Travel: Scotland - Sea spray and superstition in old East Neuk

Traditional seafaring life still clings to the battered coast of Fife, as Alison Thomas found

Alison Thomas
Saturday 21 February 1998 00:02

It's the sound of the sea that draws you back to the East Neuk of Fife. Even on a calm day its murmurings and whisperings are everywhere. And when storm clouds gather, it charges in like a wild beast, hurling massive sheets of swirling spray over the high sea walls, drenching the streets of the villages, splashing the very doorsteps of the houses that huddle by the shores of the Firth of Forth.

Small wonder that the East Neuk fishermen have always been fiercely superstitious. Although modern technology has made boats safer, old taboos linger on. Rabbits, pigs, hares, the very mention of their names can provoke the monster's wrath.

But the day we walked along the coastal path from Anstruther to Pittenweem, its mood was benign. The winter sunshine laid a golden trail that danced and shimmered on the water, and only the occasional momentary feather of spray drifting across Anstruther's outermost pier gave any hint of its latent power.

It wasn't far to walk, but with a nine-year-old in tow there were rocks to climb and shiny pebbles to gather - and anyway, why hurry? It was several hours before we made it up the steep cliff path and down the other side to Pittenweem harbour. We arrived in time to watch a fishing boat carefully manoeuvre its way through the narrow entrance, a scattering of noisy gulls circling overhead as if piloting her home. Another had already slipped safely inside and the crew was preparing to land.

East Neuk fishermen are a hardy breed. Once you could watch them at work in other harbours along the coast. Now only in Pittenweem do you catch a glimpse of a disappearing world. Yet the East Neuk remains a close-knit community, and a surprising number of fishermen still live here, even those who sail from Aberdeen, almost 100 miles away. Watson, Gourlay, Murray - the names of the crews today are the same as those on the lichen- covered tombstones of the spray-drenched kirkyards.

And the past lingers on. You see it in the colour-washed houses, their red pantiled roofs and crowstepped gables a legacy of the days when the East Neuk was an important European trading centre and vessels from the Low Countries brought in pantiles as ballast. You feel it, too, in the sea-caves, home to monks and hermits over a thousand years ago, and on the rocky shore where smugglers once unloaded their booty.

Each village retains its own sturdy individuality. Anstruther, its feet planted firmly on the ground, is the homely, purposeful one. Crail has a more comely air, with its handsome merchant houses, tranquil streets and picture-book harbour, whose ancient stone walls curl round protectively, embracing the boats that shelter there. Pittenweem is characterised by the bustle of the fleet and the steepest, narrowest "wynds" of all the coastal towns. In St Monans, too, houses jostle untidily from the high ground to the shore and its church crouches squat and defiant so close to the water that when the tide runs high the surge of the surf mingles with the hymns.

The sound of the sea was with us too when we visited a friend in her low-ceilinged cottage on Anstruther's Esplanade. To the front lay the estuary, where stepping stones lead at low tide to Castle Street beach and the centre of town. To the back, we looked out over the high wall of her brine-splashed garden to the waters of the Forth beyond. We didn't worry when our son disappeared, for we knew where to find him. When sand, sea and rock pools are a quick clamber over the sea wall away, where else would a nine-year-old go?

It is the sea that has given the East Neuk its rich historical heritage and a succession of colourful heroes. Like Andrew Wilson, the notorious 18th-century smuggler whose execution in Edinburgh's Grassmarket led to the Porteous Riots. Or Captains Alexander Rodger and John Keay, whose thrilling finish in the great tea clipper race of 1866 made national headlines. Or William Smith, Arctic explorer and whaling skipper, who brought back to his native Cellardyke the gigantic jawbone of the largest whale ever caught off the Greenland coast.

The whaling trade may be a thing of the past, but when we wanted firm, tasty haddock we didn't have far to go, although it was fortunate for us that the tourist season was over. Anstruther Fish Bar has quite a reputation. Throughout the summer people come from far afield, willing to queue for an hour or more in the chilly east wind of Shore Street. When your meal left Pittenweem fishmarket only that morning, it bears as much relation to the flaccid, greasy fare of the average chip shop as a freshly-picked tomato to its tinned counterpart.

Tucked away behind the Scottish Fisheries museum, in the buildings of an old smoke house and cooperage, we found a seafood establishment of a very different kind. With its sophisticated menu, including hot canapes with your aperitif and petits fours with your coffee, the Cellar Restaurant seemed an unlikely venue for the down-to-earth folk of Anstruther.

But this little corner of Fife is surprisingly cosmopolitan. Elie, with its golf courses and its pleasure boats, is where the gentry live, or in the peaceful farming communities inland. And only 10 miles away lies the ancient town of St Andrews. Its university attracts the well-heeled offspring of Middle England, its Old Course lures golfers from all over the world, and its beguiling combination of cloister, golf and gown make it a popular retirement home for world-weary city dwellers.

Ten miles. A 15-minute drive. Another world.

Tourist Information, 70 Market Street, St Andrews (01334 472021). The Cellar, 24 East Green, Anstruther (01333 310378). Anstruther Fish Bar, 17 Shore Street (01333 310518).

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