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Carnbee Church

Kilconquhar Church

St Monans Church


Upper Largo

Lower Largo











Kellie Castle

Newark Castle

Balcaskie House

Sir William Bruce







The Landward Side Of The East Neuk of Fife

In districts with a strong and vigorous coastal urban life it sometimes happens that the seaports and their shore hinterlands have little contact with one another. In certain cases, indeed, the landward area is so bleak and desolate that human settlement has, as it were, been forced to the coastal fringe to win a livelihood from the sea that is denied by the land. In the East Neuk, however, burghal and landward life, though different in their emphasis, have always been closely linked, while the landscape is for the most part prosperous and varied, with well-ordered farms, pleasant villages, and stately mansions set in sheltered woodlands, the whole sloping gently to the hills that rise from the coast towards the 'riggin' o' Fife.'

An account of the landward area should naturally begin ,with the parish kirks, but in the great majority of the East Neuk parishes the Kirk is located within the burgh of the parish, and it is virtually only at Carnbee, Kilconquhar, Largo, and perhaps Kilrenny, so much more rural than urban in effect, that this focal point of parish life is to be seen in a country setting.


Simple and unpretentious as it is, Carnbee is a good example of a country kirk of the eighteenth century. Kilconquhar is an impresssive essay in the revived Gothic of the early nineteenth century, rising with pleasing effect above the nearby loch and village. Its kirkyard contains an arcade of its medieval predecessor. Largo Kirk, an interesting composite design in the Gothic of the early seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, also dominates its kirkton. The associated parish of Newburn has a 'Gothic' structure of 1815 as well as the ruins of a still earlier building in the old kirkyard. The ruins of another medieval kirk, that of the parish of Abercrombie united with St Monance, nestle within the woods of Balcaskie, its walls incorporating some of the oldest ecclesiastical relics of the district in a remarkable series of early cross-slabs.

In addition to its parish kirks the East Neuk contains two early chapels of unusual interest--one beside the ancient ferry crossing just west of Earlsferry, the other on the Isle of May. Finally, in a category entirely by itself, both ecclesiastical and architectural, is the renaissance chapel at Balcarres built by the first Earl of that name in 1635.

Of villages Largo parish contains two interesting and as widely differing examples in the 'Kirk-toun' of Upper Largo grouped round the parish kirk and the 'sea-town' of Lower Largo stretching along the shore of Largo Bay. Kilconquhar parish has contrasts of a different kind. Kilconquhar itself is one of the finest examples of an unspoiled village of the older form now remaining in Fife, its wide main street leading up to the parish kirk at its west end with very pleasant effect The houses, though simple, have integrity and continuity while buildings like the schoolhouse and the inn obtain their due prominence, though still subordinate to the kirk.

Contrasting abruptly with the informal plan of Kilconquhar is the 'new town' of Colinsburgh one mile to the north. Planned by Colin, third Earl of Balcarres in the' late seventeenth century its buildings are mainly of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Whereas at Kilconquhar the building materials are sandstone and pantiles, at Colinsburgb these are replaced by whinstone and slate. These materials, applied to the architectural discipline of classical design, produce an effect austere but by no means ungracious or uninteresting.

Kilconquhar parish also has, in addition, the upland village of Largoward with a charming 'Gothic' design among its roadside cottages. The principal village of Carnbee parish is Arncroach, agreeably situated below Kellie Law. Like the adjoining hamlet of Newton of Balcormo it contains some pleasant houses of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

A similar tradition of good building is to be found in the farmhouses, farm steadings, and farm cottages of the district. Among farmhouses, Fairfield near Colinsburgh is particularly charming, the house being dated 1717 and the barn 1734. Many of the farms retain fine 'improved' steadings of the early nineteenth century with arcaded cart-sheds and picturesque round or octagonal 'mill-runs' or 'horse-courses' for the old horse-driven threshing mills. Three such may be seen within a short distance of each other at Balmain, Balcormo, and Balcormo Mains north-west of Largo Law.

The area is particularly rich in castles and mansions which diversify the scene with their parks and woodlands. The oldest 'and in many Ways the most interesting still in occupation is Kellie Castle, its sixteenth century towers recalling defensive needs, its noble rooms and plaster enrichments of the seventeenth century looking forward to a new tranquillity and grace. Sixteenth century Work is to be found at Balcarres and Kilconquhar incorporated in the re-buildings and extensions of the nineteenth century, while Newark Castle near St Monance, though now in ruins, contains interesting details of the seventeenth century.

Balcaskie carries the progress seen at Kellie a significant stage further with its formal design and its great suite of spacious apartments looking across the terraced garden to the distant Forth. Balcaskie was owned and remodelled in the 1670's by the famous Scottish architect Sir William Bruce whose hand may probably be seen in some of the work at Kellie and other houses of the neighborhood. Kincraig near Earslferry, now a farmhouse, is a smaller building of the same period of remarkable quality. Innergellie by Kilrenny and Charleton to the west of Colinsburgh mark the emergence of the fully developed classical mansion from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, while Gibliston to the West of Arncroach and Grangemuir to the north of Pittenweem show this established in the general form which it retained until the change to 'baronial' and 'castellated ' preferences became predominant in the mid-nineteenth century.

Although not now very highly esteemed, this new style was sometimes used to good effect, more particularly in its earlier phase which provided two delightful 'follies ' that form an integral and familiar pan of the Fast Neuk scene-- 'the Lady's Tower' near Elie, built as a bathing station for the Lady Anstruther of the day in the late eighteenth century, and the romantic tower on Balcarres Craig, a ready-made ruin built by Robert Lindsay of Balcarres in the early nineteenth century.

By the end of the nineteenth century new life was breathed into the 'castellated' style by the imaginative genius of Sir Robert Lorimer who spent many of his formative years at Kellie after it had been restored by his father in the 1870's. Returning to the more simple and direct forms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he created a type of building at once new and traditional, seen to particularly fine effect in the north lodge and gates and in the estate office at Balcarres.

There are many more features of the East Neuk landscape to which attention might be drawn, such as the doocots, occasionally of 'beehive' form, as at Newark Castle, more commonly rectangular, as at Innergellie and Renniehill beside Kilrenny, at Marsfield near Anstruther Wester, at Ardross and Kincraig, and at many other places in the area. However humble their purpose, these buildings have an undeniable architectural quality that approaches distinction in the circular structures flanking the east entrance to Balcaskie or in the octagonal design with concave sides at Wester Pitkierie to the north of Anstruther. Another building of commanding appearance, both from the sea and from the land, is the old windmill on the coast between St Monance and Pittenweem that used to pump brine from the sea to the salt-pans for which the shores of the Forth were famous. A few water-mills may also be seen, as at Lathallan on the Den Burn and at several places on the Dreel Burn from Anstruther upwards. Finally, no one can move about the roads of the East Neuk without noticing the attractively lettered milestones and the characteristic direction markers with their meticulous instructions to the wayfarer.

All these play their part in giving to the landscape its own special character, but in the end it is the broad general impression that is most memorable--the variety of buildings, woods and fields, the gentle line of the upland hills, the harder line of the coast with its fringe of towns and towers silhouetted against the Firth, in the distance the remote bulk of the Bass Rock and North Berwick Law, nearer at hand and dominating every view the changing outline of the Isle of May.

If you would like to visit this area as part of a highly personalized small group tour of my native Scotland please e-mail me:

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