Coastwalk #32 – Buckhaven to Elie

START: Buckhaven, Fife

FINISH: Elie, Fife

DISTANCE: 12.4 miles (Total – 379.2 miles)

APPROXIMATE TIME: 5 hours

OS MAPS: OS Explorer 367 & OS Explorer 371

ACCOMMODATION: Northcraig Cottage, North Queensferry

The good weather looked like it was set to continue as I got up on the third day of my holiday on the Fife coast. The view of the calm beautiful waters of the Firth of Forth from my bedroom window at Northcraig Cottage,  once again gave me the motivation to get up and continue to explore the Fife coast. Following another fine cooked breakfast courtesy of my host, Elisabeth I was walking up to the Forth Road Bridge where I would catch the express bus from Edinburgh to Buckhaven where I had left off the previous day.

BUCKHAVEN

An hour’s bus journey later I got off the bus on the outskirts of Buckhaven and did a short walk through the town to pick up the Fife Coastal Path on College Street. I headed along College Street for a bit, soon joining Wellesley Road where I found a shop open so I could stock up on supplies for the day’s walk.

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I continued along Wellesley Road, noticing through a gap in the houses the huge cranes which sat on the site of an old colliery (above). Buckhaven became a mining town from the 1860’s with four pits opening over the next few years. This replaced the traditional fishing industry as the main employment in the area which began in the 1640’s when religious refugees from the Netherlands landed at Buckhaven and were granted leave to remain by the landowner, the Earl of Wemyss who allowed them to settle on the narrow beach.

Fishing was the mainstream of the local economy and by 1831 Buckhaven had the second largest fishing fleet of any Scottish port with some 198 fishing boats launching from the port on a daily basis. The fishermen had kept their boats in the hynds (natural rocky reef shelters) on the beach in front of their houses, however as the fishermen had to go further out into the sea and so their boats had to be made bigger. This meant that a harbour had to be built in 1838, which was paid with by subscriptions from every fishing family in Buckhaven.

With the dawn of the 20th century the fishing industry was on its knees – the herring catches were greatly reducing and a lot of the fishermen decided to take up employment in the burgeoning coal mining industry. The waste from the collieries also caused the harbour to silt up and by the end of the First World War the silt in the harbour was already 20ft deep. A damaging storm in 1937 brought about the end of the harbour and it was filled in with rubble from the decaying houses of Buckhaven.

The closure of the mines in the latter half of the 20th century brought great economic trouble to the town, which saw its fortunes plummet. Few people were in work, and poverty and social problems were rife. However, in recent years there has been a bit of an upturn in Buckhaven’s fortunes. A new 55ha Fife Energy Park has opened on the site of one of the old collieries bringing new jobs into the area so hopefully this will boost the town’s economy for years to come. 

I headed down the High Street and passed by the entrance to the Energy Park before crossing into the town of Methil.

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METHIL

It would be wrong to think that Methil’s history started in the 19th century. The village has an industrial heritage stretching back to the 1660’s when a stone harbour was built here to export salt and coal. Salt panning was a major employer in the area, with three salt pans operating in the village in the late 17th century. 

Methil did come into its own in the late 19th century when the first dock was constructed in 1887 coupled with the opening of the collieries. The village’s population rose from about 500 in 1861 to over 12,000 by the 1960’s. The arrival of the collieries brought many families into the village from all over Scotland and beyond, resulting in Methil, along with other nearby settlements, becoming the ‘melting pot’ of Fife with different cultures, religions and nationalities. Methil developed a reputation as somewhat of a rough town with fighting miners and drunken sailors along with a burgeoning prostitution industry which rivaled that of the bigger port towns of Leith and Dundee. Methil became Scotland’s chief coal port after the First World War, exporting some 3 million tonnes annually in 1923. 

The closure of the collieries in the 1960’s massively impacted on the town. Social and economic problems were a major problem and still are to this day with one writer stating that the town was the worst place to visit in Scotland. I couldn’t really comment as I didn’t get to see much of the town, as my route along South Street towards Leven took me around the edge of the town, though I’m sure there are worse places to actually visit in Scotland as I actually felt quite safe walking through the town. 

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LEVEN

Anyway, Methil was soon behind me and I crossed over the River Leven into the town of Leven. I was now back next to the sea for the first time in this walk which was good. I joined a promenade which lined the town’s beach and was busy with people enjoying the Sunday sunshine. Leven became a popular coastal resort with the arrival of the railway in 1854 with many visitors coming from the West of Scotland, in particular Glasgow. The town also benefited from the nearby collieries and docks, and like Buckhaven and Methil took a big hit when both these industries collapsed in the latter half of the 20th century.

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Still, the town is popular with tourists, as evidenced on that Sunday lunchtime where there was a good number of people walking along the promenade and on the beach as well. I decided to join them on the beach and for the next couple of miles the sands were my companion. There were great views all round – up the coast towards Lower Largo with Largo Law looming over the village. Out to sea, there were beautiful views of the Firth of Forth, sparkling in the warm March sunshine. I could make out the small hump of North Berwick Law at the other side of the Forth, and also Bass Rock sitting out in the Forth itself.

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LOWER LARGO

Before getting to Lower Largo I had to re-join more firmer ground as I was running out of beach. I walked through the remains of ancient dunes, now covered in vegetation before entering the village. I headed along Drumnochy Road until I came to a grassy knoll which overlooked Lower Largo’s picturesque harbour (below). I found a bench to sit on and had my lunch whilst I took in the peace and quiet. 

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A harbour had already been established at Lower Largo by 1500, but it never fully developed into a full blown port like many of the villages along the Fife coast. However, this didn’t stop a steam ferry service operating between the village and Newhaven, near Leith on the other side of the Forth in the 1850’s. The harbour was also home to a fleet of some forty herring boats and coal was exported from there too.

The arrival of the railway brought many new residents to the village, especially when the Forth Rail Bridge opened in 1890 providing a direct rail link with Edinburgh. Nowadays the herring boats have gone, to be replaced with pleasure craft. So too has the railway, the old viaduct which once carried trains over Hatton Burn (above) is now empty. If this railway was still in use it would have made my journey home at the end of the walk a lot quicker!

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I finished my lunch and crossed over the Burn, following Main Street for a short while whilst passing by some beautiful old cottages. I noticed on one of the cottages a statue to a Alexander Selkirk (right) who was the inspiration for the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. Born in 1676 in Lower Largo, Selkirk was the seventh son of a shoemaker and a tanner and was somewhat of a troublemaker. On 27th August 1695 he was summoned to appear before an ecclesiastical court (kirk-session) for indecent behaviour in church. He didn’t show up, however, instead running off to sea.

At sea, Selkirk became involved in a number of buccaneering expeditions, joining the company of a notorious privateer, William Dampier in 1703. Privateers were pirates that operated under the licence of the government and so were allowed to get away with pretty much anything as long as it benefited the nation. Dampier’s ship, the Cinque Ports, was licensed by the government of England to prey on Spanish ships around the coast of South America. 

Following a number of encounters with Spanish ships, the Cinque Ports docked at the uninhabited Juan Fernandez Islands, some 400 miles away from the Chilean coast in the Pacific, to stock up on water and provisions. Selkirk got into an argument with Dampier about the ship’s seaworthiness following damage obtained during battles with Spanish ships and asked to be left behind on the largest island in the group, which later became known as Robinson Crusoe Island. Dampier duly obliged, however Selkirk immediately regretted his decision as soon as the Cinque Ports sailed away from the island but he had to live with his decision and fend for himself on the island for four years and four months. During that time two other ships landed on the island, however Selkirk had to hide from their crew as they were Spanish and would have likely killed him.

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‘Selkirk reading his Bible in one of two huts he built on a mountainside’ from the  The Life and adventures of Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe: a narrative founded on facts (1837)

Selkirk didn’t see another soul until the 2nd February 1709 when the privateer ship Duke piloted by Dampier landed and took Selkirk away from the island. Dampier admitted to Selkirk that he was right about the seaworthiness of the Cinque Ports which had later sunk off the coast of Peru. 

Selkirk went on to make his fortune as a ship’s captain, and his fame would come when Woodes Rogers published a book in 1712 which included an account of Selkirk’s time on the island. This account formed the basis of Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe which was published in 1719, bringing Selkirk further worldwide fame. Selkirk returned to Lower Largo a wealthy man in 1717, however didn’t stay long and ran away to London with a 16 year old dairymaid called Sophia Bruce. At some point he must have ditched Sophia, because it wasn’t long before he was back out at sea again, this time as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He later married a widowed innkeeper in Portsmouth, before dying of yellow fever on board the HMS Weymouth off the west coast of Africa on the 13th December 1721.

Just past the statue dedicated to Selkirk the Fife Coastal Path headed down a narrow trackway between a house and a high wall, before climbing up some steps and joining the trackbed of the old railway which once ran along the Fife coast until its closure in 1965. This next stretch of the walk was fantastic as I followed the old railway line out of Lower Largo. The trackbed stood high above the sea so I could get great views up and down the coast (below). 

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LARGO BAY & SHELL BAY

I followed the trackbed for just over a mile, passing by the remains of an old farmhouse (on the left of the photo above) before coming to a sign which pointed down towards the shore and into Dunbarnie Links Nature Reserve. The nature reserve is owned by the Scottish Wildlife Trust who aim to preserve the increasingly rare lime-rich dune grassland where over 2000 species of wildlife, including 1200 types of insect have been recorded. 

20180325_144350I followed the beach as the tide was still out rather than walking through the nature reserve so I didn’t get a taste of the full variety of wildlife on offer. However, my walk along the beach was nice and peaceful as not many people had made it this far up the coast from Lower Largo. 

The beach curved gently away to my right towards a line of trees on the horizon which marked the end of Largo Bay at Ruddons Point. It wasn’t long before I reached the treeline, although I did have to divert inland a little around the wonderfully named Cocklemill Burn. Under the shade of the trees I came to a handy bench so decided to have a short break before making the final push into Elie. There were a good number of people about especially as there was a caravan park just on the other side of the tree line. 

The short break over I decided to take a short diversion around Ruddons Point, a narrow spit of land which sticks out into the sea. There wasn’t much to look at so I came back along the other side of the headland and edged around the scenic Shell Bay (below).

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I noticed at the other side of the bay a paraglider floating about (above). As I got closer I saw the paraglider nearly wipe a group out of people as he lost altitude quickly and had to make an impromptu landing on the field next to the path. Undeterred, the paraglider climbed back up the side of a small hill and jumped off again, swooping a few feet above my head, giving me a cheery wave as he passed over. 

Ahead, the path climbed sharply up to Kincraig Hill. There was an alternative route I could have followed – along the Elie Chain Walk. This route follows the rocky shoreline (below), using a variety of chains to allow the walker to clamber across the rocks at low tide. I didn’t really fancy using this route as it meant a good hour to two hours clambering over rocks when my legs were already tired, plus the tide was starting to come in so I may have ended up being underwater before I could complete the chain walk. So up Kincraig Hill I went instead.

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At the top of Kincraig Hill was the remains of a large WWII gun battery (below), installed at the beginning of the War in 1939. The Battery at Kincraig Hill was used by Polish parachutists in 1941 in a training exercise which saw a number of the parachutists drop around Shell Bay and attempt to ‘storm’ the battery on the hill. The exercise was a success with no ‘casualties’ amongst the parachutists, who from that day became known as the 1st Independent (Polish) Parachute Brigade. Such was the success of the training exercise that the newly formed Brigade went on to play a significant role at Arnhem during the doomed ‘Operation Marked Garden’ which saw the Allies attempt to take the Netherlands from the occupying Nazi forces and bring about an early end to the war.

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The whole Shell Bay/Kincraig Hill area has had a significant military history since the 1860’s. During this decade, the volunteer army which later became the Territorial Army began using Ruddons Point as a firing range right up until the 1960’s when the land was sold to a caravan firm. The Shell Bay area also became home to a military camp where up to 1,000 men were billeted. 

I walked through the remains of the gun battery which was strung right along the hilltop, which also marked the highest point of the Fife coast, presumably making an excellent spot for such a battery as it gave great views out across the Firth of Forth for any enemy ships or planes. There were no enemy aircraft or ships that day, at least none that I could see, but the views were simply stunning down into Earlsferry and Elie (below).

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At the other side of Kincraig Hill, the path climbed down a steep set of stairs until it reached the edge of a golf course at Earlsferry Links. There was a choice of either edging along the golf course or walking along the beach for a little while so I decided to head along the beach. At the end of the beach a Fife Coast Path sign pointed across the fairways of the golf course towards a couple of large houses. Ahead the path wound its way in between a couple of tall walls before coming out on to a little green which overlooked Elie beach. I sat on a bench for a while just to rest because my legs were getting quite tired at this point. I then followed the path as it headed into the beautiful village of Earlsferry.

EARLSFERRY & ELIE

Earlsferry and Elie are now just one combined village, however for a lot of their history they were separate burghs. Earlsferry is the oldest of the two, with records dating it back to the 11th century. The village got its name from the Earls of Fife who owned lands both at Earlsferry and also at North Berwick on the other side of the Forth. The Earls, seeing a good commercial opportunity opened up a ferry service (the ‘Earl’s Ferry’) to transport the multitude of pilgrims who were making the trip to St Andrews, further up the Fife coast.

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In 1541, Earlsferry was granted Royal Burgh status which allowed it to trade overseas, bringing a great deal of prosperity to the village. However, as the ferry ceased in 1600 due to the Scottish Reformation, coupled with the lack of a suitable harbour at Earlsferry, this trade dried up with ships preferring to use the better harbour at Elie. During the 19th century Earlsferry became geared more towards tourists, with new accommodation being created for the growing number of visitors. 

I continued through the village, passing by the Town Hall (above) with its clock tower looming above the street. At some point I crossed the invisible line into Elie although there is no official distinction as the two villages merged in 1929. Elie developed around its bay which provided a much better and safer anchorage for ships than the one provided at Earlsferry. Elie became a Burgh of Barony in 1589 under the control of the Lairds of Ardross which meant that it was forbidden to participate directly in foreign trade, this honour instead being left to Earlsferry. This rule would lax over time and Elie became an important fishing and trading port especially when the harbour was improved in the 1850’s and as such the majority of trade was poached from Earlsferry.

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I was originally going to end the walk at Elie’s village green (above) however as I had about another forty minutes to wait for the bus I decided to extend the walk a little further and head down to Elie Harbour and finish the walk next to the Ship Inn, which was packed with people inside and outside. I looked across the harbour, where the golden sands were still exposed to the sun (below), the high tide having not yet reached Elie. It was a pleasant end to the day’s walk and also my three-day holiday along the Fife coast. I would return a month later to finish off the Fife Coastal Path, which promised a whole host of delights, including the stunningly beautiful East Neuk, but I will talk about that in a later post. Happy reading! 

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REFERENCES

Buckhaven

http://www.scotland.com/fife/buckhaven/

http://www.buckhavensbirthright.org.uk/Index.asp?MainID=13219

Methil

http://www.methilheritage.org.uk/content/pages/levenmouth-towns/methil.php

http://rsmith617.wixsite.com/methil-history/methildocks

Leven

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leven,_Fife

Lower Largo

https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/largo/lowerlargo/index.html

https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/s/alexanderselkirk.html

Largo Bay & Shell Bay

http://www.swt-fife.org.uk/reserve10.htm

https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/reserve/dumbarnie-links/

http://scharp.co.uk/sites-at-risk/1220/

https://www.fifetoday.co.uk/news/kincraig-a-key-point-in-history-1-152713

Earlsferry & Elie

Home

Walking Tour No 2 – Earlsferry

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elie_and_Earlsferry

 

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