‘Neuk’ is a Scottish word for nook or corner, and if you take a look at the map opposite, you’ll see that the East Neuk of Fife is the bit that juts out into the North Sea at the end of the Firth of Forth.
Along this coastline are a string of attractive fishing villages, the most interesting being St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther (including Cellardyke) and Crail.
If you’ve travelled to Fife over the Forth Bridge, then the first of these villages is St. Monans, about an hour’s drive away. There are several theories as to who St. Monan was, but the church that is dedicated to him is often described as Scotland’s nearest church to the sea, which is only around 20 metres away. It’s been here since the 14th century so whether it’s been that close since it was built, I wouldn’t like to say.
Walking downhill to the harbour there’s one of those simple little things that appear to mean nothing much but somehow manages to lift the spirits in an ever more disenchanting world.
The idea of the ‘Wellie Garden’ was conceived by Win Brown, a local teacher who decided to put her grandchildren’s wellie boots to good use. Her students joined in, and before she knew it the slipway had amassed around 200 pairs of boots filled with an assortment of plants that not only brightened up the slipway but many people’s faces as well.
Of all the harbours along this coastline, St Monans is one of the smallest, but in my opinion, also one of the most picturesque. Not only was fishing big business here, so was boat building. Sadly, not only have the majority of fishing boats disappeared, so too have the boatyards.
Another industry that has gone the same way here is salt production. Just a short wander along the coast path out of the village towards Pittenweem is a windmill that stands testament to the once thriving, but short-lived source of income for the village. The nearby hollows in the ground show where the sea water was heated in the salt pans and powered by the windmill.
About half an hour’s stroll from the salt pans will bring you into the slightly larger village of Pittenweem.
The footpath brings you into the village by way of the West Harbour with its small boats and fishermen’s cottages. These cottages give way to larger houses that once belonged to ship owners and sea captains who once plied their trade with the Low Countries. This trade saw the introduction of the type of building style more associated with the Netherlands and Belgium with red pantiled roofs and crow-stepped gables, and some of the best examples are at The Gyles at the eastern end of the main harbour.
The main harbour is the busiest along this stretch of coastline, and although it has a daily fish market, the catch is still relatively small compared to the north-eastern fishing ports of Peterhead and Fraserburgh.
‘Pittenweem’ apparently means ’Place of the Cave’ and presumably refers to St. Fillan’s Cave which is situated in Cove Wynd near the harbour.
Apparently, this cave, although several metres above sea level now, would have been formed by sea erosion and has been used as a storage place and shelter for who knows how many years.
It’s association with St. Fillan goes back to the 8th century when the Irish missionary set up home here. Supposedly blessed with special healing powers, he was also deemed to have had a “luminous left arm by which he saw to read and write”; I have to say though, that it never ceases to amaze me how these saints possess all these different miraculous powers and all come from Ireland.
You won’t need any miracles to help you get to get to the next village along the coast as it’s less than a couple of miles away.
Anstruther is the largest of the East Neuk fishing villages and, sitting as it does around half way along this coast, is probably the most convenient place to stay. It also has the most amenities, which of course, also makes it the busiest. That said, it’s still only a community of around three and a half thousand people, so don’t come here expecting a great metropolis.
A look at the local Ordnance Survey map reveals that there’s an Anstruther Wester and an Anstruther Easter, and the Dreel Burn used to be the dividing line between the two; the burn still runs into the sea but the town has long been unified and is now just called Anstruther.
As with all the other villages along this coastline, fishing has traditionally been the main industry, but with the decline of the shoals of herring it also meant the decline of Anstruther. Although the village is larger than Pittenweem its harbour is not as busy with fishing boats, but as tourism has become more important it seems as good a place as any to have a museum devoted to Scottish fishing.
The Scottish Fisheries Museum is an excellent national museum located on the harbourside in buildings that date back to the 16th century. These buildings surround a cobbled courtyard that was involved in fishing as long ago as the 14th century, and in amongst all the fishing paraphernalia are some Heritage Boats and a collection of evocative paintings by Pittenweem artist John McGhie.
The quayside opposite the museum is the departure point for the boat to the Isle of May (which I’ll be describing separately), but if eating fish is more your thing than catching them, then after visiting the museum make sure that you allow enough time to visit the nearby Anstruther Fish Bar.
I say allow enough time because, with awards as long as your arm, this place is a bigger attraction than the museum, and you’ll need to be prepared to queue up whether it’s for the restaurant or the Take -Away.
In my opinion, the best place to eat your Fish Supper (as they call it up here), is on the harbourside where the benches just seem to have become an outdoor extension to this obligatory stop along the coast road through the village.
If you drive out through the village and keep to the coast rather than the main road, you’ll come to another little harbour at Cellardyke, which although these days is regarded as a part of Anstruther, has its own separate identity. If you miss the signs to Cellardyke, do yourself a favour and turn back because although it’s not the easiest of places to find, you’ll be glad you did.
In the past it was a busier fishing harbour than its larger neighbour, and though it may be difficult to imagine now, apparently over 200 fishing boats used this harbour until a storm in 1898 damaged it enough to force the boats down into the better and newer one at Anstruther.
So how did the name Cellardyke originate? Well, the story goes that the dykes (walls) that were used to hang the fishing nets over to dry, glistened in the sun with the scales of the silver darlings (herring) and so were called “Sil’erdykes”.
There’s no fishing nets left out to dry on the harbour these days but washing is. It’s this sort of thing that sets the village apart from its neighbours. The boats maybe gone but there still seems to be a sense of community here amongst the narrow streets of terraced houses.
The final fishing harbour on our East Neuk tour is the small village of Crail, which can be reached by joining the A917 from Cellardyke. Parking is encouraged in the village rather than the harbour which will give you the opportunity to check out the small Museum and Heritage Centre situated next to the Dutch styled Tolbooth. It won’t set your pulse racing but it also doubles up as a friendly and welcoming Visitor Centre.
It’s the harbour that most people come to see though and although all the East Neuk fishing harbours have their merits, Crail is definitely one of the most picturesque.
If you’re a lover of fresh crab or lobster then you’re in luck because it doesn’t come any fresher than if you buy it from the ‘Lobster Store’. From a hut on the quayside the Reilly family are happy to sell their daily catch to anyone who can’t resist the temptation.
The harbour is quite small compared to St. Monans, Pittenweem and Anstruther, but it’s big on character and a fitting place to finish our tour of the East Neuk fishing villages.