The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

The air was still, so as good a day as any to do my run along the coast from Elie to Anstruther via Killie Castle and Kilconquhar.

The A917 out of St Andrews, at Brownhills I wheeled onto the B9131 for Anstruther. 8 miles on my first port of call the Dovecote at Pitkierie, the structure is situated out in the middle of a newly sown field of potatoes, so long-distance shot.

Then on unclassified roads as far as Kellie Castle. As you can see from the photograph it, like everything else, in lock-down. I wanted to walk over to the Kellie Castle dovecot but I did not like the look of the Lamas, they looked placed enough, but it’s the quiet one you have to watch.

Kellie Castle is one of the most homely of all the Fife castles, and much of that is down to James Lorimer, father of the architect Sir Robert Lorimer, it was he that did much or the restoration work after he bought the property in 1878. The earliest part of the castle dated back to the 1500s and was built by a member of the Oliphant family. The castle passed to Viscount Fentoun, later first Earl of Kellie in 1617 and various changes were made over the following years, Several fine plaster ceilings were inserted, one dated 1617 and another 1676, whilst other alterations were made in the course of the eighteenth century. But what is most remarkable when you look at Kellie Castle is how all of these alterations seem to compliment each other.

A few cyclists on the road today, one serious, the others like me tourists. The road from Kelly Castle to Kilconquhar, was very quiet. Kilconquhar the land the time forgot, and where I meet a horse and buggy, the owner having a chin-wag with his close neighbour.

The church here is particularly beautiful built-in rich red sandstone, not the best of photographs.

It is only a couple of miles from here down to the start of our coastal trip, Earlsferry. The ruin to the west of the chapel is those of the hospital of Ardross (not Elie or Earlsferry). This was the north end of the ferry from North Berwick, and used by travellers and pilgrims alike. Founded in 1154 by Duncan, fourth Earl of Fife, and granted by Duncan, fifth Earl, to the nuns of North Berwick. There is little left of what could have been the boundary walls of a hospital but the photograph is of the chapel that was here and possible a cemetery attached to the hospital as the earth around it is full of human bones. The chapel was built by MacDuff, Earl of Fife, in 1093 and repaired in 1830. now a ruin.

Elie was my home for many years and I know it well having walked most of it. I decided to take a trip out to Elie Ness where the lighthouse stands. The path is simply that, a path and I am no off road cyclist, this is hard work and a bit scary. The lighthouse was commissioned in the early part of the 20th century, the reason put forward for the lighthouse here was that when off Elie Ness in bad weather they could not see the light at the Isle of May and Inchkeith. The builder would be David Alan Stevenson B.Sc. F.R.S.E. M.Inst. CE, and if that was not enough – grandson of Robert Stevenson of Bell Rock fame and cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson.

In September 1907 permission from the admiralty was received to approach Coast Guard to Become attendants and on 16th October 1907 financial terms were agreed with HM Coast Guard and reserve Edinburgh that the Coast Guardsmen Stationed at Elie would become attendants of the light. Work on the lighthouse started in December 1907 and was completed by June 1908. On the first of October 1908 notice was given to mariners that the light would be exhibited form Elie Ness, flashing white – one every six seconds all around the horizon.

Just one hundred yards or so further on is Lady Anstruther’s Tower. It was built in 1770 for Jenny Anstruther, daughter of a Scottish Merchant. She was renowned for her beauty, and reputed to be a bit of a flirt. She used the tower to relax in after her skinny dipping activities in the sea below, changing in the man-made cave there. Prior to her immersion she would send a servant into the town of Elie to ring a bell to let residents know to stay away.

A bell would ring around the town,

To tell the folk that Lady Jenny was going down,

For a wee dip in the sea,

Now since the Lady preferred swimming starker,

She wouldn’t want no nosy Parkers,

Do you see?

Back onto the main road and a mile or so up the coast we find Ardross Castle although little now remains.

The ruins of Ardross Castle, dating back to at least the 15th century, the castle occupies a fine defensive coastal position standing high on sandstone cliffs overlooking a sandy beach below.

In 1068 a Northumbrian knight named Merleswain came to Scotland, and was granted lands in Fife. The first mention of Ardross seems to occur in the mid-12th century. Merleswain’s grandson, also named Merleswain, was granted a charter of Ardross by William the Lion in the last quarter of the 12th century.

Sir William Dishington married Elizabeth Bruce, sister of Robert the Bruce, around 1309, and one of their sons, also Sir William Dishington, later became the Sheriff of Fife. Some historians have the first Sir William as the builder of Ardross Castle, while some have the second Sir William. Although the remains of the castle have often been ascribed to the 15th century, it seems entirely possible that it was built at an earlier date, and for either Sir William to have been responsible it would certainly have been built in the 14th century.

Certainly in 1402 the second Sir William’s son, Thomas Dishington, received a charter from Robert II granting him the barony and castle of Ardross after they were resigned by his father, while also referring to him as “dilecto nepoti nostro” (our dear nephew). The fact that the castle is specifically mentioned certainly suggests it was in existence in the 14th century.

The castle has had a few owners over its lifetime and in 1853 Sir Wyndham Anstruther sold the Elie estates to William Baird, son of Alexander Baird of Lockwood, and as such Ardross Castle became his property.

Following Baird’s death in 1864, the Elie estates, including Ardross Castle, passed to his son, William Baird of Elie.

In 1928 the estates were sold to Sir Michael Nairn, and they are now owned by the Elie Estate Trust, which is under the stewardship of Sir Michael’s grandson, Sir Michael Nairn.

The Fife Coastal Path passes through the ruins of Ardross Castle, between the two buildings, and so it is freely accessible.

At the roadside and in the grounds of Ardross Farm you will find a dovecot, it appears to be a modern building and has a skylight installed in the roof so clearly, the owner has found a new purpose for the dovecot.

Again only a hop, skip, and jump up the road from Ardross Farm is Newark Castle. You can get to the castle easily from the coastal path and the nearby bee-hive dovecot. But I was not on the coastal path. My way was fenced off and guarded by some cows, I am not sure the farmer would have taken kindly to me passing through the field so again long distant shots of the castle and dovecot.

The last time I walked the coastal path I did enter part of the ruin, or at le

ast the vaulted chamber below the castle proper. The castle probably dates from the 13th century, a time when Alexander 111 (1241-1286) was known to have spent some of his childhood there. However the current building did not come into being until the 15th century by the Kinloch family. In 1649 it was sold to David Leslie, a prominent figure in the English and Scottish Civil Wars, and was given the title Lord Newark. Following his death in 1682, the castle passed to the Anstruther family, and finally the Baird’s of Elie. Sir William Burrell (Glasgow shipping magnate, of the Burrell collection fame) wanted to buy the castle and restore it, plans were in place, drawn up by Sir Robert Lorimer, but Mr. Baird of Elie, refused to sell. It now along with the dovecot is a scheduled monument.

On now and into St Monans, I did not stop off at the harbour or the windmill not while things are the way they are. However if you get the chance visit the windmill just east of the village on the coastal path and climb up into the viewing room at the top for some magnificent view. Below the windmill are the Salt Pans. Salt was the third-largest export from Scotland after wool and fish. Salt pans were not only here but all along the north shore of Fife, mainly because of the abundance of cheap coal. The metal pans were flooded with salt water and fires burned underneath to evaporate the moisture, leaving behind the sea salt. The windmill above was used to pump seawater into the pans. There is little left of the house that would have covered the pans, and although the practise of boiling seawater for its salt content was known from the seventeen hundreds, the one we see at St Monans is dated from the eighteen hundreds.

Pittenweem is another town well worth a visit, and where you will find St Fillan’s Cave. St. Fillan was an Irish holy man, and it is said that God gave him a glowing left arm, so that he could read and write, in the dark cave with the light from his left glowing arm. There are all sorts of tales about the cave, having been used for smuggling. You can enter the cave but you will have to ask for a key at the local cafe, but again lockdown, so I pressed on to Anstruther and onto the B9131, and the ten (hilly) miles home.

It would have been good to have spend time in each of the little villages, and once the lock down is over I may try the same circuit again, for it is pleasant cycling on quite roads and no hills.

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