Articles - Fife Coastal Path
In Scotland’s capital, the Old Town thoroughfare running from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace is often referred to as the Royal Mile. Castlehill leads down to the Lawnmarket which continues into the High Street. A short walk past John Knox’s House this becomes the Canongate leading to Horse Wynd which turns past the front of the new Scottish Parliament building. From the Royal Mile, a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways fall away to either side. These alleyways, or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’, once had gates that could be locked at night to protect the inhabitants from thieves and vagabonds.
During much of the year the Royal Mile is busy, thronged with visitors. Some come to wave at the occasional parades of passing royalty. Others delight in spotting politicians or celebrities, busking musicians or street theatre performances. Treading in famous footsteps where dramatic events in Scottish history took place is also an attraction. Then there are those visitors who are prepared to venture below present day street level to learn about the lives of the ordinary people who once lived in the tenements.
Standing up to eight stories high, these buildings were known as the world’s first skyscrapers. Densely populated, they each housed up to 600 people of all classes and trades. Society was then organised vertically. The wealthy lived at the top of a building and the poor lived amongst the filth at the bottom. As there was a general lack of sanitation throughout the town, everybody suffered.
The entrances, or closes off the main street, were often named with a simple description of the businesses or activities carried on there. In Bakehouse Close you would smell baking bread. Fleshmarket Close and Skinner’s Close were less savoury. This was where the slaughtermen, butchers and tanners carried on their trades. A lawyer could be consulted in Advocate’s Close or a ship’s chandler in Anchor Close.
Other closes were named after prominent citizens who dwelt there. For example, Pearson’s Close was named after Alexander Pearson, 17th century merchant, while Stewart’s Close, was probably named after William Stewart, merchant, magistrate and resident in 1710. These names would change over time. Thus, Mary King’s Close came to be named after a comparatively wealthy business lady.
Night time in the Old Town could be dark and dangerous with robbers lurking to waylay the unwary. To help lessen the dangers, the Burgh Council, in the winter of 1554, issued a regulation requiring trades people to light a lantern each evening in front of their booths. It had to be lit between the hours of 5 o’clock in the evening and 9 o’clock the next morning. Failure to comply could incur a fine. Without this early form of street lighting, a walk through these crowded warrens of interlinked passages in falling darkness must have been a frightening prospect.
An apocryphal story that has been retold many times would have us believe that Mary King’s Close was sealed tight with the inhabitants trapped inside at the time of the plague in the 1600’s. This drastic action was supposedly taken to stop the disease spreading further.
The sealing of the building didn’t happen, but what is true is that in 1753, the Burgh Council decided to develop a new building on the site. The houses at the top of Mary King’s Close were knocked down and part of the lower sections were kept and used as foundations for the Royal Exhange Building, now known as Edinburgh City Chambers, on the High Street.The remnants of the houses that remain below have been re-opened, studied in detail and it’s now possible to wander through Mary King’s Close (with a guide) to gain an insight into the lives and times and ghosts of some of the past residents.
From documentary evidence a fair amount is known about Mary King’s life. She owned a market stall selling fine lace collars and dresses. Business was so good that she could afford to raise her four children in relative luxury. Her wood panelled home was higher than ground level and away from the waste and rubbish that would have run down the alleyways. Though her furniture was sparse, she did own a ‘long wooden settle’, the equivalent of a modern day couch or sofa.
Mary was also the proud owner of a ‘tappit hen’ and a quaich. From such fine silver drinking vessels, she enjoyed many a measure of wine or ale. This indulgence was another indication of Mary’s wealth. In her testament she left a number of belongings to her children including gold rings, silver spoons, gowns, considerable quantities of fabric ruffs, tin chamber pots and a velvet doublet.
Her house was lit by lamps called ‘crusies’ in which fish oil or animal fat was burned. Adding to the aromas from these fuels would have been the smells emanating from the contents of a bucket which stood in a corner of a room. This was the early form of Edinburgh’s sanitation system!As well as being used as a toilet, this was a sick bucket and a receptacle for food waste. It was the job of the youngest able member of the family to take this bucket and empty it out – once in the morning and once at night! The waste eventually ran down through the alleyways to the Nor’ Loch – now better known as Princess Street Gardens. Death by drowning in the foetid water of the Nor’ Loch was a punishment handed down to those committing serious crimes such as murder.
On a present day tour of Mary King’s Close, your guide, dressed in period costume will give you more colourful details and ask you to imagine that you have stepped back in time to the year 1645 when the plague was at its worst. You are now standing in the Craig family home near the foot of Mary King’s Close.
You will learn that Mr. John Craig, head of the household, has died of pneumonic plague that very morning. His body lies on the floor, bound in a sheet, awaiting collection. John had been a gravedigger at Greyfriars churchyard and unfortunately, he infected the rest of his family. His wife Janet and three children, young John, Robert and Thomas will be taken into quarantine at Sciennes, a district outside the Old Town.
Pneumonic plague was the worst of the two forms of the disease, the other being bubonic plague. Symptoms were similar to modern day influenza – feelings of lethargy and nausea went with being sick every few minutes into that small bucket now placed by the side of a sufferer’s bed.
As well as internal bleeding, a victim’s skin would turn black. This discolouration gave rise to the common name of the plague - the Black Death.A high percentage of those who caught the plague didn’t survive. There was no cure for the worst form though there was a partial cure for the lesser bubonic plague. In many instances, the illness could be a slow death sentence.
Outbreaks of this ‘contagion’ were common place during the 16th and 17th centuries and over the course of many years, the Scottish authorities put great effort into attempts at protecting the country’s ports against infection. But though ships required a bill of health declaring them to be plague-free, the captains of some vessels were frequently fined for trying to sidestep the regulations.
Many people, particularly the wealthy fled the town, so a careful watch was kept on the remaining inhabitants who were threatened with fines and imprisonment if caught trying to leave. Certain everyday activities were banned such as wakes, penny weddings and the wearing of a plaid. It was thought that a person wearing a plaid, a length of tartan material wrapped round the body and often over the head, might be attempting to hide their sickness.
The Craig’s house, like those of other victims, would have been cleaned by specially appointed plague cleaners who wore grey tunics marked with a white saltire, the cross of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland. Goods, bedding and clothing were usually burned. The billowing smoke from the flowering shrub, Broom was thought to ‘cleanse the air’.
Whilst in their homes during the plague, families like the Craigs received charitable donations which included ale, wine, bread and coal. These provisions were delivered on a daily basis from residents who were still healthy enough but who went in fear. This practice was considered better for all concerned and ensured that the infected people stayed in their homes. Thus, the well enough members of the community had good reason to give generously.
If a household could afford treatment, they would send for Dr. George Rae. The good doctor would lance the buboes (abscesses) then cauterize and seal the wounds with a red hot poker. This entire operation was carried out without any form of anaesthetics – that particular process had yet to be discovered. The pain inflicted during this treatment must have been awful. On the other hand, there was a half chance that a life might be saved.
At the time, it was believed that the plague was spread by miasmas – foul smelling poisons in the air. To prevent these smells affecting him while attending to his patients, Dr. Rae wore a floor length, thick, black leather coat type of garment. Over his head and face he wore an equally thick, black leather mask with a long, beak shaped protuberance. The ’beak’ was filled with sweet smelling herbs and spices that acted as a crude filter.
As strange as his costume appears, it did work for Dr. Rae since he lived for another thirty years after the plague left the city. It is known that he was the second plague doctor to take up the job after John Paulitious, the first official plague doctor, who died, in June 1645.
Dr. George Rae was employed by the council on June 13th of that year and given the sizeable salary of £100 Scots a month. By November, incredibly, he had negotiated a further £10 Scots per month – he was not expected to live long!
Though it took longer elsewhere, the worst of the plague was over in Edinburgh by the autumn of 1646. By then, the Council had second thoughts regarding the Doctor’s payment. George Rae was still chasing his money almost 10 years later. He won eventually and claimed an unprecedented yearly pension of £1200 Scots.
The Black Death, as we now know, was not spread by miasmas, but by fleas brought in on the backs of rats. The rats probably arrived from Europe on the ships that sailed into Leith harbour. The fleas would jump from the rats and bite into their human victims.
Some of the original passageways off the Royal Mile, as well as now having restaurants and bars, are still used as short cuts between streets. They have long been made safe with modern paving, lighting, and handrails where necessary. No longer will you hear the cry, “Gardyloo,” (from the French ‘regarde l’eau’) as some householder pours the contents of a bucket of filthy waste water from the height of an upstairs window opening. But it’s still possible to get a sense of the conditions that prevailed and the people who lived there hundreds of years ago.
First published in The Highlander
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage
Further Information: www.realmarykingsclose.com
Pittenweem is a small fishing village on Scotland’s east coast. It is found in that lovely part of Fife known as the East Neuk(corner) of Fife.
Behind the village, the land is fertile and the farms have long had a reputation for producing good food now including raspberries and blueberries.
From Pittenweem High Street, a few steps will take you to the top end of one of the steep wynds that lead down to the harbour. Look out over the red pantiled roofs. In the distance, across an expanse of the Firth of Forth, you might be able to make out the Isle of May, the Bass Rock and on the opposite shore, East Lothian stretching away from Edinburgh.
Red or orange pantiled roofs on white painted houses are a common building style in this part of Fife. As trade developed with the Low Countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, the tiles would originally have arrived as ballast on the boats that sailed back across the North Sea, first towards England then up the east coast. Pittenweem people soon found these tiles made excellent roofing material.
Crow stepped gables embellishing some of the buildings are another architectural feature that were first seen in the Low Countries.
It has been suggested that the name Pittenweem is derived from, ‘pitt’ a Pictish word for place and from a Scottish Gaelic phrase na-h-Uaimh, translating to ‘the place of the caves’.
On this rocky coastline there are a number of cave-like indentations and there is a cave in the village known as St. Fillan’s Cave which has served various purposes over the years including as a home for hermits and monks.
Pittenweem has been a fishing port since the days when the earliest Fife fishermen found the stretch of safe sandy shore where they could haul out their boats.
Sadly, since the shoals of herring have moved elsewhere, the east coast fishing industry is no longer as busy as in the past. However, Pittenweem remains an important shellfish port and market in the East Neuk of Fife. Some fish is also landed, but mostly as a by-catch and much of that is carried off in refrigerated trucks for export to France, Spain and Holland.
You’ll have to be up very early to see the catches of lobster, prawns and crab being landed and sold in the market.
There may also be a few artists out and about, attempting to capture on canvas the effects of the dawning light as it strikes the village and boats tied up in the harbour.
If you’re tempted to join them, you may be moved to sketch or paint a scene in the winding streets and alleyways that seem to have grown haphazardly over the centuries.
There are some professional artists living in the village while others, along with a number of craft workers, live and work nearby in the East Neuk.
Local art work is exhibited in a few permanent galleries in Pittenweem, but it would be fair to say that most visitors and art lovers come to see the works on show during the village’s Arts Festival in August.
At the official opening ceremony down at the harbour, there will be a ceilidh with music and dancing. Later in the evening, to mark the occasion, local people will add extra sounds and bursts of colour to the sky by setting off fireworks from their gardens.
Many of these gardens have been brought to their best at this time, with flowers cascading down walls, tumbling from umpteen pots and hanging baskets and from the large troughs set out along the sea front.
One elderly lady who tends her very small, ‘secret garden’ behind her house, gives visitors the chance to look around and should they want to, make a donation to the charity ‘Help for Heroes’, for the privilege.
But probably the most intriguing feature of this festival is that the artwork on display is shown in people’s attics, living rooms, conservatories, garden sheds and garages as well as in the ‘proper’ galleries.
There can be around 90 of these very different exhibition spaces. A large white number on a blue board at each door shows where visitors can view and buy the art work.
You’ll find every conceivable form of artistic endeavour including sculpture, paintings, ceramics and textiles.
The local artists and artists from much further afield are often present, manning the stalls and walls and talking to visitors.
Because of its reputation for artistic excellence and its unique festival setting, many well-known Scottish and internationally acclaimed artists have accepted the invitation to be guest exhibitors at Pittenweem festival over the last 30 years.
As well, in recognition of the importance of encouraging young artists and undergraduates to establish themselves on leaving art school, the Festival offers two bursary awards each year to students in their final year or graduates from the previous five years, from any Scottish school of art. Candidates must also show a connection to Fife.
Like its much bigger cousin across the Firth of Forth, the Pittenweem Arts Festival continues to expand and now includes talks from visiting artists and musical performances.
You could also go on a guided walk along the coast with a knowledgeable geologist or take part in a sewing session. You might also enjoy the upholstery or enamelling workshops, a play or a storytelling session.
To get the most from this festival, you really need to be there for more than one day. Children will particularly like finding the numerous bicycles decorated with shells and flowers that have been dotted round the village.
The old fashioned sweet shop is another attraction. Here, from the sweet jars on display, you might be tempted to buy some Sherbet Lemons or Rhubarb Rock. If the sun is shining, treat yourself to an ice cream.
The villages of the East Neuk of Fife have always been competitive and though the larger ones, including Pittenweem have their own fish and chip shop, arguably, the Anstruther Fish and Chip Bar and Restaurant is the most famous.
Like the tradition of fireworks being set off at the start of Pittenweem’s Art Festival, it may become your good habit to go for a walk after a day at the galleries.
Take time to stroll the mile or so along the Fife Coastal Path from Pittenweem to Anstruther. The path follows the sea shore along the edge of Anstruther golf course. Look out for the small bay filled with millions of white shells. Now find a flat rock and add your own mini environmental artwork made of shells to the others on display.
There may be a queue at the restaurant but your fish tea will be a splendid finale to a grand day out in Pittenweem and the East Neuk of Fife.