Kingdom of Fife
The Kingdom of Fife may be small, but it is perfectly formed. This is a county of contrasts, its personality split between the bustling industrial south and the rural north and east. Full of interesting nooks and unexpected beauty, this varied corner of Scotland manages to pack in a little of everything. Urban attractions include St Andrews, centre of medieval church power and ancient seat of learning, and Dunfermline, erstwhile Scottish capital. Within a stone’s throw of the towns are long stretches of unspoilt coastline, woodland walks, characterful hills, grand country estates and friendly old villages. Fife boasts some of the most notable historic buildings in Scotland, including the palaces of Culross and Falkland, and the abbeys at Dunfermline and Inchcolm. Centuries of industry have left a fascinating heritage of their own – quarry pits, viaducts, limekilns and crumbling chimney stacks.
Inland Fife holds many places of interest. Highlights include the Lomond Hills, an island-like massif of dramatic steep escarpments and wide open spaces; bird-rich Loch Leven (strictly speaking in a different county, but it’s right on our doorstep); and the far-eastern Ochils overlooking the Firth of Tay – little known hills, yet beautiful. But perhaps Fife’s real trump card is its coastline. From the rocky inlets and islets of the Forth to the peaceful East Neuk and the wide sands of Tentsmuir, the smell of the sea is never far away. With hills at its back and three sides lapped by water, the Kingdom does have a distinct, almost island-like character – as reﬂected in its maritime history. The ideal way to explore it all is on foot.
Fife is renowned for its pristine, sandy and, at many times of year, near-empty beaches. Add historic ﬁshing villages and castles, lush farmland and sweeping sea views and you’ve got the makings of a pretty special walk. Linking the iconic Forth and Tay bridges via every seaside settlement from Culross to Newport-on-Tay, the Fife Coastal Path showcases the county at its best. Yet this superb route is a relatively unsung star in Scotland’s long-distance footpath ﬁrmament, deserving greater recognition. It would take about a week to walk the entire route, but in this volume it is broken down into seven single-day edited highlights.
A brief history of Fife
You don’t have to walk far to see signs of Fife’s long history. The landscape has been shaped by millennia of human activity from Stone Age hunter gatherers of 8000 years ago to the present; evidence is everywhere. Picts, Romans, Norse, Scots, Northumbrians and Normans all passed this way over the years – not always peacefully. Prehistoric hillforts, medieval castles and World War relics bear testament to bygone struggles.
Successive settlers brought their own ways of speaking to Fife, and today’s place names echo languages long since vanished. Pitmedden and Aberdour are Pictish in origin; Dunfermline stems from Gaelic. By the early Middle Ages the dominant tongue here was Scots, a relation of Old English that evolved into something quite distinct from the sort of English spoken down south. This rich dialect (or more correctly a set of related regional dialects) thrives to this day in Lowland Scotland, and is strongly reﬂected in the street names, literature and everyday speech of Fife.
The Kingdom has a long association with Scottish royalty (hence Fife’s nickname). Dunfermline served for a spell as the capital of Scotland, while the nearby Falkland Palace was a favourite holiday home for generations of royals. Fife nobility had enviable inﬂuence and status in medieval Scotland, and the Kingdom enjoyed a similar position in the ecclesiastical realm too. The archbishopric of St Andrews was for centuries the most important seat of church power in the country. The shrine to St Andrew, from which the town got its name, was said to contain genuine relics of this celebrated apostle of Christ, becoming a prime destination for religious pilgrims from as early as the 10th century. St Andrew was later rebranded as the patron saint of Scotland, a powerful symbol of the independence of Scottish church and crown from their English rivals. Pilgrimage routes homed in on St Andrews from all corners of the country, a religiously-motivated transport infrastructure funded by pious royalty and nobility. Place names such as Queensferry and Earlsferry reﬂect this history. St Andrews can also boast Scotland’s ﬁrst university, and the third oldest in the English-speaking world, founded as early as 1413. The beautiful quads of St Salvator’s College and St Mary’s College attest to the ancient heritage of this venerable institution, the alma mater of centuries’ worth of illustrious scientists, churchmen, politicians and writers.
A political, religious and intellectual powerhouse, Fife has been no slouch in economic terms either. Thriving on sea trade and ﬁshing, prosperous villages grew up along Fife’s coast, the most important of which were established as royal burghs – communities enjoying a degree of autonomy and parliamentary representation, and even special rights on foreign trade. Kinghorn and Crail were granted such status as early as the 12th century. These ports had strong links with continental Europe, as evidenced today in their distinctive Flemish-inﬂuenced architecture. In a sense Fife was more outward-looking in this period than much of Scotland, perhaps thanks to its eastward cultural orientation and its physical geography as a maritime peninsula relatively isolated from the rest of the country. This is reﬂected in the old saying ‘Bid farewell to Scotland, and cross to Fife’. Motorways, railways and bridges have since made the crossing rather easier, though the isolated East Neuk still retains a subtle sense of separation.
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries brought new waves of development to Fife as the urban population exploded in tandem with a boom in coal mining, textiles, papermaking and boatbuilding. A huge dislocation occurred as the centre of demographic and economic gravity shifted from the agricultural north and east of Fife to the expanding towns of the south and west – laying down a pattern of settlement that has persisted into the 21st century.
Once resource-rich, the area has faced challenges in recent decades. Fishing and the sea trade are no more, coal mining has collapsed, and traditional heavy industry is experiencing ongoing problems. Despite these changes, manufacturing still accounts for a greater share of the Fife economy than the Scottish average. The future is uncertain, but one thing is for sure – Fife is rich in human resources, and we will always need unspoilt places to walk and unwind. Fife’s coastline and countryside are beautiful and varied – get out there and enjoy them.
About this guide
There is something for everyone in Fife. The selected walks span a range of difﬁculty from 1km strolls on level paths to 28km day-long hikes over rough hilly ground. As well as a breakdown of distance and ascent for each route, notes are included about the terrain the walk covers; this should help people of all abilities ﬁnd something suitable. Less ambitious walkers and parents with buggies or young children should pay particular attention to the terrain information provided here. Since everyone has their own level of ﬁtness and agility, it’s difﬁcult to give accurate time estimates for any route. Walk times in this book err on the generous side, but they should only be taken as a rough guide. Compass directions are approximate; left and right are relative to the direction of travel. A track is something one might be able to drive a Landrover down (not that you should); a path isn’t.
Scotland enjoys some of the most liberal access legislation in the world. The public right to use open hill country, privately owned or not, is enshrined in law under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2003.
It’s worth noting, however, that legal access still comes with strings attached. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code refers pointedly to ‘responsible access’, which is fundamentally just a formal term for common sense and consideration. To abide by the spirit of the legislation do not enter private gardens, don’t walk on arable ﬁelds (use the unplanted margins if you must), don’t camp within sight of houses, try to pick a route that climbs a minimum of fences and walls (where this is unavoidable be extremely careful not to cause any damage), keep dogs under close control (on a lead if sheep or cows are around), don’t persecute livestock and steer clear of any forestry, shooting or farming activities. In contrast to the wide, wild expanses of the Highlands, the Kingdom is populous and intensively farmed, so walkers should make every effort to play by these simple rules.
What to take
The few genuine hillwalking routes described in this book cover some rough ground, and can leave walkers exposed to the elements for several hours. These are best treated as you would a mountain day in the Highlands; wear walking boots, and carry a rucksack with spare warm and waterproof layers and plenty of food and drink. Even in sunny Fife poor weather can suddenly close in, restricting hilltop visibility to as little as a few metres. In these sticky situations a map, a compass and the ability to use them all rapidly take on the status of utter essentials. On a similar note, in the short days of winter it may pay to carry a torch in case your trip takes longer than expected. Finishing a route in pitch darkness using just the senses of smell and touch isn’t as fun as it sounds.
The maps in this book are a guide only, and on longer rural walks something more detailed is usually welcome. 1:25,000 scale maps are generally best at showing the intricate wiggles of footpaths through farmland, the presence of fences and so forth, so the information box for each route details the appropriate Ordnance Survey sheet at that scale.
Walking with children
While pavements and well-made paths are easily negotiated with an all-terrain buggy, steep hills, deep mud and stiles tend to hamper wheeled progress. If you’re thinking of doing any but the gentlest of these walks with a baby or smaller toddler then a backpack is probably a better option. Make sure the wee ones have adequate sun protection in summer and plenty of warm stuff in winter (or this being Scotland, both in either season)
– if they’re being carried they’re effectively immobile, and more vulnerable to the cold. At that awkward stage when they’re too heavy to lug about but too small to walk in any meaningful adult sense then you may have to settle for a snail’s pace with endless distractions and diversions.
It may be hard to coax older children away from their games consoles, but if they can be prised out of their troglodytic obesity-inducing torpor they’ll be all the better for the fresh air and exercise. Perhaps try engaging their imagination by making an adventure out of the day’s walk, clambering on rocks, playing pooh sticks or building a den in the woods. Why not take them wild camping on the hills or seal spotting at Tentsmuir? Walking isn’t something to take too seriously; we’re all doing it for fun after all. Hands-on learning about the natural world should be a big part of every child’s upbringing; the wetter and muddier, the better.
Walking with dogs
Unlike kids, mutts need to be kept under strict control in the countryside. If there is any chance they’ll disturb livestock or wildlife then put them on a tight lead. It ought to go without saying that in parks and along popular trails dog owners should scrupulously clean up after their pets, bagging and binning the offending substances; sadly there always seems to be someone willing to leave a bag of poo hanging from the nearest branch.
It’s probably fair to assume that people who like walking also have an affection for the countryside, and might prefer to minimise the environmental footprint of their weekend trips. So how are you getting to and from your walk? Cars are convenient of course, and it’d be a hypocritical guidebook writer that condemned their use; but if you are driving then it’s at least worth buying into the current vogue for lift sharing if possible, with the knock-on beneﬁt that you’ll share fuel costs. This being densely populated Fife, however, rather than the outer reaches of Sutherland, you’re rarely that far from a train station or bus stop. Where a practical choice exists, each route chapter highlights public transport availability; indeed, some routes have been planned on the premise that walkers will be coming on the bus or train. Public transport information is available at www.travelinescotland.com
There are several nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientiﬁc Interest (SSSI) in Fife and the surrounding area; the most notable include the teeming bird havens of Loch Leven and the Eden Estuary, and the seal-spotters’ paradise of Tentsmuir. But besides the obvious hotspots wildlife thrives in all corners, from foxes in a suburban garden to the occasional spectacular whale or dolphin sighting in the Forth. Species to look out for on the coast include common and grey seals, porpoises, fulmars, shags, pufﬁns, eider ducks, herons and guillemots. Inland, walkers might spot pink-footed and greylag geese, several varieties of duck, roe deer, red squirrels and even otters. Buzzards are often seen sitting on fenceposts – but if it’s really impressive raptors you’re after then they don’t come much bigger than the white-tailed sea eagle; since the RSPB began an East Coast reintroduction programme, sightings of this majestic bird have become fairly regular in Fife. Watch the skies.