Home Features Visiting the picturesque fishing harbours of Scotland’s southeast coast

Visiting the picturesque fishing harbours of Scotland’s southeast coast

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My frequent visits to southern Scotland from my home in Normandy took place over three decades. My interest had been kindled 40 years ago when I worked as a French language assistant at Aberdeen Grammar School in northeast Scotland, allowing me to travel extensively at weekends and during school holidays.

In my article last month, I covered my decades-long experiences of organising school trips to southern Scotland, always accompanied by one or other of my favourite Ricoh pocket cameras. This time, I’m focusing on the splendours of Scotland’s southeast coast through the medium of the seaside towns and villages.

When driving on the southeast coast of Scotland, you will encounter a splendid shoal of picturesque fishing harbours. In the past, they always came as a welcome break when travelling with the students, whether arriving from France or after their usual two or three cultural daily visits. They could wander around the harbours, walk on the neighbouring beaches or simply sit on the quays with legs dangling over the water.

St Abbs

St Abbs would always be the first stop after driving up the A1, past Farne island, Holy Island and Berwick-upon-Tweed, the last English town on that side of Britain. Berwick was a garrison town during the feuds between England and Scotland.

The village was first called Coldingham Shore, and houses were built there from the mid-18th century. Before this, the fishermen had to carry their boats for 1.5 miles to the sea. St Abbs is named after the 7th-century saint Æbbe of Coldingham.

The harbour, with its picturesque traditional Scottish houses, lifeboat station and shacks that shelter nets, crab and lobster creels, is also a diving centre that attracts scuba enthusiasts because of the renowned underwater visibility.

And if you, like me, are fond of scones and hot chocolate with cream, there’s an excellent tearoom in the harbour.

St Abbs is also a national nature reserve. At breeding time in Spring, the cliffs are home to Guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes who come there for nesting.

There’s a coastal path that runs along the cliffs. It leads to St Abbs head with its lighthouse overlooking the North Sea.

As an aside, many lighthouses in Scotland were built by Robert Stevenson, a Scottish civil engineer and grandfather of the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson. On your way back, the path runs along a wee lochan (small lake).

North Berwick

The town is a fashionable seaside resort some 25 miles east of Edinburgh on the south bank of the Firth of Forth. It is sometimes called the pearl of the Scottish Riveria, though I would not venture into the water, which is much colder than that in St Tropez, its French counterpart.

North Berwick (Bearaig a Tuath in Scots Gaelic) may have been populated since the iron age. The name Berwick means “barley farmstead” (bere in Old English means “barley” and wic means “farmstead”)

—Wikipedia.

The town developed in the middle ages and became a seaside resort in the 19th century. The harbour was first built in the second half of the 12th century, and there was a ferry in the middle ages running between Elie on the north side of the Firth of Forth and North Berwick. Although you may still find a few fishing boats in the harbour, pleasure boats now vastly outnumber them.

North Berwick is home to the Scottish Seabird Centre. Although there’s no proper birdwatching as on Brampton Cliffs in Yorkshire or on the Orkneys’ mainland cliffs, the centre provides spyglasses and telescopes to observe puffins and gannets nesting on the islands of the Firth of Forth during the breeding season.

From North Berwick, you can see Bass Rock, a Unesco biosphere which is home to one of the largest colonies of gannets in the world. The island served as a prison for many centuries. The white colour of the island comes from seabird guano and the colour of gannets.

East Neuk of Fife

Crossing the firth via the new Forth road bridge is spectacular. Heading east, a road runs along the north bank of the Firth of Forth and leads you to a cluster of fishing harbours.

These harbours, now quiet seaside towns with perhaps the exception of Pittenweem, which still homes an important fishing fleet, reached their climax between the 1880s and the 1890s.

The following pages from George Washington Wilson and the Scottish Fishing Industry provide a more detailed overview of this part of the coast. The book was published by Kennedy Brothers of Keighley in association with Aberdeen University Library:

St Monans

This is the first fishing harbour, dating back to the 18th century, that you will encounter. The houses display typical features of 18th- and 19th-century Scottish homes, such as external staircases and pantile roofs.

A member of the Stevenson family designed the original slipway. Indeed, apart from R.L. Stevenson, the novelist, there’s a long tradition of building lighthouses, harbours and slipways in the family. For me, St Monans remains the most original genre example.

Pittenweem

Five minutes drive to the east will take you to the oddly named Pittenweem, a fishing harbour since the early middle ages.

The name derives from Pictish and Scottish Gaelic. “Pit-” represents Pictish pett ‘place, portion of land’, and “-enweem” is Gaelic na h-Uaimh, ‘of the Caves’ in Gaelic, so “The Place of the Caves”. The name is rendered Baile na h-Uaimh in modern Gaelic, with baile, ‘town, settlement’, substituted for the Pictish prefix. The cave in question is almost certainly St Fillan’s cave.

— source Wikipedia

Although fishing activity has declined since the early 1980s, Pittenweem remains one of the most active harbours where you can still see fishermen mending their nets on the quays.

Anstruther

Five minutes east of Pittenweem lies the town of Anstruther.

The name of Anstruther derives from Scottish Gaelic The second element is sruthair (‘burn, stream’), but the first element less certain: it is possibly Gaelic á(i)n (‘driving’) or aon (‘one’), thus meaning either ‘driving current or burn’ or ‘(place of or on) one burn’.The name of Anstruther Easter derives from Scots easter (‘eastern’), since the village lies to the east of Anstruther, and Anstruther Wester correspondingly from Scots wester (‘western’). Anstruther-Easter and Anstruther-Wester are separated by a small stream called Dreel Burn

— source Wikipedia

The earliest record of fishing activity in the town dates back to the early thirteenth century. At that time, a teind (one-tenth of the fishing revenue) had to be given to the monks as a tax, leading to a dispute between the fishermen and monks from Dryburgh Abbey.

The fishing harbour began to thrive in the late 19th century. Today most fishing boats have disappeared, but you can visit the amazing Scottish Fisheries Museum.

If you are a fan of fish and chips, the town also boasts “the best fish shop in Scotland”, the Anstruther Fish Bar, but prepare to join that queue.

Crail

This is the last of the East Neuk harbours before reaching St Andrews. To my eyes, it is also the most picturesque, featuring a pier rebuilt in 1828 by the industrious Robert Stevenson.

The harbour stonework is truly amazing. You can see a similar type of wall in Mousehole, not far from Penzance in Cornwall. Walking along the small quay and the contiguous beach with its old advertising posters and fishermen’s shacks ranks among my Scottish personal highlights. If you are lucky, you may spot playful seals in the harbour waters.

Scotland is a land of many splendours, but it is sad that most tourists make a dash for the north and overlook the south and, especially, the wonderful southeast coast.

As in the previous article in the series, all pictures were taken with the Ricoh GRD3 (small CCD sensor) and the Ricoh GR (APS-C CMOS sensor).


Read the first article in this series

More travel features from the author


17 COMMENTS

  1. Jean

    Thank you for writing such an evocative article. Your colourful photographs really do give a flavour of these Scottish fishing ports on the southeast coast.

    My favourite photograph is of the jolly fisherman mending his nets at Pittenweem. I also love the panoramic photographs of the distinctive shoreline buildings.

    In your first article you said,
    “I regularly took my students on school trips to southern Scotland. The area is culturally rich, with a remarkable number of abbeys, castles and museums. No sweeping Highland landscapes favoured by photographers, but an attractive area with much to like and fire the imagination.”

    If this is the second in a series of articles, you still have a wealth of material to explore, such as the Edinburgh and Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, together with the distinctive architecture of these two magnificent cities. Glasgow, as you know, was called the second city of Empire and it is perhaps in line to be next year’s host for the Eurovision Song Contest.

    Chris

    • Thanks Chris for the kind comment.
      I did go to Edinburgh and Glasgow many times but spent my whole time explaining things to students so I had very little time for photography unlike other places.
      The Kelvingrove museum in Glasgow and the modern art gallery in Edinburgh are my favourite but I rather buy postcards or books of works on exhibit.
      I’m rummaging in my archives and gathering photographs I took almost 40 years ago. They were analog B&W images processed at home; all images were taken with the Contax 139 and the Distagon 35mm f2.8 and Sonnar 85 f2.8 for most of them. So very far north and west of Scotland is more likely than those two major cities. I need to scan my negatives as the prints I used to do in my lab far exceed the size of my scanner.
      Have a nice weekend
      Jean

  2. I confess to being one of those who made a dash to the Highlands, Jean. Love your photographs and thanks for the interesting explanations behind the names of the coastal towns. Love the picture of the boat reflected in the window. What say we have a Macfilos meet up in Scotland one day?

    • Thanks Farhiz for the kind comment. I really like this part of Scotland which is as scenic as the Highlands if you take the time to explore the area. You’ve got beautiful lochs and waterfalls inland, nice mountains to explore and amazing coastline. The Highlands are better explored little by little, limiting your driving to a 20 miles radius if you really want to enjoy the place. I love your last pics from India.
      Enjoy the weekend
      Jean

  3. Excellent article and images, it has stirred a few ideas for my next road trip next year.

    I did wonder why it was snowing on Bass Rock on a bright sunny day, until you qualified the source of the snow. 🤣

    Enjoy the weekend.

    • Thanks Dave for the kind comment. Don’t hesitate to contact me for info concernng the east coast.
      Enjoy the weekend
      Jean

  4. You don’t know how photogs like you and rest of them here on Macfilos, make me jealous with your photography and stories. It is just great that Mike lets us share them. Every time I see what you and your GRs accomplish, I ask my self why don’t my photos look like that, and same with the Leica photogs. Thank you all! Jean is your brood still using ur grd3?

  5. Thanks John for the kind comment. Any camera is good as long as you bond with them. The Ricohs along with my Leica and my Panasonic are tools I like to shoot with.
    Your images are really excellent as well.
    My daughter still uses the GRD3 but is not completely happy with her images. It takes a learning curve to tame the 28mm FOV. When I started shooting 28mm my images were absolute crap (excuse my French) as I did not know how to handle the camera properly,being used to shoot mostly 35 & 85 mm Contax-Zeiss and Leica lenses.
    Jörg Peter has triggered my lust for Zeiss lenses again in his last article and I mighttake the plunge again.
    Mike is doing a great job edinting the article and linking a community of photographers around the world. We’ll nver thank him enough for the amzing job he’s doing. As the new Victorian would say “the sun never sets on the Empire of macfilosian photographers” 🙂
    Have a nice weekend
    Jean

  6. Like Farhiz, that fourth image of the blue boat in the old window frame seems quite special to my eye. Composition, subject matter, layers. Enigmatic. Lovely.

    • Thanks Wayne for the kind comment. The window with the model boat is one of my favorite images as well.
      Enjoy the weekend
      Jean

  7. This takes me back to an enjoyable visit to Crail after lunch in St Andrews. The boat in the window is also a favourite for me. Thanks for the article Jean.

    • Thanks Kevin for the kind comment. St Andrew’s is a beautiful city. I particularly like going to the cathedral and up the tower where you have an amazing view of the city and the the Highlands in the distance on a clear day. Plus the eider ducks that nest just beneath the castle during the breeding season.
      Enjoy the weekend
      Jean

  8. Jean,

    Thanks for posting this essay. Your photos were exceptinal, capturing the atmosphere of the area. It leaft me with a longing to visit!

    Best Regards,

    Kathy

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