Just across the Firth of Forth from the glorious capital city of Edinburgh lies the Kingdom of Fife ... a rare jewel in the crown of Scotland, BILL Watt reports
THE bright sun drifts low behind the fishing village’s picturesque harbour towards the end of a glorious autumn day, but a local isn’t happy at all. “I can’t see anything today, it’s too sunny”, he moans to a fellow villager.
Not the words you expect to hear in Scotland, justly famous for its bleak weather. But I sort of get it. Pittenweem harbour in the East Neuk of Fife is a delightful mix of sea, boats and traditional houses and the locals like to bask in its beauty ALL the time. Being an Aussie, I just wear sunnies (sunglasses) … problem solved.
Charming fishing villages like Pittenweem dot the coast of the Kingdom of Fife, one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets. It is a kingdom that doesn’t have a king … but it does have palaces, castles and underground secrets; enchanting walks and harbours; the home of golf, the world’s oldest tennis court and the ancient capital of Scotland.
As I look high up to the belltower of Dunfermline’s magnificent Norman-style abbey church I can make out the word Bruce in monumental proportions. And, there is huge lettering on the other three sides of the tower as well. Altogether they spell “King Robert The Bruce” – four words that mean so much to this ancient capital of Scotland and gateway to the Kingdom of Fife.
For Dunfermline Abbey is the burial place of King Robert I, known as The Bruce, Scotland’s greatest hero who defeated the English in battle after battle and won back the nation’s independence in the early 14th Century.
The Bruce’s remains (apart from his heart, which is another story) are located beneath a large brass etching in the pulpit of the “new church”, but a wander into the Romanesque-style nave in the “old church” is equally impressive, with its massive pillars proudly standing nearly 900 years after construction.
Alongside the abbey are striking ruins of a monastery and Dunfermline’s Royal Palace, the birthplace of kings David II, James I and Charles I (of Scotland and England). The view into the town’s glen from the empty windows of the royal ruins is impressive - but better still, take a walk through Pittencrieff Park, simply “the glen” to locals. Donated to the town by Dunfermline-born, American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, it boasts vast greener-than-green lawns, gardens, flowing burns and wild, wooded ravines.
And, as I stroll through the glen, I decide Dunfermline, once the capital of an independent Scotland, is now the squirrel capital of the world. The little critters continuously scamper across your path, along tree branches and fences, and beside the flowing burn as it makes its way majestically through the glen.
At the opposite end of Fife is the one place in the kingdom that is universally famous – St Andrews, the home of golf.
And, yes you can play a round at St Andrews. There are seven courses all up, the most famous being the Old Course (which I battled heroically some years ago), where golf has been played since the 1400s. All the courses need to be pre-booked, except the nine-hole Balgove Course (For details see www.standrews.com).
But St Andrews is much more than just the home of golf, with grand ruins, impressive architecture, a long, bloody history … and doughnuts to die for.
A brisk walk up the road from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and we encounter the town’s ruined castle. Here we hear dark tales emerge of imprisonment, torture, execution and murder.
“Wandering into St Andrews town centre we consider dining at the café where Prince William met his future wife Kate (Northpoint Café), but instead hop around the corner to Fisher & Donaldson’s bakery for one of their famous fudge doughnuts.”
A little further on are the spectacular ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, a place of pilgrimage from the 700s, when the relics of Christ’s disciple St Andrew were said to have been brought here. A climb to the top of the cathedral’s 33m-high St Rule’s Tower gives us a spectacular view over the town, golf links, beach and out to the North Sea.
Wandering into St Andrews town centre we consider dining at the café in which Prince William met his wife Kate (Northpoint Café), but instead hop around the corner to Fisher & Donaldson’s bakery for one of their famous fudge doughnuts – a weighty concoction of doughnut, fudge icing and custard. Absolutely delicious! These doughnuts are so popular the bakery uses 10 tonnes of fudge and 20 tonnes of custard every year.
Historic time-travel TV sagas aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but their makers sure know how to spot a spectacular setting. Two of Fife’s historic villages have had starring roles in Outlander because of their old-world beauty – Falkland and Culross.
Despite the tourist dragnet of the town square, which doubles as Inverness in the seminal episodes of the massively popular TV series, I convince my wife that Falkland’s true jewel is its Renaissance palace, a favourite residence of one of history’s most famous tragic figures, Mary Queen of Scots.
There’s a story to be told in every room of this palace made famous by the Stuart kings and queens, stories that will have you time travelling further back than the characters in Outlander. You can even see where Queen Mary played tennis, Falkland Palace’s royal tennis court being the world’s oldest still in use.
Culross (pronounced Cooris), founded in the 5th Century, is a delightful coastal village of colourful traditional houses centred on Culross Palace. In Outlander, the town square was where Geillis Duncan was sentenced to be burned to death as a witch. For a spectacular view over the village and Firth of Forth we climb up the steps running beside the palace. It is well worth the effort, as is a further steep walk up to Culross Abbey, founded in 1217.
The harbour villages and towns of the East Neuk of Fife are a popular place for weekends away, seaside holidays, fish and chips and a growing band of hikers and casual walkers.
Pittenweem, Anstruther, Crail, Elie and St Monans are all picture-postcard locations. Every one is worth a visit with their delightful mix of cobblestone paths, narrow streets, traditional cottages, boutique harbours, colourful boats and foodie hot spots.
They are all conveniently located on the Fife Coastal Path, a thriving series of connected walks linking 183km of kingdom coastline.
The St Monans-to-Elie segment of the path is particularly rewarding. A mediaeval church, rugged coastline, ruined castles (Ardross and Newark), Lady Anstruther’s long-abandoned swimming tower, the stark white Elie Ness lighthouse, sandy beaches and a charming fishing village at each end.
Sure the weather on the path can get a bit challenging, but just how bad is open to interpretation. We bump into a Scots family coming from the opposite direction. It is about 7C and blowing a horrific gale which makes it feel like zero. “Lovely day for a walk,” the mum says. “A bit cold,” I reply. “Lovely for Scotland. No rain,” she says definitively.
Golf doesn’t have a monopoly on bunkers in Fife. Just 10km from where hapless golfers are digging balls out of the sand at St Andrews there lies one of the region’s most curious attractions - Scotland’s Secret Bunker.
Buried 30m under what looks like an innocuous farmhouse is a Cold War refuge designed to protect military personnel and government officials from a potential nuclear Armageddon.
Originally built as a secret, bomb-proof radar station after World War II, it was refurbished in Cold War-crazy 1968 as a regional government headquarters in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.
As you take the long corridor down to the bunker you exchange the beauty of rural Fife above, for a stark, steam-punk style labyrinth of rooms filled with eerie coloured radar screens, 1980s technology, maps, broadcast centres, radar detection devices and weaponry.
WAIT, THERE’S MORE …
The great thing about Fife is there is always somewhere else to visit … castles (Kellie and Aberdour), curious towns and villages (Cupar, Kinghorn, Auchtermuchty etc), the kid-friendly Scottish Deer Centre near Cupar and Scotland’s national aquarium (Deep Sea World) at North Queensferry, where you also get great views of the three bridges spanning the Firth of Forth.
THE KINGDOM OF FIFE
Fife is a peninsula bordered by the Firth of Forth to the south and the Firth of Tay in the north. It has no king but has been known as the Kingdom of Fife for centuries, the title being derived from the Kingdom of Fib, an ancient Pictish realm.
The best way to see Fife is by car from a base on the peninsula. However, it is also easily accessible from Edinburgh.
The author’s trip was self-funded.
He rented an apartment (Ard na Mara) in Pittenweem through Fife Cottages (fifecottages.co.uk).
He hired a car through Hertz (hertz.com.au)
He flew to the UK using British Airways (britishairways.com)
* Disclaimer: The author is a Fifer by birth, leaving the Kingdom for Australia when he was six years old.