On the western edge of the East Neuk of Fife, Largo has a beautiful setting of which AA Thomson in “The Breezy Coast” wrote “You will not find a prettier sweep on all the coast than Largo Bay” (1). In the two halves of Upper and Lower Largo half a mile apart, one finds the haunts of famous mariners and soldiers, impressive railway architecture and historic buildings surrounded by exceptionally fine walking.
Whilst historically 200 ton trading vessels and herring boats used Lower Largo harbour (2), hard ground, rocks at the foot of the pier and very restricted room due to small craft on running moorings mean that for the average visiting keel boat the best option is to anchor off. Visitor’s moorings are sometimes available and should the weather change, all tides refuge may be had close by at Methil, see the FYCA Pilot Handbook.
Alexander Selkirk was born in Lower Largo in 1676 and there is a very realistic looking statue of him on the house on Main Street now occupying the site.
It is generally accepted that accounts of his marooning on Juan Fernandez Island inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, first publish in 1719 (3).
After merchant service Selkirk joined the Royal Navy and was promoted mate in 1720 and transferred to HMS Weymouth. He died in 1721 on that vessel of yellow fever whilst at anchor off the Gold Coast, now Ghana .
Describing the harbour John Geddie in “The Fringes of Fife” (4) wrote of “the sea playing round the old warehouse, now the snug Crusoe Inn” the building having the sea on two sides, fitting for its namesake’s island life. More recently renamed the Crusoe Hotel it owns Largo harbour and has a room with a display giving an account of the life of Alexander Selkirk and others associated with the Crusoe story. The hotel has excellent bar food and a good restaurant making it an appealing visit for the yachtsman.
A stone’s throw from the sixty foot four arch railway viaduct, railway interest is catered for by the Railway Inn, a traditional pub with good food and beer garden but does not provide accommodation. The railway reached Largo in 1856. It closed in 1960 (5,6) and now forms part of the Fife coastal path (6). The gentle downgrade of the track bed to the East takes full advantage of the views of the Bay and Kincraig point.
On the eastern edge of the village a sign posted branch of the coastal path leads to the Serpentine Walk, an attractive wooded walk linking Upper and Lower Largo :
For a more extended walk with panoramic views of the Forth continue up Largo Law, weather vane of the East Neuk, of which the saying goes “When Largo Law puts on its cowl, Look out for wind and weather foul”.
The Kiel ’s Den, another woodland walk to the North of Lower Largo follows the Keil burn. It is reputed to have been one of Selkirk’s favourite haunts and leads to a prominent landmark, the ruin of Pitcruvie Castle .
One can also walk round the bay on the sand when the tide is out using the crossings of the burns provided for the coastal path and eventually join up with the Kincraig Chain Walk. See “The Kincraig Chain Walk” in this series.
Largo Kirk in Upper Largo (8) was attended by the Selkirk family and their gravestone can be seen in the churchyard. Alexander was summoned to the Kirk Session for misbehaving in church, the first of two clashes with this authority, but he went to sea instead of appearing. The gravestone is one of the very few remaining artefacts in the area with a direct connection with Selkirk. “Crusoe’s Village” (2) details others. His sea chest and cup can be seen in the Royal Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street , Edinburgh . By arrangement a powder horn and knife handle attributed to him can be seen in St Andrew’s Museum.
The church was literally connected with a former Largo House, that of Largo ’s Admiral Sir Andrew Wood who built Scotland ’s first canal, it is said so that he could be rowed to church from his house on a Sunday morning in an eight oared barge. It is a good story and factual but the main reason for its excavation is more likely to have been for the more prosaic use as a reservoir for the estate. The line of part of it is still visible in the fields behind the Manse to the West of the church and there is a photograph in the church guidebook.
Admiral Wood “ Scotland ’s Nelson” was recognised in the reign of James III as a brave naval officer with great skill in skirmishing afloat (9). He was employed by James IV to defend the Forth against English pirates and in 1489 with two armed merchantmen, the Flower and the Yellow Carvel, fought a famous engagement off Dunbar when he captured five English ships and took them to Leith . The following year when supposedly at peace, Henry VII conspired with one of his ablest sea captains, Stephen Bull, to take Wood dead or alive. Bull lay in ambush with three ships anchored off the Isle of May, waiting for Wood’s two traders. A protracted action began on 10 August 1489 when Wood, although surprised, was able to gain the weather gauge and capture the three English ships which over night had drifted round to the mouth of the Tay . The captured ships were taken into Dundee . With great chivalry for the time their crews were returned home.
The present Largo House was designed for General James Durham, probably by Robert Adam the most sought after architect of his day and who came from Kirkcaldy.
It was built in 1750. The house eventually passed to the General’s brother Admiral Philip Durham, a survivor of the Royal George which foundered at Spithead in 1782. He kept a canon from the ship on his lawn.
During the war years Largo House was used by various troops, notably the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade before embarking for Arnhem (10) .
There is no memorial here to the valiant Poles who fought with such tenacity in the Witches Cauldron, Die Hexen Kessel, but coach loads of veterans and their families have begun to visit. It is time there was some recognition on site of this unit and their gallant commander, Major General Stanislaus Sosabowski. The Poles went into Arnhem with the third air lift by which time the Germans had been well alerted and so had a warm reception and were continuously in action throughout the operation. Urquhart records Sosabowski’s professionalism, fighting spirit and making inspirational tours of his brigade area on a bicycle.
After the war the house had the roof removed to reduce the tax burden, rapidly reducing this treasure to a ruin. Its magnificent ornamental plasterwork has largely crumbled but some lath and plaster still adheres to the shell and fragments litter the floors. One hopes that modern day fiscal policy has more latitude for the preservation of Scotland ’s heritage. Today trees grow inside and out, slowly destroying the remains of the structure and hiding the house until one is quite close to it. The Palladian frontage, store rooms with vaulted ceilings and the wide span of supporting iron work above the main reception room window, now exposed to view, are the main features.
As befits its military past the house has defence in depth. One must first negotiate the surrounding field via a padlocked gate, watching out for the bull. The house itself is encircled by a waist high fence topped with a single strand of barbed wire but one can step over this at the South East corner.
The house makes an adventurous and rewarding exploration but watch every step, touching as little as possible. This is a dangerous structure to be kept clear of in high winds and made more precarious by the robbing of stone and vandalism. Photograph or sketch so the house is at least recorded if not preserved, a wide angle lens is useful. With the roof off and upper floors removed, visiting when the sun is high overhead assures maximum light in the otherwise gloomy interior.
For present day sailors Largo Bay Sailing Club is a dinghy racing club on the UK national competition circuit. Their HQ is on the opposite side of the road from Selkirk’s statue, a little closer to the harbour.
Visiting Largo is all the more interesting for the reading material available. “Crusoe’s Village” and “The Story of Largo Kirk” are excellent guides to local exploring and in “Selkirk’s Island ” Diana Souhami has produced a compelling read. It was painstakingly researched and well written by someone who has been to Juan Fernandez Island . The village has so much to offer it deserves to be more frequented by visiting yachts. Visitors moorings, all tides refuge in Methil, the pub, hotel and bed and breakfast accommodation provide a range of options for living aboard or home comforts ashore.
1. The Breezy Coast, AA Thomson, Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1932.
2. Crusoe’s Village, Home of Alexander Selkirk, the real life Robinson Crusoe, Ian Morton, April 2002, pp 58, £6.99. This booklet, is a mine of information and is very well illustrated with photographs. It is available at the Largo combined general store and Post Office and the craft shop.
3. Selkirk’s Island , the original Robinson Crusoe, Diana Souhami, Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 2001. Phoenix paperback, 2002, reissued 2003, ISBN 0 75381 334 3.
4. The Fringes of Fife , John Geddie, W&R Chambers Ltd, 1894, new edition 1927.
5. Scottish Railway Walks, MH Ellison, Cicerone Press, 1989, reprinted 1996.
6. The Railways of Fife , William Scott Bruce, The Melven Press, 1980, ISBN 0 90664 03 9.
7. Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50,000 Map, Sheet 59, St Andrews .
8. The Story of Largo Kirk, pp18, July 1990, (still available, including from the newsagent’s shop in Upper Largo ). This is packed with information on the area, not just the church and is beautifully illustrated.
9. A History of Dundee and the surrounding district of Angus, being a chronicle of events, mainly military, occurring in the district from the most remote times until comparatively recently, Murdoch McIntosh, David Winter and Sons, Dundee, 1939.
10. Arnhem, Major General RE Urquhart CB, DSO, Cassell and Co, 1958 and Pan Books 1960, ISBN 0 330 23273 8.
yacht Blue Spindrift
29 August 2006