START: Burntisland, Fife
FINISH: Buckhaven, Fife
DISTANCE: 14.3 miles (Total – 366.8 miles)
APPROXIMATE TIME: 6 hours
OS MAPS: OS Explorer 367
ACCOMMODATION: Beaumont Lodge, Anstruther
Saturday morning. 6am. For some reason I always seem to wake up this early when I’m not in work. It’s highly annoying! However, when I peeked out between the curtains in my room at the B&B (Northcraig Cottage), I was greeted with an absolutely beautiful sight of the pristine bay at North Queensferry framed by the Forth Road Bridge and Queensferry Crossing in the background (below).
This great view got me excited for the day’s walk ahead and a couple of hours later I was chomping down on a full Scottish breakfast ready for the day. My plate soon empty I was changing into my walking gear and then heading up the hill to the railway station. There was a rail replacement service in operation today as there was engineering work on the line between Inverkeithing and Burntisland so I had to hop on the replacement bus at Inverkeithing after a short rail journey from North Queensferry. About forty minutes later I was getting off the bus outside of Burntisland railway station where I had left off the previous day.
The sun was beaming down as I got off the bus. I walked alongside the station building and then out onto a wide road that led along the dockyards. I passed by rusting rails hidden amongst the overgrown grass, which once over would have been teeming with steam locomotives servicing the docks. Burntisland has had a long and close link to its harbour, which is one of the best natural harbours on the Firth of Forth. It is believed by some historians that the Roman Army under Agricola took advantage of the harbour’s usefulness and landed troops and supplies here during their invasion of Scotland in AD83.
Over the following centuries the harbour became a strategically important site and as such Rossend Castle was built to defend the harbour in 1119. On Valentine’s Day 1563 Mary, Queen of Scots spent a night in the Castle whilst en route to St Andrews. Heading off to bed the Queen got a bit of a shock when she found the French courtier and poet, Pierre de Chastelard hiding in her bedroom. Apparently the poet was infatuated with the Queen and was hoping for some romantic Valentine’s Day activities with her. This wasn’t the first time the lovestruck poet had done this as he had already been found hiding in her bedroom at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh on a previous occasion. Unfortunately for Pierre, Queen Mary did not reciprocate his passionate feelings and so carted him off to St Andrews where he was executed.
During the next couple of centuries Burntisland developed as an important port. A ferry service began operation between the port and Newhaven near Edinburgh at the other side of the Forth. In 1850 Burntisland became the terminus for the world’s first roll-on roll-off railway ferry which allowed goods trains to run directly on to the ship and then be ferried across the Firth of Forth from Granton. With the opening of the Forth Rail Bridge in 1890 the railways could now cross the Forth without having to go via ferry and so the ferries soon closed down.
However, Burntisland’s importance as a port didn’t end there. In 1918 the Burntisland Shipbuilding Company Ltd was founded and over the next 50 years some 310 ships were built in the town, including a good number of Royal Navy ships used in the Second World War. Unfortunately the shipyard closed in the summer of 1969, however all was not lost as the docks have found a new lease of life through servicing the booming oil industry in the North Sea. The docks have been used in the construction of oil rigs and also served as a supply base for oil exploration.
I walked along the dockyards for a short while, stepping in between old railway lines which were embedded into the road. After about half a mile I passed by a leisure centre before coming to a beautiful beach (above). It was a great view with the houses and a church framed by the The Binn, a small hill which overlooks the town. I followed the path round the western edge of the bay before joining a short sand-covered promenade which took me a little way along the northern side of the bay. I was following the Fife Coast Path once again, however as the tide was out I decided not to follow the path along it’s more inland route and instead decided to follow the beach until I reached Pettycur.
It was a beautiful walk along the beach. The view out to the Firth of Forth was stunning and I could clearly see Edinburgh with Arthur’s Seat looming over the city at the over side of the Forth. I passed a number of people who were taking advantage of the tide being out and walking along the beach. A little while later I reached a small cluster of rocks near a caravan park which I clambered over, before coming into the pretty little beach at Pettycur. For some time in the 18th and 19th century Pettcur was the main ferry port for people crossing the Forth from Edinburgh. Nowadays the harbour is a lot quieter with just a few fishing boats listing low on the sands as I walked past.
I joined a road which headed past the harbour (above) before continuing on through Pettycur. About half a mile later a Fife Coast Path pointed down a set of stairs and onto the promenade on Kinghorn beach.
Kinghorn was once home to a royal castle from the 12th century although it had disappeared by the 1700’s. The castle was regularly used by King Alexander III who was sadly killed on his way to the castle on the stormy night of 19th March 1286 when his horse slipped and pitched the king over the side of the cliffs. The King’s death not only brought to an end to his family’s hold on the Scottish crown but also marked the end of a golden age in Scotland.
Following his death there was a crisis of succession which led directly into the Wars of Independence with England. If King Alexander III hadn’t made the fateful choice to travel along the cliff road above Pettycur to be with his young wife, Yolande de Dreux , it is very likely that Scottish history would have been completely changed. Scottish heroes such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce may never have got their chance to shine and famous battles such as that at Bannockburn in 1314 may never have happened. A statue marks the spot where it is believed the King fell to his death alongside the modern day Burntisland to Kinghorn road. It is said that the ghost of his young wife haunts the spot no doubt wondering where on earth her husband has got to!
I came to a little cafe which sat next to the village’s RNLI station and got myself a cheeseburger to eat for the lunch. I sat on a bench overlooking the beach and enjoyed the view whilst having a bite to eat.
Lunch over I followed the promenade for a short while before climbing up Nethergate, underneath a railway viaduct and then heading right alongside a small playground. The Fife Coast Path then doubled back underneath the railway line and headed along a narrow path between the railway line and a caravan park.
For the next couple of miles the path continued along the clifftops which provided some excellent views up and down the Firth of Forth (above), glistening in the March sunshine. The path gradually began to descend, soon coming alongside the ruined Seacliff Tower (below). The castle was the home of the Moultray family who owned lands hereabouts from the early 16th century until 1631 when the castle and lands was sold to James Law, The Archbishop of Glasgow. Following Law’s death in 1632 ownership of the castle became lost until it passed into the hands of the Methven family who eventually abandoned the castle in 1733 leaving it to ruin.
Leaving the ruined tower behind, I continued along the coastal path as it headed below some new housing which formed the outskirts of Kirkcaldy. There were a good number of people out walking this stretch of the coast, no doubt taking advantage of the good weather. A short while later I came out on to a picnic area which was filling up with families. Ahead, I followed a path which led alongside Morrisons where I stopped off to pick up extra supplies for my walk. Away from the supermarket I joined the main coastal road before quickly heading along a promenade which ran alongside. This took me along the full length of Kirkcaldy’s seafront which was rather pleasant.
Known as the ‘Lang Toun’ due to the length of it’s high street, Kirkcaldy began life as a royal burgh under the control of the abbots of Dunfermline Abbey. A harbour built around the settlement’s east burn gradually led to the development of Kirkcaldy as the harbour began to prosper. Trade with ports on the Baltic sea from the early 15th century brought money and prestige into the burgeoning town along with the development of the textile and salt panning industries within Kirkcaldy.
The arrival of both the Industrial Revolution and the railway early 19th century brought about a boom to the town’s fortunes with Kirkcaldy rapidly becoming Fife’s main industrial heartland. Kirkcaldy became well known for its linoleum industry which is still ongoing in the town, being the last UK town to make the product (and indeed one of only three places left in the world). Like most heavily industrialized towns in Britain, Kirkcaldy saw a downturn in its fortunes in the latter half of the 20th century as industry and trade moved abroad. The town’s pottery and salt-panning industries were closed and the linoleum industry was eventually reduced to just one factory. The town’s harbour was closed to commercial traffic in 1992 although it has since re-opened in 2011.
As the promenade came to an end I passed by the town’s harbour, now lined with modern apartments where once over goods from all over Europe would have been unloaded and replaced with goods produced in Kirkcaldy. Leaving the harbour behind I re-joined the coastal road as it led me past the linoleum works and into the Pathhead part of town.
Through a gap in the houses I noticed the remains of an old castle (above) but I couldn’t see how I could get to it. I continued to follow the coastal road hoping that there would be somewhere where I could double back and have a look. Luckily for me the coastal path turned into Ravenscraig Park where I noticed a sign pointing along another path towards the castle. Even more luckily it was free to get in, a wooden bridge allowing people to cross the remains of the old moat and through an old door into the heart of the castle itself.
Ravenscraig Castle, as it is known, had its origins in 1460 when King James II took over the lands hereabouts and gave them to his queen, Mary of Gueldres. The King ordered a castle to be built here but did not live to see it be built, instead getting himself blown up by one of his cannon later that year at the Siege of Roxburgh which was a bit silly. His wife continued the construction of the castle, however only lived in it for a month before she too died in 1463. Her son, King James III awarded the castle to William Sinclair, Earl of Caithness as part of a deal which saw the Earl give up his lands in the Shetlands and Orkneys to the Crown. The castle was a powerful residence in the hands of the Sinclair family and King James V and VI would visit the castle in later years.
The castle remained in the hands of the Sinclair family until 1896, although by then they hadn’t lived it in for it sometime, instead residing in nearby Dysart House at the other side of Ravenscraig Park. It was used as an ammunition dump in the First World War before passing into the hands of the state in 1955.
I had a short break in the castle grounds before retracing my steps back to Ravenscraig Park. The Park was passed into the hands of the local council in 1929 by Sir Michael Nairn who had bought Ravenscraig Castle, Dysart House and associated lands in 1896 from the Sinclair family. Sir Michael must have been very generous as he gave Dysart House to an order of nuns in the same year and they still reside there now. The park was very busy with people enjoying the sunshine (although I saw no sign of nuns).
I followed the coastal path a little way through the park before it diverted away down back towards the shoreline. It meandered its way along a glorious section of the coast for nearly a mile, which had great views of Ravenscraig Castle and Kirkcaldy (above). I soon came to a tunnel which was dug into a sheer rock face. I walked through and came out on a complete hidden gem which I hadn’t been expecting at all – the beautiful Dysart Harbour.
Bounded by a high wall of stone, the harbour was partially carved out of an outcrop of coal which fueled the colliery industry hereabouts until fairly recently. There has a harbour at Dysart as far as back as 1450 when the trading of coal and salt with the Low Countries commenced. Over the next couple of centuries the export of salt was so vital to Dysar’s fortunes that the port village became known as the ‘salt burgh’. Due to its ties with the Low Countries Dysart also became known as ‘Little Holland’ as a result of the Dutch influence in the village’s buildings inspired by the shipowners who traded there.
Over the centuries Dysart’s fortunes fluctuated wildly and by the early 18th century the village’s fortunes had fallen so low that there was rioting by the townspeople against the export of grain as they believed this led to high prices and food shortages. Up to 2,000 people rioted during 1720 with reports of troops sent in to bring order being overpowered and disarmed by the rioters.
By the end of the 18th century Dysart’s fortunes had upturned once again with the increase in coal and salt exports, although by the early 20th century both of these industries had largely gone and with the closure of the last colliery in 1984 the harbour was used for little more than fishing boats and pleasure craft. I walked around the edge of the harbour and soon came to the beautiful 16th century painted houses of Pan Ha’ (below) which once housed workers for the many salt pans that operated in the village.
Looming over the houses is the 84ft tower belonging to the ruined St Serf’s church, named after an 8th century holy man who was said to live in a cave nearby. This cave actually gave rise to Dysart’s name as it was known as a religious retreat, which in Latin is known as a ‘deserta’. Over the centuries this name has been changed until it has become Dysart.
Leaving the now restored houses of Pan ‘Ha behind I continued to follow the coastal path as it climbed uphill and passed by the red headgear which once belonged to Frances Colliery, a major employer in the area (right). The path continued alongside the site of the former colliery for a short while before dropping back down to sea level. The coastal path was a bit slipshod here, with the path having been partially washed away in some parts.
To the left of the path I somehow managed to nearly miss the ruins of the old tower house of West Wemyss Castle (below). Belonging to the powerful Wemyss family the tower was built in the 16th century. The castle gradually deteriorated when the Wemyss family began to favour Wemyss Castle a little further to the east.
West Wemyss Castle was now behind me and it was a very short time before I reached the village of West Wemyss itself, passing by some beautiful murals painted on the side of the red-stone cliffs (below). West Wemyss was a nice little village so I decided to take a small break near the harbour.
The harbour has origins in the 15th century when coal began to be mined in the area, and in 1600 Scotland’s first glassworks were founded in the village. The harbour was expanded in the middle of the 17th century when the production of salt began in the village. The coal trade also boomed during this period and by the end of the 18th century over 6,000 tonnes of coal was exported from the harbour per year.
In 1900 the harbour was linked to nearby pits by a railway which ran through a tunnel to the village. Despite a gasworks opening in West Wemyss around this time, the good times weren’t to last and by the 1960’s the gasworks and the railway had gone, soon to be followed by the coal mines. Much of the harbour was filled in with waste from the collieries and the village was left to decay. However, thanks to heavy investment from the local council and Wemyss Estates, the village is now a beautiful place to live especially as a lot of the old buildings which give West Wemyss its character have been generously restored.
I caught sight of a number of these buildings, including the 18th century toolbooth which towered above the village, as I followed the coastal path which headed alongside the sea wall (above). At the other end of the village I passed by a nice little church before the path continued along the beach. Looming above me on the cliffs was Wemyss Castle (below) which is the ancient seat of the Wemyss family who are the major landowners in these parts. The castle was built c.1421 when Sir John Wemyss decided to build a fortified castle on the clifftops which would replace the one destroyed at nearby Kilconquhar in 1402. The castle was also said to be where Mary, Queen of Scots met her future husband, Lord Darnley in 1565. No doubt the Queen had gotten over the attentions of the ill-fated and now dead French poet Pierre de Chastelard from two years earlier.
After the castle the coastal path trundled along the beach for another mile before diverting inland for a little bit around the site of an old colliery and then back down onto the coastline at East Wemyss.
East Wemyss was traditionally a coal mining village, with the main colliery, Michael Coal Pit, employing more than 3300 men as recently as 1957. However, an undersea fire in the mine in 1967 which led to the deaths of nine men forced the closure of the colliery, the site of which was completely cleared in 2001.
The village is more known for its many caves dug into the sandstone cliffs , or ‘weems’ as they are known, which gives its name to the Wemyss area. The caves have been in use for many thousands of years and it is very easy to access many of them, with a good number lying beside the Fife Coastal Path.
The first cave you come to is known as Court Cave, so called because it was believed that court sessions were held here during the Middle Ages. There are some very old carvings in this cave dating back to the Bronze Age. There are also a number of carvings belonging to the mysterious Pictish people dating from the 6th and 7th centuries century AD. Very little is known about the Picts, who are the descendants of the native Iron Age population of what became Scotland. These carvings have recently become victim of vandalism which has led to intensive campaigns to protect the historically important carvings from any further damage.
After Court Cave I came to the Doo Cave (also known as the Dovecote Cave) so named because it was used to house pigeons. I had a quick look around this one noting the large number of nesting boxes carved into the cave walls (above). Leaving the cave behind I noticed a man shouting after his dog. He approached me and asked me if I had seen his dog, a border collie, which had gotten lost. I said that I hadn’t seen him, however I reassured him that I would keep an eye out as I continued my journey. I followed the path as it headed uphill towards MacDuff castle (below).
The castle was originally the home of the powerful MacDuff family who were the Earls of Fife from the 11th century until their descendants, the Wemyss family took over and built a new castle on the site in the 14th century. The castle changed hands a number of times after the Wemyss family moved to Wemyss Castle, before returning to the family in the 16th century. Over the following centuries the castle has been left to ruin.
Just after the castle the path took a sharp left hand turn and headed towards the main road which runs through East Wemyss. Just as I got to the road I noticed the man who was looking for his dog following me up the path. He had no further luck, but while I stood talking to him I noticed through a nearby fence something black and white moving about. We looked over the fence and saw the man’s dog sat calmly next to his car wondering what on earth all the fuss was about!
My walk was coming to an end. I had originally planned to walk all the way to Leven, however time was against me and the sun was a good way along its slow descent towards the horizon. As a result, I decided to finish in Buckhaven, the next town along from East Wemyss. I still had a good couple of miles to go, and so leaving behind a relieved man and his dog, I followed the trackbed of an old railway line which headed into Buckhaven.
This was a pleasant final stretch of the walk and it wasn’t long before I reached the outskirts of Buckhaven. I decided not to follow the shoreline, instead making a beeline for the nearest bus stop along College Street. It had been a really pleasant walk with so much history to see in such a short stretch of the coast. The Fife Coast continued to provide some amazing finds and I was really looking forward to the following day’s walk where I would continue on from Buckhaven and head into the western tip of the East Neuk of Fife which promised even more wonders. Even better I would have an extra hour’s daylight to do it in as the clocks were due to go forward that night. Result!