The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

Balmerino Abbey, (this was a run I did a couple of months ago).

Out on the road by 8 am, the smoke signals coming from the lum at Eden Mill, said winds light and coming from the east. I passed through Leuchars without seeing another soul and up and into St Michaels before turning off the A919 and onto the unclassified road for Wormit. Just before the village, I turned onto the road for Balmerino Abbey, my chosen destination.

The site of Balmerino Abbey lies on the south bank of the River Tay three miles east of Wormit. Balmerino was a Cistercian abbey, inhabited by monks from Melrose, and founded by the widow of William the lion, Queen Ermengarde, and her son Alexander 11, in 1227. It is believed that she intended it as her own burial place.

The layout was much like most at that time, three sides of a rectangle the Chapter house, (normally the tallest building) making up one elevation and the Presbytery, monks Choir, and Aisle the other. The Cloisters were a covered walkway where most of the day to day work would be carried out, and would normally be set facing south to take advantage of the light. At Balmerino Abbey, however, the cloisters face north. The only reason for this can be the importance of the waters of the Tay.

Fishing in Fife can be traced to the earliest phases of Scottish prehistory. The earliest known settlement of Scotland Morton, from c 7000 bc onwards was by hunter-gatherers, and coastal communities were largely dependent on fish, they gathered sessile shellfish like oysters and mussels, and although historical records are sparse, there can be no doubt that fish from the rivers and estuaries as well as the sea continued to be important throughout history. The abbey of Balmerino had control of many of the salmon fishing’s in the Tay estuary, given by charter to them by Robert the Bruce (Campbell 1867:95) and this would have proved lucrative for the abbey coffers.

One of Scotland’s oldest trees (the oldest in Fife) grows in the abbey’s grounds – a Spanish Chestnut rumoured to have been planted by Queen Ermengarde but actually is only 400 and 435 years old. (if anyone offers you Spanish Chestnut wood for your wood-burning stove, say “thanks, but no thanks” you will need a ton of coal to burn a tone of Spanish Chestnut).

All the Abbeys in Fife, with few exceptions, are like Balmerino ruinous or erased altogether. The most intact example of monastic buildings in Scotland is Incholm where all three ranges are complete and still with roofs. Then when you want a ready supply of stone for your extension to the farmhouse or boundary wall, you take it from a local source you do not take a boat to Incholm to find it.

Turning right I started the long hard climb from sea level to 133 meters above sea level in only around 2 miles, there were parts I was zig-zagging the width of the road to keep any kind of momentum over 5 mph.

Climbing out of Balmerino,

My legs were still doing their stuff,

With all the force and effect,

Of a pink-powder-puff.

At the X roads, I turned left for Cupar, for I wanted to visit Mountquhanie Castle just a couple of miles away now. The castle is adjacent to the old stables block from a later date, and the tower (dovecot) that was once part of the castle is now incorporated into cottages to house farm workers.

Mountquhanie Castle is a 17th-century range the original building, now ruinous, was a keep measuring externally 43-1/2 X 26 feet. And if the thickness of walls is taken into consideration (normally 6 feet thick) was not all that roomy. It was three-story, below the wall-head. A west range was added in the 17th century, two-story in height with a circular tower in the south-west angle, used as a dovecot, (the cooing must have driven the occupants crazy). The only entrance of the south building remains with a lintel inscribed 1683. another stone dated 1592, (not in situ) is above the backdoor of the Home Farm. Munquhane is mentioned in 1459, and a charter dated 1547-8 specified the “tower, foralice and manor-house”.

Soon after Mountquhanie, I turned onto the A92 for Glenrothes and then onto the unclassified road for Moonzie, from here it was almost a repeat of my trip to Lordscairnie Castle earlier. Down into Cupar, where I spend some time sitting at the War Memorial, in warm sunshine, eating my, by now, rather bruised banana and finishing off what was left of my water. Nothing for it now but up out of Cupar on the A91 and into a headwind all the way home.

Joan Baez for company today at present singing “House of the Rising Sun” A long time since I spent some time with Joan. I was cycling home to Bingley one day, and as I passed through Shipley I almost fell from my bike for there was a notice tied to the lamp post announcing, Joan Baez in Concert the Old Tram Shed. The Tram Shed has been turned into a bar and when I arrived I sat on one of the barstools, at the semi-circular bar and ordered a beer. There was no stage only tables and chairs. In walked Joan with a battered old guitar case, put it on a nearby table, removed the guitar and sat on a barstool only feet away, I was in heaven, me her biggest fan and here she was giving the small audience a concert as if we were sitting at a party in someone living room. I cycled home in a trance, and in the pub the following Wednesday, (a group of 60 something would gather in the local club on a Wednesday) I announced that I had been at a Joan Baez concert. It was greeted with blank stares, Philistines.

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