Burghs - The East Neuk Burghs
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 mig.ht
be stored before being shipped elsewhere in Britain or overseas.
Anstruther has the famed Scottish Fisheries Museum.
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.
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.
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.
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