Come with me to a corner of Scotland, the glorious East Neuk of Fife. Crail is just one of a number of smallish fishing villages, washed by the outer reaches of the Firth of the Forth. Straddling a bay midst low red cliffs, its cobbled precincts and narrow lanes wind down to a compact harbour.
Now I find myself at a tiny cottage cafe. A few tables dot its minuscule garden. The rhythmic pull of waves upon a pebbled shore offers a soothing backdrop. Nearby, hens cluck and peck at the odd snail. Surely a little slice of heaven! But things were not always this peaceful…
Beyond Crail’s choppy waters lies the shadowy, grey-green outline of the Isle of May. Its grim past intrigues and I long to visit its rocky shores. Mass burial mounds hint at some very early occupation and an ancient site of pilgrimage. But it was in 875AD that history records the butchery of the monks at St Aidens Priory by a Viking raiding party.
Many centuries later, ‘witches’ met their fate, bound up, in a nearby testing pool. If they broke free, they were in league with the devil; if not, they were deemed innocent and received a sanctified burial. Doomed either way!
Only the cries of nesting seabirds might disturb you now if you take the short boat ride over for a visit. Puffins and guillemots are amongst the many birds which breed here each year, protected by the island’s National Nature Reserve status.
A sturdy stone lighthouse, built in the early nineteenth century by that enterprising engineer – grandfather of the writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, protects the ships that roll in from the North Sea. But back in 1791, in an earlier lighthouse, one of its three keepers – and five of his six children, perished from the fumes of ash and clinker which had built up near their sleeping quarters – set smouldering by hot coals falling from the twelve metre high beacon. Miraculously, the sixth child was found alive days later. In the nearby village of Anstruther, the three year old grew to adulthood and it was from there that she and her husband emigrated to America. A happier ending, I hope, to such a tragic tale…
Crail’s history is intertwined with fishing and artisan crafts. Set between the ancient political centre of Dunfermline and the religious might of St Andrews, it was granted Royal Burgh status by Robert the Bruce around 1310, allowing it to hold a market under royal protection. Some say it was the largest in Europe at the time.
Imagine the town centre bustling with stalls and merchants and craftsmen! Now, the site is marked by a simple mercat cross, topped by a unicorn. In later years, trading links with Holland proved fruitful. Ships with tiles and bricks, presumably for ballast, came to unload and receive other cargo – wool, hides, honey, salt and the like. Now the red pantile roofs and crow-stepped gables of the buildings form a unique feature of the town’s architecture, reflecting the Dutch influence. Some of Crail’s weavers also exported their hand loom skills directly to the European tapestry trade…
The old kirk of St Mary’s was at one time hung with tapestries which were torn down in 1559 after a sermon delivered by the fiery preacher John Knox, on the evils of fishing on the Sabbath. I wonder what he thought of the Blue Stane, a boulder which lies near the church? Legend suggests it was thrown by the devil from the Isle of May; a circular depression on its surface, holding the mark of the devil’s thumbprint.
Also in the churchyard, the later Mort building is of macabre interest. It housed the newly-dead (three months in winter or a few weeks in summer) to protect them from those who traded in fresh corpses for the medical fraternity in Edinburgh.
Nowadays, various Pictish stones have been relocated to the village which probably would upset the reformer’s sensibilities as well…
Fast forward to Crail’s wartime efforts – January 1918: within sight of the little East Neuk villages, a collision occurred off the Isle of May between Royal Navy warships. Within the space of an hour, two submarines sank with heavy loss of life and various ships were damaged. Perhaps some of the sailors lie buried in St Mary’s graveyard along with others whose livelihoods depended upon the sea – victims of contrary weather conditions and treacherous waters.
During the second world war, the Navy used the strategic base of the Isle of May as a detection centre for German U-boats and above-surface vessels. And the Royal Navy Air Station situated at Crail – HMS Jackdaw, proved its worth as a torpedo training base. Don’t forget the German airforce was busy on its bombing raids then and used the Forth as a flight guide to the Glasgow ship building area. In the process, the Forth Rail bridge was very nearly bombed during a raid. Fortunately, the bombs missed their target and landed on a nearby rocky isle.
It was still not over for Crail – in the 1950s, the dread of the Cold War brought the base back to life as a Joint Services school for linguists. How the world has changed since then…
From my vantage point, a part of me hoped to spot some of the area’s grey seals on the shoreline below. Perhaps I’ll just sit here a bit longer and order more coffee and a delectable slice of cheese cake!