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 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).
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”)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).