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Guide to the East Neuk of Fife

Few districts in the country present a greater number of attractions to summer-visitors than that which stretches along the shore of the Forth, from Fifeness to Leven, and which is known as the East Neuk of Fife. The bracing sea-breezes, the clear, blue waves, the flat, sandy beaches, the wild and precipitous cliffs, the remarkable caves, the golfing-links, the fine old churches, the quaint old towns, the ruined castles, the delightful dens, the curious antiquities, the historical associations, the romantic tradi­tions, the beautiful landscape, the magnificent views, the pleasant drives and walks and rides may all be enjoyed leisurely in this quiet, easy-going corner, where even the trains move deliberately, and where comfortable lodgings can easily be had at very moderate prices. Those who can only live in a perpetual round of gaiety had better avoid the East Neuk; but those who wish to recuperate their jaded energies, and to spend their time in a rational and pleasant manner can hardly find better summer-quarters. It must not be supposed, however, that this is a place of indolence and stagnation. As the following pages testify, the fishing industry has been vigorously prosecuted here for centuries; and the farmers have long led the van in agricultural progress. Nor are the little towns without their own share of commerce. An inquisitive stranger, perceiving that there were two telegraph wires leading to Upper Largo, ventured to ask at a cautious-looking tradesman—” Would one wire not be sufficient for the wants of the village ?” “Na !” was the dignified answer, “the traid o’ Largo is no that sma’ ! “

In Billings’ Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland, it is well said, that—”The south coast of Fife, bordering on the Firth of Forth, is dotted with curious brown rusty-looking villages, of a character quite distinct from those of any other part of Scotland, and perhaps of Europe. They are almost all corporations, of an early date in Scottish history, and some of them are royal burghs. They have stood nearly unchanged for centuries, as if the tide of improvement had swept away in some other direction; and thus they present in their uneven angular streets, their high roofs, and crow-stepped gables, flanked by occasional turrets, a pretty accurate representation of the corporate towns of our ancestors.” Even in the latter end of the nineteenth century, these quaint old towns preserve their distinctive features, although sanitary science has done much to increase their amenities. It is to be earnestly hoped that the tide of improvement, which has now set in, may not render them commonplace and tame. Education has swept away much of the superstition which long lingered here, and of which traces still remain. In the chapter on Pittenweem, the tragic tale of a witch will be found. But superstition of a still more foolish, though happily of a less dangerous kind, long prevailed. Many curious stories are told which shew the dread with which fisher-folk were wont to regard swine. A strange incident of this kind is related in Howell’s Life of Selkirk. But, instead of quoting one which rebounds so little to the credit of Largo, it may be better to recall another, which has been preserved by Dean Ramsay, and which is more vaguely said to have occurred in a fishing village on the east coast of Fife. A minister of one of these villages, having mentioned to a clerical friend that if a swine crossed the path of his people, when they were about to go to sea, they considered it so unlucky an omen that they would not venture off, and finding him rather incredulous on the subject, offered to let him test the truth of his statement by allowing him to preach for him next day. It was arranged that his friend was to read the chapter relating to the herd of swine, into which the evil spirits were permitted to enter. “Accordingly, when the first verse was read in which the unclean beast was mentioned, a slight commotion was observable among the audience, each one of them putting his or her hand on any near piece of iron—a nail on the seat or book-board, or to the nails on their shoes. At the repetition of the word again and again, more commotion was visible, and the words ‘cauld aim’ [cold iron], the antidote to this baneful spell were heard issuing from various corners of the church. And finally, on his coming over the hated word again, when the whole herd ran violently down the bank into the sea, the alarmed parishioners, irritated beyond bounds, rose and all left the church in bodies.” But, if education and the progress of the times have dispelled superstition, they have still much local ignorance and indifference to grapple with. It was with some difficulty that I found out the precise locality of the Skeith Stone, near Kilrenny. Among others at whom unsuccessful enquiries were made regarding this venerable monument of antiquity, an intelligent-looking, middle-aged man looms up before me. He had lived for twenty years within a mile of that stone, and, apparently, had never heard of it! Within five hundred yards of Aithernie Castle, in the parish of Scoonie, I asked its name from four different people, who all seemed to live in the immediate neighbour­hood, but asked in vain! Let us charitably suppose that such lamentable ignorance is not characteristic of the enlightened natives of the East Neuk, although specimens are culled from its opposite ends That this detestable indifference is wide-spread was lately proved. Government sent some convalescent soldiers in Egypt up the Nile in a steamer to see the ruins of an ancient town; but on arriving there the men positively declined to leave the vessel, until an enraged officer gave the word of command, and marched them to the spot.

There are other kinds of ignorance, however, which are more dire and dangerous to antiquities. The farmer’s wife, at Balmerino, who, fifty years ago, broke up, what was believed to be, the stone-coffin of Queen Ermengarde, and scrubbed her kitchen-floor with it, has many successors. The Dunfermline mob that went out to Pitreavie, on a Sab­bath last summer, and tore the cists of the newly-discovered pre-historic burying-ground to pieces was doubtless actuated by the same dim expectation of discovering hidden treasure, as the fierce Bedouin is, who spends his shot on the great urns of Petra. The vandalism which last autumn demolished the old grave-stones in West Anstru­ther churchyard was even more culpable, considering the social position of the perpetrators, and the parsimony which prompted the outrage. Antiquities are exposed to danger from still another source, to wit, mistaken zeal. Recently, the effigy of a knight in chain armour suffered sadly at Ceres, through attention having been called to it, and a man, in consequence, being ordered to clean it, who discharged his duty by rubbing it with sand-stone until the delicate workmanship was irretrievably ruined! The same motive, in a milder form, has covered with cement the front of the house in which Dr Chalmers was born, completely chang­ing its outward appearance; but certainly making a better back-ground for the flaming advertisement of “Singer’s Sewing Machines.” It is pleasant to chronicle in this paragraph, that the horrible fire-clay pipes have been re­moved from the top of St Monans Church. Surely there is inventive genius enough in Largo to design a better-looking chimney than that which so disfigures the Parish Church.

Many, who have never seen the East Neuk of Fife, nor heard of its many attractions, are familiar with its name through the well-known air which has been called after it, and to which Sir Alexander Boswell wrote the humorous song – “Auld gudeman ye’re a drucken earle.” Allan Ramsay, too, in his sequel to Christ’s Kirk on the Green, says :—

“Now frae East Nuick o’ Fife the dawn
Speel’d westlines up the lift,
Carles wha heard the cock had crawn,
Begoud to rax and rift;

And greedy wives wi’ girning thrawn
Cry’d lasses up to thrif
Dogs barked an’ the lads frae hand
Bang’d to their breeks like drift,
Be break o’ day.”

It is expected that the Anstruther and St Andrews Railway will be finished this autumn. Then the line which branches from the main at Thornton, and rejoins it at Leuchars, will be complete. This will open up the East Neuk more thoroughly, as there are stations at Levcn, Lundin-Links, Largo, Kilconquhar, Elie, St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther, and Crail. St Andrews will then be within easy reach for a day’s excursion by rail as well as road. The “Edinburgh Castle,” which was launched last month, is intended to make several of these coast towns more accessible in the summer months, and it will doubtless be largely patronised, as it is a handsome steamer, and elegantly fitted up.

D. H. F.

ST ANDREWS, 24th May 1886.

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