The ancient Kingdom of Fife is a small area, barely fifty miles at its widest point, but one which has a definite identity, inextricably linked with the waters that surround it on three sides – the Tay to the north, the Forth to the south, and the cold North Sea to the east. Despite its small size, Fife encompasses several different regions, with a marked difference between the rural north and the semi-industrial south. Fishing still has a role, but ultimately it is to St Andrews, the home of the world-famous Royal and Ancient Golf Club, that most visitors are drawn. South of St Andrews, the tiny stone harbours of the East Neuk fishing villages are an appealing extension to any visit to this part of Fife.
Inland from St Andrews is the absorbing village of Falkland with its impressive ruined palace. To the south, the perfectly preserved town of Culross is the most obvious draw with its cobbled streets and collection of historic buildings.
Extending south of St Andrews as far as Largo Bay, the East Neuk is famous for its quaint fishing villages replete with crow-stepped gables and red pan-tiled roofs, the Flemish influence indicating a history of strong trading links with the Low Countries. The area is dotted with blustery golf courses, and there are plenty of bracing coastal paths, including the waymarked Fife Coastal Path: tracing the shoreline between St Andrews and the Forth Rail Bridge, it’s at its most scenic in the East Neuk stretch.
CRAIL is the archetypally charming East Neuk fishing village, its maze of rough cobbled streets leading steeply down to a tiny stone-built harbour surrounded by piles of lobster creels, and with fishermen’s cottages tucked into every nook and cranny in the cliff. Though often populated by artists at their easels and camera-toting tourists, it is still a working harbour, and if the boats have been out you can buy fresh lobster and crab cooked to order from a small wooden shack on the harbour edge. You can trace the history of the town at the Crail Museum and Heritage Centre, while the Crail Pottery is worth a visit for its wide range of locally made pottery.
ANSTRUTHER is the largest of the East Neuk fishing harbours; with an attractively old-fashioned air and no shortage of character in its houses and narrow streets, it’s also home to the wonderfully unpretentious Scottish Fisheries Museum.
Although the coast of southern Fife is predominantly industrial – with everything from cottage industries to the refitting of nuclear submarines – mercifully, only a small part has been blighted by insensitive development. Thanks to its proximity to the early coal mines, the charming village of Culross was once a lively port which enjoyed a thriving trade with Holland, the Dutch influence obvious in its lovely gabled houses. It was from nearby Dunfermline that Queen Margaret ousted the Celtic Church from Scotland in the eleventh century; her son, David I, founded an abbey here in the twelfth century. Southern Fife is linked to Edinburgh by the two Forth bridges, the red-painted girders of the Rail Bridge representing one of Britain’s great engineering spectacles.
The cantilevered Forth Rail Bridge, built from 1883 to 1890 by Sir John Fowler and Benjamin Baker, ranks among the supreme achievements of Victorian engineering, with some 50,000 tons of steel used in the construction of a design that manages to express grace as well as might. The only way to cross the rail bridge is on a train heading to or from Edinburgh, though this doesn’t allow much of a perspective of the spectacle itself. For the best panorama, use the pedestrian and cycle lanes on the east side of the road bridge.
Derived from American models, the suspension format chosen for the Forth Road Bridge alongside the rail bridge makes an interesting modern complement to the older structure. Erected between 1958 and 1964, it finally killed off the 900-year-old ferry, and now attracts such a heavy volume of traffic that a second road crossing is being considered.