcarres and Lord Anstruther, the supposed witches were released on bail; but poor Beatrix had to wander in strange places, in hunger and cold, as she dared not come near her own house for the fury of the people. At this very time, a fisherman charged Janet Cornfoot with assisting the devil and two others to beset him one night, while he was sleeping. Janet was thrown into prison at Pittenweem, and, being tortured, confessed, but afterwards denied it. It seems to have been the second storey of the steeple in which she was confined. By the connivance of the minister she escaped. Another minister, however—George Gordon, of Leuchars, it is said—had her arrested and sent back to Pittenweem, where she fell into the hands of the people. The enlightened public tied her with a rope, beat her unmercifully, and dragged her through the streets and along the shore by the heels. The crowd was dis­persed by a bailie, but soon gathered again, and tied her to a rope stretched between a ship and the shore, swinging her to and fro, and pelting her with stones. Getting tired of this, they let her down with a crash on the beach, beat her again unmercifully, and, covering her with a door, deliberately crushed her to death, after she had been tortured for three hours! This atrocious murder was committed on the 30th of January 1705. Some of the still more ghastly details will be found in Stevenson’s edi­tion of Sinclar’s Satan’s Invisible World, and in the Ordnance Gazetteer. One of those accused by the young blacksmith died in prison about the same time. The bodies of both these victims of superstition were denied Christian burial. The Privy Council appointed a committee to enquire into the death of Janet Cornfoot, and the ringleaders fled; but they were afterwards allowed to return to the town in peace! So, at least, it is alleged; but it is only fair to Pittenweem folk to state that, in one of the old pamphlets, it is asserted that:- This rabble did not flow from the inclinations of the people of the place, which is evident from the peaceful and safe residence two confessing witches had for two months’ time in the place since they were set at liberty; but from an unhappy occasional concourse of a great many strangers, some Englishmen, some from Orkney, and other parts, who were forward in it, and have since taken guilt on them by their flight.” The two con­fessing witches may have been more indebted to the whole­some dread of the Privy Council than to the disposition of the people; but let us hope that the Englishmen and Orcadians were more to blame than the peaceful Pitten­weemers. As Beatrix Laing was threatened with a similar fate to that of Janet, she had to apply to the Privy Council for protection before she could return to her husband’s house. Such deeds may well make us ashamed of our common brotherhood. And these were not the only cases of witchcraft in Pittenweem. In 1643 and 1644 several persons were executed for it, and their sons and husbands were forced to pay the expense of their deaths! David Vedder in his gruesome ballad on the “Witch o’ Pittenweem” carries us back to pre-Reformation times. His legend is quite as tragic and terrible as the account of Janet Cornfoot.

Harbour and Fishing.—As the harbour is mentioned in the days of William the Lion, it may therefore be inferred that the town was of some note seven centuries ago, both as a trading seaport and a place of fishing. At the end of July 1559, John Knox and Robert Hamilton sailed from this port to Holy Island, to meet Sir Harry Percy. Before 1639, there belonged to the town at least “13 sail of large vessels; all of which were either taken by the enemy, wrecked, or sold in consequence of the death of the commanders and mariners at the battle of Kilsyth.” Nor did the harbour escape the violence of the terrible storm of the 10th December 1655; for it is mentioned in the Minutes of the Synod of Fife that when the Pro­vincial Assembly met at St Andrews, on the 7th of April 1657, a petition was presented from the town of Pitten­weem, desiring a recommendation for charitable assistance from the kirks of the province, towards the repairing of their harbour, which was ruined by that storm. Church-door collections were long a favourite and effective way of raising money for public purposes in Scotland. It is a great mistake to imagine that this form of liberality was not properly developed until the middle of the nineteenth century. Not only were the poor of the respective parishes supplied mainly from their church plates, but the charity of those times overflowed to worthy objects far and near. In Hay’s History of Arbroath, it is stated that collections were made in 1674 and also in 1682, in several of the churches of that Presbytery, to raise money for the ransom of some unfortunate Scotsmen, especially a few natives of Pittenweem, who had been captured by Algerine pirates. These, no doubt, were hardy sailors of this port, whether their vessel hailed from Pittenweem or not. In 1710, Sibbald says :—“The lower part of the town of Pittenweem lieth alongst their two havens. The west haven is near the (salt) panns, and fit only for fish-boats. Of late they had only six fishing boats with six men in each, and they had fifteen boats for the fishing of herring with seven men in each, but now more. The east haven is the largest, and fit for ships of burden; having at no time below eight foot of water.” Nairne writes in 1792 :—“ The people here are generally fond pf a seafaring life, but few have entered the navy as volunteers. . . . At present the number of boats is only 5, and of vessels 4.” The same autho­rity states that :—“ In the year 1779, Paul Jones, with his little squadron, lay for several hours off this harbour, about half-a-mile from the shore. The pilot and his crew went off; believing they were British ships, and requested some powder, which was given. The crew were permitted immediately to return, but the pilot was detained, treated very uncivilly, and was not set at liberty, until after the engagement Paul Jones had with our fleet.” The harbour is now safe and commodious. The fleet of fishing-boats belonging to it is very considerable, as may be seen by referring to the table on page 56. Several of the houses at the shore are built on rocks projecting into the sea. It may be readily imagined that the inmates will vividly realise the power of the billows.

Population, Public Buildings, &c. —  In 1751, the population of the parish was only 939; in 1792, it had risen to 1157, all of whom resided in the town except 4 families; in 1831, it was 1317, and of these only 8 lived outside the burgh; in 1861, it was 1710, of whom 1617 dwelt in the burgh; and in 1881, it had still further in­creased to 2119, and of these 2116 were within the royal burgh. There are three churches in the town — the Established, the U. P., and the Episcopal. There are two public schools, a post and telegraph office, branches of the Clydesdale and National Banks, a Savings’ Bank, and a gas-work. John Douglas, Bishop of Salisbury, was born in Pittenweem in 1721, where his father was “an extensive wine, timber, and iron merchant . . . and carried on business in an antique and respectable-looking house in the Shore Street, in which his mahogany desks and counters  remained.” “The great hail stood 30 feet back from the street, and the entry was by a large gate. The house was handsomely fitted up with wainscot panneis, the moulding all round, the cornices were richly gilt, and the chimney piece was beautifully carved in oak.” Among the more enterprising natives of the present day, the Hendersons of the Anchor Line hold a prominent and honourable place. It was in Pittenweem that Wilson and his associates robbed the collector of customs in 1736. In his Heart of Midlothian, Sir Walter Scott has immorta­lised the occurrence, and the tragic events to which it led. The man who took the rope from a shop with which to hang Porteous, and laid down a guinea for it, was named Bruce. He afterwards returned to Anstruther and prac­tised as a barber. It is more devoutly to be hoped that the first line of the old rhyme on this burgh will never be fulfilled than that the rest of the prediction shall

“Pittenweem ‘ll sink wi’ sin
But neither sword nor pestilence Sall enter therein.”

Click here to see pictures of Pittenweem

Annals of Pittenweem
Being Notes and Extracts from the Ancient Records of that Burgh 1526—1793 (1867) (pdf)

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus