The Royal Burgh of Earlsferry .....
The Royal Burgh of Earlsferry
The following introduction to Earlsferry has been taken from The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland Volume2 (1896)
Earlsferry, a decaying coastal village possessing the status of a Royal Burgh, in Kilconquhar Parish, Fife, until 1891, when, with all the coast district of the parish south of the railway line and the Cocklemill Burn, it was transferred to the parish of Elie. It is traditionally said to have been constituted a Royal Burgh by Malcolm Ceannmor at the request of Macduff, the Earl of Fire, who, in his flight from the vengeance of Macbeth, was concealed in a cave at Kincraig Point, and thence ferried over the Firth to Dunbar by the fishermen of the place. The legend on the face of it is false; but whatever the date, the original Charter having been destroyed by fire in Edinburgh, James VI granted a new one in 1589, which speaks of Earlsferry as “of old, past memorie of man, erected into and free Burgh”! Then and afterwards it seems to have been a place of considerable trade, with two weekly markets and two annual fairs, the privilege of levying dues and customs, and the right of returning a member to parliament. These are all things of the past; but Earlsferry is still governed by a Provost, who has a seat in the County Council, a Baille, a Treasurer, and six Councillors, and has it’s own town-hall (1872), with quaint old steeple, a gaswork, golf links, and a public school. A abundant supply of gravitation water was obtained in 1882 from near Kellie Law at a cost of £11,000, conjointly with Elie and St Monance, followed by an extensive system of drainage. The old custom of ringing the curfew bell still exists in the ancient Burgh. Pop. 1891 304. See Elie (Appended at bottom).
Earlsferry – history
Today most people think of Earlsferry as an extension of its bigger neighbour Elie, but it never has been, and even today the tiny number of locals still regard themselves as ‘Ferry folk’! It was not until 1929, when the two villages united, with one local council running both, and calling the new ‘bairn’ “The Royal Burgh of Elie and Earlsferry”, that the two became one so to speak. The proper name for the villages, which is now being used more and more, is “Elie and the Royal Burgh of Earlsferry”. However this is recent history, let’s go back a bit before 1929.
The village of Earlsferry of Earlsferry came into importance at the end of the 11th century when it became the landing place for pilgrims crossing the Firth of Forth on their way to St Andrews, and beyond. Although the story of Macduff’s escape is often credited as the reason for Earlsferry being so named, it was more probably called Earls ferry for the same reason as the crossing further up the Firth was called the Queen’s ferry: that is, after the benefactor who donated the ferry. ‘Queensferry’, named after the good, and saintly Queen Margaret; and ‘Earlsferry’, after the Earl of Fife (Macduff). Macduff was King Malcolm’s ‘right hand man’, with the right to lead the Scottish army into battle being one of the perks! Hence the saying, “lead on Macduff”.
Most , if not all of the ancient Scottish Royal Burghs became so because of a connection with the pre- Reformation Church .... in Earlsferry’s case the ferry from North Berwick, which was run by Cistercian nuns based there; Macduff (Earl of Fife) not only owned land in Fife, but also land around North Berwick, some of which he donated to the nuns. As the northern end of the ferry link it is reasonable to surmise that, because of the huge number of pilgrims travelling, benefits would accrue to those helping them on their way, pilgrims were the forerunners of today’s tourists. In fact when you really think of it the Old Church organised, and ran a very lucrative ‘pilgrim trade’, (very much like the modern tourist trade) – that benefitted not only those ‘in the know’ but all those around them. The pilgrims, and there were many of them, were making for the Shrine containing relics of St Andrew, in the cathedral town of that name .... St Andrews. In those days the fear of hell and damnation was very real. Pilgrimage, prayer, and donations (a ferry for instance), were all ways to avoid the deadly drop into hell! One has to remember that this movement of pilgrims was going on all over Europe, especially from the 12th to the beginning of the 16th century’s, when the influence of the old church was at its peak.
The only evidence that remains in Earlsferry today are the ruins of the Chapel/Hospital on Chapel Green, the name ‘Grange’ (as in Grange farm, grange road) and, at the West end of the beach a ‘rickle o’ stanes’ and slabs, all that remains of Earlsferry’s ancient “Pilgrim’s Pier”. This pier would have been repaired a few times over its long lifetime; if you look closely you can make out the baseline, which is probably as it was when originally built some 800 years ago. Unfortunately, stones and slabs of the ancient pier were used, in a vain attempt to manufacture sea defences by a resident of Earlsferry, in 1996, after a storm had removed much of the sand dunes.
‘Grange Farm’ is where the nuns, and their lay helpers, would grow the vegetables, herbs and grain used to provide themselves, and the many poor pilgrims passing through; the Church was duty bound to provide food and accommodation for the poor pilgrims. Muircambus Mill, on the Cadgers Road, would be where the grain was milled. The Cadger’s Road ran from Earlsferry to the Royal Palace at Falkland, traces of this ‘road’ can be seen where it crossed what are now the 4th and 17th fairways of the golf course. The fishermen of Earlsferry supplied the Palace with ‘sea-foods’. It would also have been the start of the ‘Pilgrims Way’ that went over by Rires and Lathallan to St Andrews. I remember, in the mid 1950’s, when the local farmer ploughed up the old Right of Way (it had been used as the road to the Colinsburgh ‘dump’) that passed through the field, just to the West of Colinsburgh. Maggie and I retraced that part of the ‘Way’ a few years ago; it was still recognisable as such, right up to the farm cottages at Rires .... even traces of the last Rires Castle can be seen in what is now a field dyke just south of the cottages. In the 1950’s stiles, to allow easy passage, still existed beyond Rires, but they are all gone now, having been lost when new fences were put in.
With the Royal Burgh having good connections in Edinburgh and with the other Royal Burghs of Fife and the Lothians, a thriving trade in wool was begun with the lowlands of Holland. Culross, in the West of Fife was the centre of this trade in Scotland, with Veere being the partner in Holland. The ‘Scottish House’ in Veere was the centre of the European trade. The title of ‘Honorary Conservator of the Scottish Privileges in the Low Countries’ was revived when Veere celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1996; the title was granted to Mrs Winifred Ewing, Member of the European Parliament. Maggie and I were at this celebration when we spent a week in Veere as part of Fife Craft Association Exhibition. Veere is well worth a visit by anyone interested in the trading links of medieval Fife. With the decline of the wool trade, and the unrest in the Church started to change by the end of the15th century .... upheaval that would bring complete change to much of Europe, not just our Royal Burgh. The Reformation!
Earlsferry – now
After the Reformation, Earlsferry fell into steady decline, as did most of the towns and villages associated with the old Church. Fishing, weaving were the main occupations of the ‘Ferry folk’ initially, then coal mining in the 1800’s..... but the old village was dying. The town of St Andrews was also in this state .... so much so that plans were afoot to have the University moved to Perth. St Andrews was saved by the astounding energy and efforts of Provost Playfair: Earlsferry by the arrival of the railway line which reached, and terminated at Kilconquhar Station in 1857. The ‘Royal Burgh’ was about to enter a new phase in its long history, as, along with neighbouring Elie the villages became favourite places for sea bathing .... a get-away from city life, especially after the Forth Rail Bridge was opened in 1890; by this time the East Neuk Railway line had been extended and there was a station at Elie .... the centre of Edinburgh was only a couple of hours away.