Tour Scotland
Home Page

Mercat Cross and Tolbooth: Exploring... Scotland's Old Burghs

Cellardyke Fishing Boat 1890


Old Crail


East Neuk Fishing Village


East Neuk Fishing Village


Crail Tollbooth




Anstruther Church


Pittenweem Church

Anstruther Kirkyard





Anstruther Tolbooth

Pittenweem Tolbooth

Mercat Cross



Pittenweem Shoreline

Anstruther Fisheries Museum


Kellie Castle

Pittenweem Priory


Pittenweem Harbour

Scottish Burghs - The East Neuk Burghs

In its historical development, as in its present - day appearance, the East Neuk of Fife reflects, in one compact area, the history and character of Scotland. Here, looking out over the North Sea, nature has provided a group of sheltered bays backed by a stretch of fertile country. Thus it is not surprising that there should have developed on this coast a greater concentration of burghs--small organized urban communities--than anywhere else in the Kingdom. From Crail in the east to Earlsferry in the west there came to be no fewer than eight in all, though now reduced by amalgamations to five, each with its own strong individuality yet each conforming to a common Scottish pattern in its architecture and way of life.

The emergence of the burghs was governed not only by natural but by political factors. From the twelfth century Scotland was a land of feudal lordships--the King himself having his own royal castles and 'domain lands' in addition to the sovereignty which he exercised over the kingdom as a whole; so also bishops, abbots, priors, and other ecclesiastics; likewise secular lords in great number, ranging from important earls to lesser barons or 'lairds.' Each, within limits, had an interest in promoting burgh life, though the degree of independence achieved by a burgh might occasionally exceed what was desired by its lord.

The most important burghs were the King's burghs, or 'royal burghs' as they came to be called, holding their privileges direct from the King. Of these Crail and Earlsferry were the earliest to be established within the East Neuk. Crail, lying somewhat apart from the other burghs and now with its own Preservation Society, has been described elsewhere* and is accordingly mentioned no more than incidentally in the present survey. Nearly as ancient is the royal burgh of Earlsferry, its fortunes linked with the Earls of Fife and the ferry across the Forth that gave the place its name. In between, two burghs--Pittenweem and Anstruther Wester--grew up under the kindly supervision of the Priory of Pittenweem, becoming royal burghs just before and after the Reformation, Pittenweem in 1540 and Anstruther Wester in 1587.

Two more burghs--Kilrenny and Anstruther Easter-- developed under the patronage of local lairds, Kilrenny under the Beatons and Anstruther Easter under the Anstruthers of that ilk, whose stronghold of Dreel Castle may still be seen, in ruin, by the mouth of the Dreel Burn. Each burgh advanced to virtual independence about the same time as Anstruther Wester. St Monance and Elie became 'burghs of barony' in 1596 and 1599 respectively and fully organized burghs within recent times. By contrast Largo (1513) and Colinsburgh (1707) failed to maintain their burghal status under modern conditions.

Even now, the burghs retain their sturdy local distinctions at the present day. Despite the amalgamations of 1929 it is still possible to tell where Elie ends and Earlsferry begins and where each of the three sections of Kilrenny, Anstruther Easter and Anstruther Wester--or plain 'Anstruther in ordinary usage--merges with its neighbor. While this local distinctiveness may sometimes appear unduly narrow or backward looking to the 'foreigner' it is an inherent aspect of burgh life and can be reconciled with a concern for the wellbeing of the area as a whole that transcends local boundaries.

As the burghs grew up in association with the feudal system, so to some extent did the other ancient units of local organization, the parishes. Parishes--territorial divisions each containing a parish kirk--were introduced into Scotland in the twelfth century, and the oldest parishes of the East Neuk probably date from this period--Kilrenny, Anstruther Wester, Abercrombie, Carnbee, Kilconquhar, Newburn and Largo.

No significant change was made in this arrangement until after the Reformation, and the changes that came then were brought about not only by the Reformation itself but to a great extent by the contemporary advance of the burghs in prosperity and independence. Thus the burgh lands of Pittenweem were taken out of Anstruther Wester in 1588 and formed into a fully-organized parish in 1633. Anstruther Easter Was taken out of Kilrenny and became a separate parish, the smallest in Scotland, in 1641. Elie was taken out of Kilconquhar and made a parish in the same year 1641, though not enlarged to its present extent until 1899. St Monance was likewise taken out of Kilconquhar and joined to the little inland parish of Abercrombie, but with the old kirk of St Monance as the parish kirk, in 1646.

The Burghs

The great days of Scottish burgh life, when burgh industry and trade were most prosperous, burgh autonomy most complete, and burgh architecture most distinctive, comprised the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Much progress, it is true, can be traced to earlier days, and many important developments extended into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while one may hope that the burghs of the twentieth century will still prosper, and perhaps prosper more, on the foundations laid in the past.

In each burgh the most important building was the Kirk. The oldest and finest now remaining in the burghs included in this survey is that of St Monance, founded as a votive chapel by King David II in 1362. It consists of twin transepts and a lofty vaulted choir crowned at their junction by a compact tower and spire. The building is of superb architectural quality, its effect being enhanced by its situation, rising above the bum-mouth and the rocky shore of the Forth, beyond the westmost houses of the burgh.

Next in date are the towers and spires at Pittenweem and Anstruther Easter. At Pittenweem the lower stages of the tower were built in 1588, but the magnificent belfry stage, with its balustraded parapet and lofty spire, was added in the seventeenth century. The kirk occupies the site--and may incorporate part of the structure--of the old priory kirk, but was largely re-built in the nineteenth century. At Anstruther Easter the Whole design--tower, spire and kirk--belongs to the seventeenth century (1634-44) and forms one of the outstanding buildings of its period. The interest of these two kirks is increased by the Swedish bells that were brought from Stockholm by pious merchants to grace their belfries on their completion. Latest of the older burgh kirks is that of Elie, founded in the seventeenth century and having a delightful campanile or bell-tower added by Sir John Anstruther at his own expense in 1726.

Around each kirk is an ancient kirkyard containing the monuments and tombstones of the burghers of older days --ministers and lawyers, merchants and sea-captains--all carefully commemorated by the skill of the local masons. Some of the best are at Anstruther Easter; other notable examples are to be seen at Kilrenny and Pittenweem.

A significant fact about all the burgh kirks is their emphasis on tower and spire. In seafaring communities this was done not merely as a matter of civic pride but in order to provide a landmark to guide homing vessels safely to harbor. To the landsman, the long sequence of spires, as seen from some upland viewpoint like Bonerbo Brae on the approach from St Andrews to Anstruther or the heights above Arncroach, is immensely satisfying in its effect.

Second in importance to the Kirk in most older Scottish burghs was the Town House or Tolbooth. One of the finest is to be seen at Crail, but in the other East Neuk burghs, rather curiously, no vestiges of the ancient tolbooths survive apart from the much altered tower at Earlsferry and the iron 'yett from the old tolbooth at Anstruther Easter. On the other hand, it must be remembered that several of the kirk towers were used for municipal purposes--the tower at Pittenweem being expressly erected for this purpose and still shared between the Kirk and the burgh authorities.

If the tolbooths have disappeared, several of the mercat crosses have survived, though not on their original sites, as at Cellardyke, Anstruther Easter and Pittenweem--tall ornamental shafts, all dating from the seventeenth century (though Pittenweem has a dated cap of 1736) and symbolizing the right of the burghers to hold a free market.

At Anstruther Easter the Mercat Cross now adjoins the Harbour, and in this case, with the decline in importance of the older high Street parallel to the Shore, the latter has become the main centre of burgh Life. At St Monance on the other hand the Shore has always been the focal point of the community. At Pittenweem, by contrast, the burgh has two focal points--the Shore fronting the Harbour and the High Street on the higher ground above, the two being charmingly linked by steep wynds, up and down which much of the activity of the burgh flows.

These differences are an intrinsic part of the character and individuality of the East Neuk burghs. but in every case the Shore and Harbour play a notable part in the social life and architectural pattern of the burgh. Some will prefer the open outlook and spacious scale of Anstruther Easter, others the sheltered compactness of St Monance or Cellardyke. Others, again, may think that Pittenweem, with its stately merchant houses fronting its double harbor, strikes the happy mean, while others may find a special attraction in the remote pierhead of Elie with its view over the bay towards its burgh. At both Pittenweem and Elie the harbors retain the old granaries in which the produce of the Fife farmlands be stored before being shipped elsewhere in Britain or overseas. Anstruther has the famed Scottish Fisheries Museum.

Some of the houses in the East Neuk Burghs are of outstanding individual excellence and historic interest. At Pittenweem there is the 'Great House ' of the Priory, and the Kellie Lodging--town house of the lairds of Kellie Castle in which they might, like other Scottish lairds, from time to time share in the urban amenities of their neighbor burgh. At Elie there is 'the Castle,' while enough is left of Gillespie House, in its doorpiece and other features, to suggest its splendor when complete.

But almost more important to the character of the burghs are groups and streets of old houses, which, while by no means lacking in individual merit, achieve distinction by their overall effect of continuity and orderly design. Of such groups and streets Anstruther Wester contains a charming example in the High Street and its continuation ('The Esplanade') to the old harbor and stepping-stones across the Dreel Burn. In Anstruther Easter. Castle Street provides a similar pattern of dignity and good neighborliness, with Shore Street little behind in its general effect. In Pittenweem, both the High Street and the Shores provide townscapes that delight the eye. The view of the West Shore - almost unknown to the casual tourist - is especially rewarding. St Monance has a fine group at the West Shore; Elie has an attractive series of old houses in the terrace; and Earlsferry has much to see in its High Street.

The brilliant whites and more occasional yellows and other colors of the houses make the East Neuk delightfully bright and interesting. The roofs too have their color, the strong red of pantiles predominating and the picturesque, yet practical ' crowstepped ' gable.

If you would like to visit this area as part of a highly personalized small group tour of my native Scotland please e-mail me:

Return to Scottish History

Tour Scotland
Tour Edinburgh
Tour Island Of Skye

Rent A Self Catering Hoilday Cottage In Scotland

Share This Tour Scotland Web Page

Top Destinations
Tour Europe