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east neuk on fife

East Neuk of Fife

The great fishing fleets are gone, but the picturesque houses, twisting cobbled streets
and stone harbors remain to quietly enchant modern visitors.

BY BRUCE MACGREGOR SANDISON

A few years ago I found myself being driven round Limekilns Estate near Dunfermline in Fife by its laird, Lord Elgin, whose family traces their ancestry back to King Robert the Bruce. I was in the rear seat of the vehicle while my then boss, an acerbic no-nonsense Yorkshireman named Ray Holt, sat up front with Elgin. We stopped to talk and through the trees had a clear view of the square tower of Dunfermline Abbey around which, on three sides, appear the words "Robert...the...Bruce" in stone. Conversationally, Ray asked, "Have you lived hereabouts long, Lord Elgin?" A gentle and courteous man, Elgin replied with a smile, "About 700 years, actually." I braced myself for the inevitable response: "I suppose thou will almost be one of the locals by now, then." Lord Elgin smiled again.

Fife is bounded in the south by the Firth of Forth and to the north by the Firth of Tay. It was once described by King James VI (1566-1625) as being a "beggar's mantle, fringed wi goud" -- the gold being the glorious beaches and prosperous fishing communities along its east and south coasts. Fife has always been known as the "Wee Kingdom" because of its historical associations with the kings and queens of Scotland, many of whom lie buried in the grounds of the ancient abbey at Dunfermline -- including the body of the man who defeated Edward of England's army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the aforementioned King Robert the Bruce.

But for me, the jewel in this golden crown is the "East Neuk" -- the eastern corner of the county with its ancient fishing villages -- Lower Largo, Elie, St. Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther and Crail. They are not as busy today as they were in times past, but still provide employment for fishermen amidst the cold waters of the Firth of Forth and the stormy North Sea, as well as playing host to hundreds of visiting yachts and thousands of tourists each year.

I began my latest visit to the East Neuk at the home of my elder brother, Ian, and his wife, Isabel. They live near the pretty village of Kilconquhar (pronounced locally, "Kinnucher") and Isabel is a proud, born-and-bred Fifer. The following morning, I set off on a nostalgic journey to rediscover the magical villages of the East Neuk. The last time my wife, Ann, and I were this way, we stayed at the Crusoe Hotel in Lower Largo, wonderfully situated by the harbour and much patronized by the visiting yachts that have replaced the herring boats. We walked the three golden miles of Largo Beach to Earlsferry, then back, inland, to Lower Largo along a section of the Fife Coastal Path. This excellent way-marked path begins at Culross, a few miles to the west of the Forth Bridges, and guides walkers eastward along King James's "fringe of goud" for 94 miles to Newport on the Firth of Tay.

This time, my first stop would be along the coast at Elie -- a popular spot with visiting yachtsmen. Elie is famous for its golf course and its sandy beaches. Just to the east is Ruby Bay, and for those who look carefully, it offers a semi-precious reward -- Elie Rubies, red garnet gemstones that famously wash up with the tides.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2012 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on A Beguiling Time Machine by Candace Leslie.

Click here to preview our Notes From The Isles column by Kate Francis.

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Photos: Ship © Phil Seale/Scottish Viewpoint; Window © Chris Robson/Scottish Viewpoint; Cave © Bill McKenzie / Scottish Viewpoint