TRAVEL / Haar to Eternity: A Writer's Britain: Fife's cold sea mist, or haar, and pale sunlit shores will be forever Eden for Elspeth Barker. She revisits old haunts

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE ANCIENT Kingdom of Fife forms a blunt peninsula which shoulders out into the North Sea, bounded on one side by the Firth of Tay, on the other by the Firth of Forth. Driving up from Edinburgh, you used to take the ferry across, under the shadow of the mighty railway bridge, where men suspended in little baskets were eternally repainting, eternally and fruitlessly, for as soon as they reached the end they had to start again.

Baleships and submarines gleamed in the shifting sunlight and sometimes a school of porpoises performed acrobatics beyond the ferry's wake. Cars were assisted on and off board by a turntable which pointed them in the right direction, leaving no chance of driver error. This was a relief to me, for the whelming deep washed voraciously on to the end of the pier and was all too visible through the many fissures of the ramps. Sweet and green, the hills of Fife welcomed us like a benison.

So it was in those days. Now traffic goes roaring over the Forth Road Bridge, which takes time off the journey but mars the significance of crossing the water, the sense of entering another land. The coastal villages and small towns, however, have not changed very much. Kirkcaldy, home of linoleum, still smells deliciously of linseed oil; Leven sprawls more than it did, and has an air of loucheness uncharacteristic of cleanly East Fife. Nearby are the caves of Wemyss and their Bronze-Age drawings; here you may see the earliest depiction of a boat to be found in these islands. There used to be boatyards all along this stretch, with seagulls marching proprietorially over the great vaulting wooden ribs which dominated the quaysides.

In Largo, Alexander Selkirk was born; it was he who so enraged his fellow mariners that they dumped him on the island of Juan Fernandez. After four years of solitude he was rescued, and recycled for posterity as Robinson Crusoe. But for me this is all peripheral.

Two places form the heartland of my Fife, and the first of these is Elie. Elie is an old fishing village; its houses, many of them crowstepped and gabled, border a wide, curving bay. At one end of the bay looms the harbour and gaunt stone granary; at the other end Elie has merged into Earlsferry. A dark and rock-strewn headland encloses the pale shore. Round the point lies another bay, then more cliffs, higher and menacing. Here Macduff took to a boat and fled from Macbeth across the water, leaving his family behind:

'The Thane of Fife had a wife.

Where is she now?'

Macduff evidently knew where he was going. As a child I assumed that the smudge of land you could sometimes see on the far horizon was Abroad. Abroad was only visible when rain was threatening and the light inky and lurid.

I had a great fear of war, and when the occasional plane came droning over from that inscrutable foreign land (in fact, the coastline of North Berwick) I would flatten myself in the dunes, and hold my breath and pray until the danger had passed.

Almost everything that I remember of Elie centres around the beach. It is a perfect place for little children. They play now as I did, as my father did 80 years ago. Sandcastles, digging to Australia, rock pools and shrimping nets. Nothing has changed; there is no promenade, no commercial aid to maritime pleasure. The faded beach huts are still dotted along the shore. One of the excitements of New Year was always the abrupt departure of a few of these huts into the massive January tides which came lashing over the sea wall, drowning the harbour road and seriously inconveniencing the clientele of the Ship Inn. Once a derelict whale rolled up on the sands. We were not allowed to go near it on the grounds that it was likely to explode. Eventually it was removed on a system of rollers and ropes, dragged by eight Clydesdale cart horses.

On the far side of the harbour is another bay, known as Ruby Bay, where a ship of the Spanish Armada, blown far off course, spilled a cargo of rubies on to the sea bed. To this day, children still find their glowing fragments scattered about the shore among white cowrie shells and black bladderwrack. A slope of grass, starry with thrift, climbs towards the lighthouse and the Lady's Tower, once a discreet bathing place.

In summer, Mr Haig's beach ponies used to plod tirelessly up and down the central bay. They wore scarlet or yellow harness and jingling bells; their saddles had horns to hold on to. Sometimes a fluffy foal frisked alongside and one year there was a black baby donkey. To belong to the select band whom Mr Haig allowed to lead the ponies on their threepenny or sixpenny treks was every child's ambition. It was my first taste of elitism. The other great attraction in the summer months was the Children's Special Service Mission, known as the Cism. Each morning we laboured with buckets and spades and built a great altar and studded it with arabesques and shells and frondy whorls of seaweed. Then we sat behind it on the warm, soft sand and sang:


I know I am, I'm sure I am,


Beyond the altar the gulls swooped and cried, the sea glittered and the day dazzled with promise. Life was a sunlit drum where you wore your bathing suit all the time.

As children grow older, they require danger. The cliffs at the end of West Bay are wild, slippery and lethal. To clamber round them you need nerve and expertise, neither of which I had. None the less I forced myself along tiny ledges above jagged, gurgling gulleys, clung to the towering basalt pillars, leapt inelegant1y over chasms. It was always terrifying, and it was always thrilling.

Seals play in the waters here, and flocks of cormorants skim through the waves or stand motionless on the rocks. The water is very deep, translucent and green as glass. Behind Elie there is an old and hallowed golf course, but it never attracted me. My brother, my enemy, used to whirl his driver round his head, let go and send it hurtling like a Cruise missile straight at me. Golf balls whistled past my temples. No thanks.

Gradually, too, the beach lost its charms for me. I became a fat sullen teenager who refused to be seen in a bathing suit. I sat scowling on the sand while my little sisters dug and delved with infant absorption. The bright sea wind baked the scowl on to my face; once it stayed there for 36 hours. Although I continued to join in my family's mammoth, thrice-yearly migration from our home in the north to the house by the sea, it was against my will and I remember nothing of those times apart from the insane scale of the operation, which involved five children, nannies, dogs, the chief cat, budgerigars, tortoises, goldfish, a parrot, a jackdaw and for a while two horses, who travelled by train until the day when they escaped and wrought havoc at Elie station. Thereafter they were banned from seaside holidays. Lucky them, I thought. Only when I had children of my own did I realise again what an enchantment I had wilfully lost.

Elie has a southerly aspect. A chain of small fishing villages leads northward, round the point of Fife Ness towards St Andrews. Each of these villages, St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther, has its own grave charm like Elie; though they have their share of winter's blast, in my recollection they are always sunlit, bright with the impulse of the moment, the gull swooping, a blue boat lifting on the wave, the slap of water on the jetty. They are also pragmatic. Near the tip of the peninsula, Crail has many of the summer delights of those other villages, but is hard going in winter. Robert Louis Stevenson, who took some pleasure in Scotland's desolate places, found Crail too much for him: 'This grey, grim, sea beaten hole,' he wrote.

Once you round the tip you are on to the northern outlook and St Andrews is another matter altogether. Its shattered towers, gaunt and spectral on their rocky headland, stare unforgivingly northwards to the Arctic. On still days the haar, the mist off the North Sea, drifts inland, enfolding and darkening the tall stone houses, casting a dank gleam on the slate roofs; beads of moisture cling in your hair, and you consider the phrase 'chilled to the bone'.

Or sky and sea merge and the tossing gulls are indistinguishable from the foam flinging up off the waves. Then the east wind comes whipping in sheer and sharp, freighted with the snows of Siberia. At night in bed you can't sleep for thinking of those lines from Wordsworth's 'The Idiot Boy':

'His teeth, they chatter, chatter still,

Like a loose casement in the wind.'

You will never be warm again. Conversely, if you decide you can bear it no longer, and go to the beguiling, decadent South (England), you will not need an overcoat for many years - not until that primal immunity has worn off. All this I know because I spent four years at boarding school in St Andrews. Enough of that. There is a great deal more to St Andrews than the plaint of a shivering schoolgirl.

Mary Queen of Scots came here, staying in a room which is part of my old school's library. As her ship neared the lowering, wind-beaten cliffs, according to William Shakespeare:

'the rude sea grew civil at her song

And certain stars shot madly from their spheres

To hear the sea maid's music.'

Some would have it that these lines refer to certain political displacements. I prefer the image as it is. What music? 'Plaisir d'Amour' would suit. The doomed queen planted a hawthorn tree in the grounds of the ancient university, the oldest in Britain after Oxford and Cambridge. The hawthorn lives on, couchant rather than rampant, lovingly supported. The university has brought forth many great scholars, not least of them Andrew Lang:

'St Andrews by the Northern Sea

A haunted town it is to me',

he wrote and he found Oxford something of a disappointment later. The students' scarlet gowns mingle and separate around the grey buildings in a poignant counterpoint. Youth and age, colour and its absence. My grandfather studied Divinity here, here my parents met when they were students. The scarlet gown hung on the back of our nursery door, but not one of us took it up.

St Andrews is to me a city and it is a cathedral city, not a town - plangent with regrets and sorrows. The past has seen terrible violence, murders, beheadings and burnings at the stake. You can still see the window in the ruins of the castle from which Cardinal Beaton, lolling on silken cushions, surveyed the Protestant martyrs as they turned to charred bones.

The emphasis on the silken cushions is peculiarly St Andrean. Would the scene have been any less horrible if his eminence had knelt on the cold stone window ledge? The presence of the Church dominates St Andrews, even in these secular days. Like Oxford, it is a city of tolling bells.

Its very bleakness is fraught with wild romance; it is the perfect setting for a tragic love affair, Helose and Abelard or Tristan and Iseult. If you walk towards the city along the West Sands, you will see it in its most sorrowful beauty. This is one of the great views of the world. It is both a memento mori and a monument to endurance.

I suppose I must also mention that St Andrews is the golfer's Mecca. And summer comes there, and the sun does shine.

But these are not my concerns. One of these days I hope to become a ghost. Then I will float above the shadowy seals and dancing waves of Elie, and I will drift with the haar about the towers of St Andrews. -


WALKS AND PLACES TO VISIT: St Andrews Cathedral, founded in 1160, was the largest church in Scotland before the Reformation and a medieval pilgrimage centre for thousands who flocked to pray at its 31 altars and shrine of St Andrew set in the sanctuary.

St Andrews Castle was founded in 1200 as a fortress and residence of the Bishop of St Andrews. Bottle Dungeon and a secret passage dating from 1546 should not be missed.

Byre Theatre (Abbey Street, St Andrews), originally a cowshed, seats 170. It has a professional season from June to October and touring and amateur shows at other times. Ring 0334 76288 for details.

A choice of 16 golf courses includes the famous St Andrews Old course where the game has been played since the 15th century. The British Golf Museum in St Andrews is also worth a visit.

A coastal walk south of St Andrews will take you through Crail, with its quaint church, atmospheric streets and stone-walled harbour; the port of Anstruther; the village of Pittenweem with its restored 17th-century houses; St Monans with its Auld Kirk, a fishermen's church founded in 1265 that overlooks the sea. And on to Elie, with its sandy beach and fine views over the Firth of Forth from the cliff- tops, Lady's Tower changing-house built for Lady Janet Anstruther in the 18th century and Macduff's Cave, situated at the far end of West Bay, where the Thane of Fife reputedly hid from murderous Macbeth.

HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS: *Peat Inn, near Cupar, Fife, tel: 033 484 206. Superb modern cooking that makes use of local supplies. Set dinner pounds 28. Luxurious rooms at this ancient coaching inn. Double, pounds 103

*Cellar, 24 East Green, Anstruther, Fife, tel: 0333 310378. Tucked away behind the harbour, the Cellar has stone walls and real fires. Excellent seafood and wine list - pounds 30 a head.

The Vine Leaf Restaurant, South St, St Andrews, tel: 0334 77497. Delicious vegetarian food.

PUBS AND INNS: *Dreel Tavern, 16 High Street, Anstruther, Fife, tel: 0333 310727. Traditional 16th-century, three-storey stone pub with real fires.

*Grange Inn, Grange Road, St Andrews, Fife, tel: 0334 72670. Outside St Andrews, this pretty inn serves good food in cosy surroundings.

*Golf Hotel, 4 High Street, Crail, Fife, tel: 0333 50206. Immaculate and comfortable bedrooms. Double: pounds 40.

*Listed in Egon Ronay Guides.

FURTHER INFORMATION: St Andrews and North East Fife Tourist Board, 78 South Street, St Andrews, Fife Scotland KY16 9JX, tel: 0334 72021.

(Photographs and map omitted)