The Insider's Guide to Fife
Words Ben Williams
Photographs Tara Darby
From a thriving and influential independent music scene to makers’ communities and some of the best seafood in the UK – the area surrounding East Neuk has it all…
Fife is more than just the coastal area known as the East Neuk (appropriately, ‘Neuk’ is the local word for nook or corner) but there’s an unusual concentration of culture in the ribbon of settlements which run between Crail and Leven. These erstwhile fishing villages are home to fine restaurants and festivals, and host a burgeoning maker community. This brings a certain cosmopolitanism to an area long popular with tourists from Edinburgh and beyond. The arrival of the V&A in nearby Dundee seems to part of a continuing, sympathetic development.
Best Food Market With a Twist
Bowhouse, which sells itself as ‘a vital link in the food supply chain from field to fork’, brings a hint of urbane sophistication to the sweet farmland of the East Neuk, being a venture in part based on the lively production (and Saturday shopping) hubs at Bermondsey, London. This is according to Balcaskie estate, who have converted three large barns from existing farm steadings, is to provide local independent food businesses a place to start up’ and ‘scale up’. Their aim is to provide the missing link in the food chain from field to fork and from farmer to consumer. The market is open monthly throughout the year – see the website for the next date, with the Bowhouse food producers based there all year round. The airy brick market hall is abutted by workshops, production spaces and kitchens: with on site mill, a bakery, coffee roasters, a brewery and distillery. The next phase will see a glass atrium over the stone courtyard, which will provide more cover in the winter months And, in addition, small production spaces to rent for as little as £2,000 per year, potentially for those that want to see if their hobby can develop into a business.
Best brewery Startup with a Record Label as a Sideline
The East Neuk Organic
Founded by Stephen Marshall and Lucy Hine, The East Neuk Organic will use barley grown in the surrounding fields and water drawn from a local borehole, visible to us as a shed in the near distance. The couple plan to make young whiskies and beer, with first samples available this month (September 2018). They also run micro record label Traissic Tusk and publish compilations of rare grooves, plus stand out recordings from prominent local artists. They also host wild parties (‘Moon Hop’) at the local Dreel Halls; future events will run at the brewery itself.
Other Lovely Places Where We Ate Food
Our visit to Fife coincides with the Crail Food Festival. With foody talks and cooking demonstrations by the seaside, the event has the feel of a maritime fete. You park in a field just outside of the village and wander among pastel-coloured houses, past displays of local strawberries, down cobbled streets to the dock. Among the many purveyors are a prawn barbeque and a host of Arbroath herring smoking away.
A more permanent lunch option is the seaside restaurant posing as a canteen, the East Pier Smokehouse in St Monan’s, where staff deliver your order in cardboard trays to picnic benches perched on a balcony upstairs. Views look out to the basalt holy Isle of May (hourly boats trips) which on our visit sparkled in the haze. You can peer directly down onto a vividly textured sea bed and pulsing sea, imagining the inner life of the crustacean on your plate. We ate whole seabass, hot smoked to order, and chips. Alternatives include lobster and a handful of chunky local langoustine. Expect to queue outside the door with an international crowd.
Best After-Lunch Walk (Incorporating Ice-Cream Tour and Pub Crawl)
It is wonderful to walk off your lunch along the path between the ribbon of East Neuk coastal villages, which is somehow easier and faster than driving, giving an insight into the striking forces which underpin these chocolate box villages. Mushrooming geological features and odd, crusty lines of jagged rocks are interspersed with the odd glorious cold water swimming pool hewn squarely from the bedrock. Children’s playgrounds and golf courses also dot the coast; as you walk you stroll past people lunching in their gardens. This is ideal for an ice-cream tour of the local area (although we found the best local ices at Janetta’s family run company in nearby St Andrew’s), or perhaps a pub crawl, sobered occasionally by the sea and sharp coastal breeze. Good pubs include The Dreel in Anstruther and The Ship Inn in Elie, which hosts fortnightly cricket matches on the pan-flat beach in front.
Best Seaweed Foraged by a Dreadlocked Kiwi
If you crave a deeper interaction with the elements then get up to speed on the delicious local seaweed via local stalwarts Mara, who harvest on the rugged shoreline by hand. The eagle-eyed will spot their foraging dreadlocked Kiwi knee deep in the drink. If you prefer to roll up your own sleeves then check the local Skillshare forum for news of the guided seaweed eating tours which are run free locally.
Best Local Bands (You Might Want to Sit Down, This Could Take a While)
There is a vibrant maker community here, and the music scene is the hidden hand holding it together here. The name of Kenny Anderson (aka King Creosote) is on the lips of most people we meet on a whistlestop weekend tour. Anderson quickly becomes something of a mythical figure; but then we bump into him on the street outside his home in Cruil where his family have lived (and made music) for generations. He is gentle, bearded and, for an artist of such reknown, reassuringly fidgety. We retire easily to the local pub, The East Neuk Hotel, Crail – which seems to be sort of a secret venue for a local scene which also includes Dan Wilson, James Yorkston, the Beta Band and Arab Strap. With us in the pub is stained glass artist Kenny Drew who tells an eye-watering story of beating a dogfish to death with a flip flop. He also says that ‘The way that word gets about is usually the village notice boards – folk put wee posters up’. In an age of endless social media inputs and virtual posts, this literal pinup is somehow reassuring. All of which leads us neatly to…
A Short Guide to Local Artisans, Starting With a Stained Glass Artist Who Tells Good Fishing Stories
The aforementioned Drew is a stained glass artist with a studio at Comielaw Farm, a converted 19th century B-listed rural steading (or a collection of estate outbuildings) reengineered by Edinburgh architects Konishi Gaffney. The impressive new design houses a modern maker community – with a shared allotment – including Drew, esteemed art knitter Di Gilpin (her studio is pictured above), design luminaries Tom Pigeon and Rory Dowling of Taran Guitars (see our separate interview with Dowling here) among others. All are available to visit by appointment.
Glass Artist Kenny Drew’s alternative tour of Fife
Of course, a flying visit – even one taking in expert advice from the locals – is no match from actual expert advice from the locals. So here’s Kenny Andrew’s less than obvious top four places to check out:
Developed from what was originally – according to Skateboard Scotland ‘little more than a few ledges and a disabled ramp to skate’, the skatepark, right on the beachfront at Carnoustie, now boasts a full street plaza set-up that is the envy of many far bigger city skateparks.
Husky racing at Tentsmuir
Let’s face it, it’s not often you get the opportunity to race through forests in a sled pulled by a team of huskies – try the BSHRA (British Siberian Husky Racing Association)-endorsed course in Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve.
From the dramatic 12th century Red Castle overlooking the bay to the dramatic views across the Angus coastline, the beach at Lunan Bay is a hidden gem – it was good enough to attract the Vikings, after all…
A celebration of visual arts taking place at various venues throughout the village (including galleries, studios, private houses and public spaces), the festival has been running since 1982 and has now grown to attract over 130 artists.
Where to Stay
The Fife Coastal Path curves along the clifftops from the Forth Bridge in the south to the Tay Bridge in the north, dipping in and out of picture-postcard fishing villages. There are several places to stay along the way, each of which offering their own unique charm and dramatic views.
A 400-year-old family house (dating from 1584) which has been in the Wood family since it was built. It was gifted to Admiral Wood, the first Scottish Admiral, after he defeated a band of pirates of the coast of Fife. It is the most historic house in Elie, and has far-reaching views across the beach, bay and sea. The property sleeps 14, two sitting rooms with open fires and three bathrooms. In addition to the expansive fully-enclosed garden is the Nuns Garden (named from when house was used as a convalescence home run by nuns for soldiers during the war), and the ‘sea garden’, right next to the sea wall, accessible by ladder down to the bay below. There’s even an old smuggler’s tunnel at the bottom of the house.
Sea Spice Cottage in the garden can also be rented along with Wynd House, sleeping three and boasting a library with an open fire and vaulted ceiling in the sitting room.
A 17th century former customs house, this colourful art-filled house boasts commanding bay-wide views and numerous window seats. There are not just six bedroom but six bathrooms – and a dining table that seats 22. The sheltered garden includes a boule pit, fire pit and gas barbeque.
Popular with locals and visitors alike, the Ship Inn is a well-loved East Neuk instituition. In winter months there is a warming open fire and wood burning stove in the bar. In the summer, the intimacy extends out to the terrace with views over the beach (the Inn hosts famous beach cricket matches) – and its stunning sunsets.
The original 19th century building has been modernised by the current owners. The menu centres around the very best of local produce whether Pittenweem landed seafood, or well-hung locally reared meats: perfect for a fortifying lunch after a long coastal walk.
Six rooms are available to stay in, several with impressive views over the whole of the bay. (Try the Admiral or Captains rooms.)
A wide range of self catering lets in The Royal Burgh of Elie and Earlsferry – which dates back to the 1500s when the harbour was used for exporting grain. Several merchant houses then appeared and it has been a popular holiday retreat since Victorian times. With five beaches nearby, pub food to Michelin star restaurants, there are plenty of options.
Across the road from The Bowhouse is this cluster of eight safari lodges, located just off the Fife Coastal path and metres from the shoreline between the pretty villages of St Monans and Elie – with an uninterrupted view across the North Sea. They are completely off grid, producing all power on site using wind and solar, and a gas boiler for plentiful piping hot water. (For those that need to be connected, however, fear not: there are charging points for phones and tablets, and 4G network.)
Situated a stone’s throw from the Castle, Old Fishergate House is one of the oldest houses in St Andrews, dating from around 1650. Originally five fisherman’s houses, it has been beautifully renovated to make one house (awarded a Pride of Place Certificate in 2005 by the St Andrews Preservation Trust). Many of the period details of the house have been kept intact and it retains a warm, welcoming feel. (The current owners can trace their family connection to the house back to 1808.)
With special thanks to Jess Tully