The East Neuk of Fife
A Guide to the East Neuk of Fife
The East Neuk is tucked away at the very tip of the Kingdom of Fife. It may sound like something from a fantasy adventure but no, this charming destination is a lovely area just north of Edinburgh on the East Coast of Scotland. Here, a string of little fishing villages are nestled along the shore on the north side of the Firth of Forth.
The East Neuk is the perfect place for a holiday, with breathtakingly beautiful sandy beaches, rolling farmland, coastal walks, historic sites and a string of picturesque fishing villages. There is some disagreement as to how much of Fife lies within the East Neuk though, generally, consensus is that the East Neuk covers the coastline between St Andrews and Leven, and several small villages just inland.
King James VI of Scotland once called the Kingdom of Fife a 'beggar's mantle fringed with gold'. The East Neuk is the golden fringe, with the bounty of the sea and land, and – no joke – more sunshine hours than all the rest of the country. This truly is a Kingdom apart – it even has its own micro-climate.
Yes, this is Scotland, but you may be surprised to hear that the East Neuk enjoys as many sunny days (if not more than) the south coast of England! Even when the weather is chilly, the sun often still shines, and rainfall is far lower than in most other parts of the country.
While you can easily explore the East Neuk by road, one of the best ways to experience it is by taking a stroll along the Fife Coastal Path. This quiet and picturesque route will allow you to see this part of Scotland at its best.
The gateway to the East Neuk and a great place to begin your explorations in east Fife is the historic University town of St Andrews. From here, you can venture along the coastal path or quaint country roads to reach the pretty villages of the East Neuk.
St Andrews is known, above all else, for two things – the ancient University, and golf. The beating heart of St. Andrews is undoubtedly the ancient university, the oldest academic institution in Scotland and third oldest in the UK, after only Oxford and Cambridge.
The University has recently celebrated its 600 year anniversary and enjoys a good academic reputation around the world. It was here that Prince William met Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.
The University population accounts for around half the population of the town. The ancient seat of learning is spread throughout the town, which means that the whole town is effectively one big university campus, as well as being a working town.
The learned atmosphere (along with student high jinks) have made the town the interesting and quirky cultural melting pot that it is today and its buildings also shape the townscape. Golf also shapes the town and its surroundings. This is the 'home of golf' and one of the top golfing destinations in the world.
This historic town is best explored on foot, which will give you the time to look at and appreciate all the historic architecture of the three main streets of the town centre, and the maze of alleyways and wynds that lead between them.
The three main streets have a charming mix of independent shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants. Between them all you will see many of the University's historic buildings and other notable historic buildings.
St Andrews is very much defined by its seaside location. There are actually three beaches here, and the biggest of these is West Sands – a good place to begin your explorations.
There is plenty of parking in the vicinity of this two-mile-long strand of pristine golden sand backed by beautiful dunes and views of the most famous golf course. The beach is famously the location for the opening scene of the film “Chariots of Fire”. Even in summer, the beach is never crowded and there is always plenty of space for all.
St Andrews Aquarium
This Aquarium is great for those with children but offers something for everyone. The aquarium houses a wide range of marine creatures, as well as some other exotic animals. At certain times, there are opportunities to touch creatures, or to see certain creatures being fed.
Museum of the University of St Andrews
This museum offers the opportunity to learn more about the history of the famous institution in four galleries. The museum displays treasures from the University's collection of over 112,000 artefacts, which include mediaeval maces, silver archery medals, stained glass, and a whole range of quirky memorabilia.
One gallery houses interesting visiting exhibitions. There is also a viewing platform with panoramic views out over St Andrews Bay. There is no charge for admission.
St Andrews Castle
St Andrews Castle, an Historic Scotland site, is a picturesque ruin which sits on a rocky promontory overlooking the small Castle Sands beach and the North Sea. There has been a castle on the site since the times of Bishop Roger (1189-1202).
The castle was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times as it changed hands between the Scots and the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence. It remained in a ruined state until, in around 1400, Bishop Walter Trail built the castle which forms the basis of the ruined structure that can still be seen today.
Several notable figures spent time here over the years, and the castle was the birthplace of James III of Scotland. The castle also served as a notorious prison and the bottle dungeon can still be seen below the north-west tower.
Another interesting feature of the castle is a mine and counter mine which visitors can descend to explore. Upon entry to the castle, you will pass through a small museum area, and can buy joint tickets for the castle and the next attraction on this list – the paid entry sections of the cathedral.
Continue along to the end of the Scores and bear right and you will see the Cathedral ahead of you. Enter the grounds, and take a right to reach the gift shop and museum area, where you can also get a token which will allow you to climb St Rules Tower.
St Andrews Cathedral
The Cathedral grounds are free to enter, though there is a fee if you wish to climb the tower (highly recommended) and look at the items in the small museum. The Cathedral ruins are vast and awe-inspiring, though even so, they can only hint at the former splendour of what was once the largest church in the whole of Scotland.
It was built in 1158 and became the centre of Roman Catholicism in Scotland. It fell into disuse and ruination during the Scottish Reformation. St Rules Tower is located within the grounds of the Cathedral but actually pre-dates it. It served as the church to the priory on site until the early 12th Century. The beautiful tower offers commanding views over the town and seascape.
St Andrews Pier
Walk down the Pends behind the Cathedral to reach the old pier and harbour area, vestiges of St Andrews' fishing history. This is a pretty place to walk and you will be walking in the footsteps of countless students. Tradition dictates that students and staff walk down to the pier on Sundays after chapel in their traditional academic dress.
Walk back up and through the Cathedral grounds and make your way onto North Street. There you will find a small but interesting museum.
St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum
This tiny, cosy museum housed in a home dating from the 17th Century contains a lovely collection of art and objects relating to the region and its inhabitants. This is a wonderful place to learn about the town and its people over the centuries. Don't miss the chance, also, to take a rest in the beautiful secret garden out back – a calm oasis in the heart of the town.
St Salvator's Chapel (And 'the Quad')
A hub of University life in St Andrews, this chapel is a rare and beautiful example of late Gothic architectural style dating from 1450. Beneath the bell tower, on the cobbles, there is a reminder of the turbulent events of the 16th Century.
The initials PH set into the street mark the spot where Patrick Hamilton was burnt at the stake for his Protestant beliefs. S
tudents to this day hold the superstitious belief that if they step on these initials they will fail their degrees! Look up and above the gateway you will see a mysterious face carved in the stonework. Local tradition states that this is the face of the martyred Hamilton!
Pass through the gateway and you will find yourself in the St Salvator's Quadrangle, known as the 'Quad'. It is lined with university buildings which are used for lectures in the Arts as well as for exams and functions.
Walk down narrow, cobbled College Street opposite to reach Market Street, the main shopping street at the heart of the town. Take a stroll westwards along Market Street to browse the shops and perhaps stop for a drink or a bite to eat somewhere along the way. Then take Bell Street to reach South Street.
These somewhat incongruous ruins on this bustling street are the 16th Century remains of the Dominican friary of St Mary which stood here in the later Middle Ages.
If you have more time, you should also consider taking the time to visit St Andrews Botanical Gardens – one of the hubs of sustainable endeavours in this 'Transition Town'.
St Andrews Botanical Gardens
These gardens are a beautiful, serene haven stocked with a wide range of plants. Covering 18 acres, the gardens contain more than 8,000 species of native and exotic plants, with walking trail and greenhouses.
Explore St Andrews and you will discover plenty more to see and do. For now, however, let us venture east, and turn our attention to the breathtaking beaches and villages of the East Neuk.
If you choose to head along the coastal path from St Andrews, you will pass the East Sands and reach a craggy coastline. In the craggy cliff just beyond the East Sands you will reach Kinkell Cave, an extensive cavern that goes deep beneath the braes.
It is believed to have been used as a defensive stronghold at some time. Just beyond this cave is a tidal stack rock formation known as the Rock and Spindle. Continue on alongside the golf course and you will reach Buddo Rock, another prominent coastal rock formation.
The route deviates inland a little towards the village of Boarhills before rejoining the coastline and continuing to Kingsbarns.
If you are driving from St Andrews to Kingsbarns, you will take the A917. However, you may wish to make a detour inland to visit Dunino (on the B9131). Head down a path beside Dunino Church and you can reach Dunino Den. This is a mysterious pre-Christian site of pagan worship.
This is a spiritual site, still visited by neo-pagans today. Whatever your beliefs, this certainly does feel like a magical place and is a truly scenic spot. Visitors will see a well at the top of the den, before descending on stone steps into a dell, in which you will find a picturesque stream, and trees strung with colourful 'offerings'.
If you have headed to Dunino, you can next take station road eastwards to return to the coast at Kingsbarns.
Kingsbarns Beach, or Cambo Sands, at it is known locally, stretches for a couple of sandy miles along the coast here, adjacent to the small village.
The name of the village derives from the fact that this was the location of barns used to store grain before it was transported to the Palace at Falkland. On Kingsbarns beach you can see the ruins of an old south harbour wall, and next to them, a circular shaping of craggy sedimentary rocks that are the remains of an eroded volcanic dome. This is a great spot for rockpooling.
Just beyond Kingsbarns you will reach Cambo Estate. Woodland reaches down from Cambo House and its iconic walled gardens to the sands. Visitors to Cambo Estate can explore the woodland walks and gardens – which are particularly famed for snowdrops in the early spring. Within the beautiful walled gardens there is a visitor centre and cafe. There is also a nature play area for kids.
Just to the south of Cambo woodland lies the Kingsbarns Distillery & its Visitor Centre, which opened in 2014.
Should you wish to stay, there are a number of accommodation options across Cambo Estate.
Continue, either on the coastal path, or by road, to reach the charming village of Crail.
If you take the coastal route, you will pass St Constantine's Cave, where early Christian wall carving and Roman pottery fragments have been found, Fife Ness Harbour, with an interpretation board explaining the rock markings below, and Kilminning Wildlife Reserve before reaching Roome Bay, with its old sea swimming pool, and heading into the village of Crail.
This picturesque village is a quiet and genteel place, where many come to retire, and others come each year to enjoy the beautiful location.
The beautiful harbour is still used by the odd small fishing vessel and lobster pots lie on the quayside. It is one of the most photographed harbours in the country and is beloved of many local artists.
Marketgate, at the historic core of the town, was once the largest marketplace in mediaeval Europe. On an island in the centre of Marketgate, alongside a Town Hall added to it in 1814, is the 15th Century Tolbooth. The strong Dutch influence of this building and many others in these villages is a reminder of strong trading links that existed in those times between Scotland and the low countries.
Be sure to stop in at the interesting Heritage Museum here, and pay a visit to the Crail Pottery, and to the Crail Harbour Gallery and Tearoom.
If you take the coastal path along the coast from here, you will pass Caiplie Caves. These were carved out from the red sandstone by waves. Monks and pilgrims en route to St Andrews carved crosses in the caves.
Anstruther & Cellardyke
Anstruther is actually not one village but several villages which are now joined together to form one small coastal town. To the east of Anstruther Easter and Wester is Cellardyke, which has its own small harbour also known as Skinfast Haven.
Wandering through this small harbour area, you will be able to enjoy the traditional houses, and see washing drying along the shoreline as it must have done for generations. Today, the large fishing fleet once housed here has gone, though pleasure craft and a few small creels can still be seen.
Just inland from Cellardyke is Kilrenny, a small village centred around an attractive old church which may be worth a quick detour. Kilrenny is a separate village, though new housing is rapidly closing the gap between it and neighbouring Cellardyke.
Making your way west from Cellardyke, you will reach Anstruther's main harbour. Be sure to stop in at the excellent Fisheries Museum and then get some fish and chips – Anstruther has several options which offer some of the best fish and chips in the country.
From here, you can also take a boat trip during the summer months to visit the beautiful nature reserve of the Isle of May.
Continuing round the harbour front and through the town, you can cross the Dreel Burn to reach Anstruther Wester and so continue on your route, either by road or by cutting back down to the coast at Billowness beach. Be sure to stop in for a drink or a bite to eat at the delightful Dreel Tavern. A small beer garden overlooks the burn out back.
Just inland from Anstruther, you can take a short detour to head for the 'Secret Bunker'.
Scotland's Secret Bunker
Discover an interesting segment of Scotland's recent history at this underground Cold War Bunker – a chilling reminder of how close we came to nuclear war. Discover more about this time period in this museum, where you can see switchboards and control rooms utilised in secret and watch films about nuclear destruction.
Return to the coastline to continue on along the coastal path or coast road to the next East Neuk village.
Just a mile or so along the coast road from Anstruther is the next of the East Neuk Towns. Pittenweem is unique among these villages as it still has its fishing fleet. The name derives from Pictish and Gaelic and translates as 'place of the caves'.
You can pick up a key from businesses on the High Street to visit St Fillan's Cave, on Cove Wynd.
At the top of the wynd, you can also see the Parish Church with its clock tower, also the town Tolbooth, which was the scene of one of the latest and most infamous witch trials in Scotland, in 1704. Today, however, this pleasant town shows no sign of its gory past.
Pittenweem today is best known for its Art Festival, which takes place in early August each year. Hundreds of small venues open their doors and thousands come to enjoy the atmosphere and the art. As you explore the High Street and the wynds that lead down to the harbour, you will find it easy to see why so many artists choose to call this place home.
Just inland from Pittenweem, you could consider a detour to visit Kellie Castle.
Kellie Castle is a National Trust for Scotland property. It is a fortified mansion dating from the 14th Century which was saved from ruin in the late 19th Century. In the interior, one of the most interesting features is the ornamental plaster ceiling in the library – one of the oldest in Scotland. Outside, there is a delightful Arts and Crafts garden to explore.
Return to the coast to continue on to St Monans.
Next on this tour of beautiful villages is St Monans. Again, there is a picturesque harbour to explore.
Walk a short distance along the coastal path to the east of the town and you will see an historic windmill and, below it, old salt pans. To the west, you will see, beyond the Old St Monans Kirk, the ruins of Newark Castle.
If you walk the coastal path from here to Elie, you will also pass the ruins of Ardross Castle
Elie & Earlsferry
Elie is especially known for its beautiful beaches. If you walk here along the coastal path from St Monans you will see the embankments of the old railway line that used to run along this stretch of coast.
You will walk alongside a long and beautiful string of beaches as you make your way across the headland and down into the village.
If you are driving, be sure to park up at the Ruby Bay Car Park to enjoy a short stroll across a headland to the picturesque Lady's Tower and a small lighthouse, and to gain access to further beautiful sandy strands. The tower was used by Lady Anstruther. When she came to bathe in the sea here, a crier would be send through the town telling townsfolk to stay away!
Adjoining Elie is the neighbouring settlement of Earlsferry. Just beyond Earlsferry is the Chain Walk round Kincraig Point – a scramble along the craggy coast and cliff aided by metal chains. (Note, it is important to check tide times before you attempt it.)
Continuing along the coastal path, you will pass Dumbarnie Links Wildlife Refuge before getting to another little beach at Lower Largo.
Lower Largo forms part of a collection of small villages just before the more industrial area of Leven and its satellite villages. Beyond Lower Largo, the character of the Fife coastline changes rather dramatically and contributes to the feeling that the East Neuk is a world apart.
Lower Largo is easy to miss from the main road above, but if you have come by car, it is worthwhile making the effort to head down to take a quick look at the distinctive river-mouth harbour, with the large viaduct over the Keil burn.
The village's main claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Alexander Selkirk, the real-life inspiration for Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe'.
That concludes our brief guide to the highlights of St Andrews and the East Neuk. But stay a little longer, and delve a little deeper and you will find plenty more in this small corner of the country to see and enjoy.