ST MONANS SEA MARKS AND BYGONE EAST NEUK OF FIFE
It is mariners’ good fortune that striking silhouettes identify St Monans from the other white cottage settlements along the East Neuk of Fife, especially in spring and early summer when high pressure weather swirls East Coast haar in from the cold North Sea. The ruin of Newark Castle, the unusual spire topped square tower of the parish church, huge gable end of Millers boat shed and the St Monans windmill provide welcome recognition when approaching from seaward. The navigator wanting to familiarise himself with them can see excellent photographs on http://stmonans.org.uk
These marks were much used by fishermen for transits, locally known as meads, to locate their fishing grounds. Intersecting transits were known as sharp meads (1).
The windmill is an imposing feature on the skyline a few hundred yards to the east of the village on a raised beach. It was a tower mill (2) and much of the stone built tower survives. In the late 1980s it was refurbished and fitted with an internal spiral stair up to a panoramic viewing gallery covered by a conical roof. The sails are a tubular steel mock up which very successfully recreate the windmill appearance.
Industrial salt production
There is much more to this site than the vestige of a windmill might imply. The “mill” was in fact a wind pump that raised seawater from tidally fed reservoirs cut into the foreshore to coal fired salt pans in a row of nine pan houses above the shore. Here it was evaporated to leave the salt The reservoirs and the foundations of the pan houses can still be seen and well produced interpretation boards in the mill and around the site explain the workings of the industry. Between the mill and the coast road lies Coal Farm where a mine supplied the eight tons of coal necessary to produce one ton of salt. When the tide permits, while looking at the seawater reservoirs, one can find foreshore fossil beds containing crinoids and corrals: http://www.stmonans.ukfossils.co.uk/
Today’s beautiful coastal scene was once one of nine chimneys pouring out thick yellow tinged smoke from burning low grade coal, drift wood and any available combustible rubbish, round the clock. Better quality coal was destined for more well-heeled customers, further afield. The excellent Undiscovered Scotland website explains the process of industrial sea salt production at St Monans, an industry that continued on the Forth in Prestonpans until 1959.
Visiting the windmill
Visiting the windmill is free of charge and is open daily in July and August. At other times keys are available for a £5 deposit from the Spar shop, 7 West Street (Phone 01333 730240) and the Post Office (Phone 01333 730240).
Burgh of St Monans
With various attractions to visit, rather than anchor off, it is more convenient to enter the harbour. With Millers boat yard closed it is quiet place to lie:
The village is a holiday home hideaway with a community arts festival and the East Neuk [music] Festival. The St Monans Heritage Collection, displaying everyday scenes of a hundred years ago captured by local photographer William Easton, is on the harbour front, 5 West Shore, also with free admission. Newark Castle and the parish church with ship models suspended above the transepts are within easy walking distance. The church is said to be the closest to the sea in Scotland and tells the story of a subaltern parishioner decorated posthumously for heroism in the Crimea:
Yachtsmen wanting more in the way of facilities are catered for in Anstruther. In St Monans the quiet is part of its appeal. There is a good seafood restaurant and a few small shops. Facilities are available at the caravan site on request, for a modest charge. When the tide is out the aroma of the harbour mud rivals that of Crail but there is plenty to see in the environs until the mud covers.
Traditional fishermen’s cottages are tightly packed on the slopes around the harbour. Narrow passages, little more than shoulder width, jink down the hill between them. The painter and photographer will find cameos of red pantile roofs, crow stepped gables, external staircases known as forestairs and ornamental street lamps. The village really is unusually attractive. In the quest for living space some houses have sprouted dormer windows and patios but planners have done much to retain their character. Broadband is helping to remove TV aerials from the views over the roofs. Resident’s cars indicate the upmarket trend and second home money but friendly locals can still be found.
When visiting the East Neuk of Fife, St Monans especially, one has to read “A Twelvemonth and a Day” (1). It is a wonderful recreation of fisher folk life in these villages between the wars. The author, Christopher Rush, came from St Monans and attended Waid Academy in Anstruther. He is a master of descriptive writing and the introduction by Alan Bold sets the book in its literary context. Influenced by Dylan Thomas and George Mackay Brown, it is a romantic lament for these fishing communities in the Scottish tradition and immersed in it on location, the visitor can time travel. The yachtsman will find much of interest in Rush’s character’s days and nights at sea as they fished the Forth.
Thankfully one can emerge into the sunshine of modern day economic circumstance and health care, leaving behind Rush’s golden age when the herring didn’t always appear, shoeless children went to bed hungry and there was no shilling for the gas meter. Such realism spawned a successful film, Venus Peter (1988).
Some of the changes are lamentable, the wiping out of the inshore fish stocks, the loss of community and more recently the pricing of locals out of the housing market, closure of shops and Millers boatyard, established in 1779. However a brave band is fighting back and their strategy works. Drawn by the windmill I spent money in the village.
The book admirably sets the scene for a visit to the Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther and its historic vessels in commission: http://www.scotfishmuseum.org/
Rush though is not enamoured with “folk culture embalmed in Anstruther Museum, the saddest place in the East Neuk”. Times change and it was a hard life for all the family and a dangerous one. The Museum has much besides folk culture; it is a reference collection of boat building techniques that complements The World of Boats across the Forth at Eyemouth: http://www.worldofboats.org/
“A Twelvemonth” reawakens former days of Crail where present day artisan scale fishing survives and ready cooked locally caught crab and lobster, for sale at the harbour, taste as good as it always did. Here too the museum and pottery not to be missed.
The East Neuk of Fife is increasingly aware of the value of its cultural heritage to tourism and leisure boating. The lament should be a tuneful one.
1. “A Twelvemonth and a Day”, Christopher Rush, 1985, Aberdeen University Press, reprint by Canongate Press Ltd, Canongate Classics, “an evocation of the East Neuk of Fife, particularly St Monans, of the 1920s and 1930s in the last great days of the Scottish herring” with an introduction by Alan Bold 1994.
2. “Windmills and Millwrighting”, Stanley Freese, The Cambridge University Press, 1957.
3. Burgh of St Monans information sheet with village street plan from Visit Scotland.
13 June 2009