The county of Fife consists of a long peninsula bounded on the south by the Firth of Forth and on the north by the Firth of Tay. It is steeped in history, and for that reason is sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Fife. James II, who ruled from 1437 to 1460, once called it a ‘fringe of gold on a beggar’s mantle’, meaning that, in his day, it had prosperous coastal towns and a barren interior. During the Cold War years, Fife was where Scotland would be governed from in the event of a nuclear attack. The underground Secret Bunker, as it is now known, was located on a farm near St Andrews.
Dunfermline, still an important town, was Scotland’s capital before Edinburgh took over, and on the coast there were small prosperous seaports that traded with Europe. You can still see the European influence today. Some of the older buildings in the coastal towns have a distinctly Low Countries feel to them, and some houses have red pantiles - brought in as ballast from the Netherlands and the Baltic countries - instead of slates. These ports, with names such as Crail, Pittenweem and Anstruther, are still there, though now they rely on tourism rather than trade.
Of all the towns on the county’s east coast the most famous is surely St Andrews. Seen from a distance, it shimmers with spires and towers, and is crammed with ancient buildings and historical associations. It was formerly a place of pilgrimage because of its great cathedral, the impressive ruins of which still overlook the shore. In it were kept the relics of St Andrew, Scotland’s national saint, and this made it the country’s ecclesiastical capital in pre-Reformation days.
It was also the seat of an archbishop and was where Scotland’s first university was founded. Even today students can be seen dressed in their traditional red gowns as they scurry to lectures during term time. And the place still attracts pilgrims, though now they come in the name of sport, for the town - or perhaps we should call it a small city - is the recognised home of golf.
The county’s largest town is Kirkcaldy, famous for the manufacture of linoleum. So much so that people used to say that you could always tell when you were approaching the town by its ‘queer-like smell’. But this royal burgh has many historical associations. At one time it was known as the Lang Toun, because it appeared to consist of one long street, though it has now spread inland. And it can lay fair claim to being the birthplace of economics, because in 1728 Adam Smith was born here. To the west of the county another industry held sway - coal mining. The Fife coalfields used to employ thousands of men, but now it has all but gone. Dunfermline is the largest town in this area - another Fife royal burgh whose roots go deep into Scotland’s history, having been granted its royal charter in 1124. Its abbey, like the cathedral at St Andrews, was once a place of pilgrimage because of the tomb of St Margaret. It is now the resting place of one of Scotland’s great heroes, Robert the Bruce. And, like Kirkcaldy, it too has its famous sons. Charles I was born here in 1600, as was, in 1835, Andrew Carnegie, the millionaire philanthropist.