History highlights on the Fife Pilgrim Way

06 October 2023
The Fife Pilgrim Way is a 64-mile walking trail that winds from the Firth of Forth in West Fife, through the region’s industrial heartlands, to the world-famous tourist destination of St Andrews. Marjory Wood tells its story...

There are two suggested starting points: The Royal Burgh of Culross (pronounced Coo-riss), Scotland’s most complete example of a burgh of the 17th and 18th centuries; and North Queensferry in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Both paths converge on the city of Dunfermline, which has attracted pilgrims for centuries to visit St Margaret’s miraculous shrine at Dunfermline Abbey.

Fife Pilgrim Way at Pittencrieff Park, Dunfermline

Large scale pilgrimage to Dunfermline and St Andrews had a considerable impact on the Kingdom of Fife’s economy, landscape, and religious and cultural life. It led to the development and maintenance of a sophisticated and complex network of ferries, roads, bridges, chapels, hospitals, and inns for pilgrims who arrived in Fife by land and sea.

Opened in 2019, the Fife Pilgrim Way is managed and maintained by Fife Coast and Countryside Trust (FCCT).

A rich depth of history

“The Fife Pilgrim Way was designed to take walkers through Fife’s industrial heartlands,” explains FCCT’s Communications Manager Audrey Peebles. “The route reflects the many paths travelled by pilgrims since medieval times. These areas are not magnets for modern-day tourists, but they have a rich depth of history, culture and industrial heritage. The idea was to give these areas a share in the economic benefits that a long-distance walking route brings to the communities it passes through.”

Fife’s people and landscape have been shaped by coal mining for hundreds of years, particularly in west and central Fife. Between Dunfermline and Glenrothes the Fife Pilgrim Way passes through or skirts places that were vibrant mining communities: Townhill and Kingseat (northeast of Dunfermline), Kelty, Lochore, Crosshill, Auchterderran and Kinglassie.

One such community, which is sadly lost forever, is Lassodie, just to the north of Loch Fitty. It had four working pits and a population of nearly 2000 in its heyday of the early 1900s. The last colliery closed in 1931 and the village was gradually abandoned. No trace remains except for the war memorial on the side of the B912 Kingseat to Kelty road, just before it crosses the M90 motorway. 

More recently, opencast mining has dominated central Fife, though this was the method of extracting coal from the 16th to 19th centuries. 

The Fife Pilgrim Way climbs through the former opencast site of St Ninians, to the west of Kelty, now the location of a curious land art installation that can be seen from the M90 motorway. Renowned landform artist Charles Jencks has created grassy hills at the top of a spiral path - known locally as the walnut whip – that’s dotted with rusty relics from the mining era. You can divert into the windy path or just continue on the main trail to the east.

Deep mining arrived in the later 19th century with technological advancements and greater demand for coal. The Fife Coal Company was established in 1872, mainly to work underground pits around Kelty, though it took over many other pits in west and central Fife and became a major employer. In the years leading up to the First World War, around 20,000 miners were producing just under 10 million tons of coal every year in the Kingdom’s collieries. But with the decline in the demand for coal the mines started to close in the 1950s.

If the mining era is of interest, step off the path in Kelty to visit two evocative memorials: a bronze statue of a miner outside the community centre in main street; and the memorial to the Lindsay Colliery at the bottom of Station Road on the A909 junction.

The next significant landmark is Lochore Meadows Country Park where the Fife Pilgrim Way hugs the northern shore of Loch Ore. If you need to ask a local for directions, be sure to ask for the ‘Meadies’ as it’s known locally.

Once the home of seven collieries, the demise of mining left a derelict landscape: a dirty loch surrounded by abandoned collieries and housing, rubbish and smouldering coal bing spoil. In 1967 Fife County Council embarked on an ambitious £1 million reclamation project to provide land for forestry, farming, industry and recreation. Six years later the planting of one million trees began such as rowan, alder, hazel, willow, ash and Scots pine. Now there are 1,200 acres of free-to-access recreational space with watersports, playparks, walking and cycling trails, golf, and fishing.

Where the golf course is today, stood the Mary Pit, sunk in 1902 to access an estimated 30 million tons of coal. The iconic pit head frame of the second shaft at the Mary Pit was the first of its kind in Scotland. Now a Scheduled Monument, it stands as testament to a proud mining heritage and there is an interpretation panel nearby.

As you leave the Meadies, stop to take in Lochore Castle and learn about its medieval history on the interpretation panel and carved stone timeline. Between there and Kinglassie look north to the massive development site of Westfield, where an ‘energy from waste’ facility is being constructed. This was once one of Europe’s largest opencast coal mines and, at over 1000 acres, is now one of Scotland’s largest brownfield sites.

Lochore Castle by Bob Marshall

Continue on the Fife Pilgrim Way and keep an eye out for Gothenburg taverns or pubs – known locally as the Goths. Set up in Fife pit villages, they were named after a Swedish movement that aimed to eliminate the sale of alcohol for profit. Instead, profits went to local improvement schemes. Also look out for miners’ welfare and social clubs, many now sadly closed up.

The textile trade

Another of Fife’s most important industries was textiles. Dunfermline was famous for its silk and linen and an original loom is on display in Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries. It’s a short stroll off the Fife Pilgrim Way route to visit this 5-star visitor attraction with its museum, exhibitions, shop and café.

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The fast flowing River Leven meant that Leslie, on the edge of Glenrothes, flourished as a centre of spinning, bleaching and papermaking in the 19th century. 

The river rushes past as you arrive in the town and you can imagine the cacophony of industry on its banks and the crowds of workers lining up for work – at one time in their thousands.

Prinlaws, on the western edge of Leslie, was built by John Fergus & Co Ltd to house the workforce for their spinning mills and bleach fields. Most of the buildings have gone, though there are still bits of the bleach fields to be seen. There are remains of lades and sluices and a single chimney stands by the river.

As you approach the old railway viaduct (which carries the footpath), this area was the site of Leslie Lint Mill and Sparrow Snuff Mill. The viaduct offers a good view of the only mill still in existence, Sapphire Paper Mill, which manufactures specialist paper products.

The new town of Glenrothes, almost half-way along the Fife Pilgrim Way, is Fife’s administrative centre. But it was originally planned to house miners expected to work in the Rothes pit, one of Scotland’s most modern and productive mines. The colliery only lasted four years due to geographical faults and flooding and the town was developed as a manufacturing centre to provide jobs and housing overspill from Glasgow. 

This first half of the Fife Pilgrim Way appropriately arrives in the small town of Markinch, a popular Pilgrim resting place. Today it’s synonymous with Haig’s whisky bottling plant and the red and brown square building still overlooks the town.

Markinch Parish Church, dedicated to St Drostan, is well worth a visit and tours are available. There’s been a place of worship here for at least a thousand years and the first written record of it comes from the time of MacBeth, around 1050.

Markinch Church by Bob Marshall

All that is left of the Norman church built here by the MacDuff Earls of Fife in the 12th century is the Romanesque tower, one of the finest examples of its kind in Scotland. 

From Markinch the Fife Pilgrim Way leads to the small towns of Windygates and Kennoway and then open countryside to charming Ceres and historic St Andrews. 

Visit FCCT’s website where the whole trail is divided into seven sections with route information, history, terrain, and weather.

* The Fife Pilgrim Way was developed in partnership with many organisations including Fife Council, Fife Tourism Partnership, community groups, local communities and volunteers. Funding came from several sources including the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Fife Council and LEADER.

* There is an opportunity for local businesses and hospitality providers to benefit from the Fife Pilgrim Way. FCCT’s Tourism and Business Partnership Scheme showcases businesses and services on their website. That way visitors can find accommodation providers, choose a café or restaurant, or find out about the many interesting places to visit and shop.

* Fife Coast & Countryside Trust gratefully acknowledge Dr Ian Bradley’s book ‘The Fife Pilgrim Way’ in the writing of this article.

Fife Pilgrim Way sign

Further reading:

Fife Pilgrim Way website

The Story of Fife Pilgrim Kingdom

FCCT online shop for Fife Pilgrim way merchandise