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Roger McCann

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When Pittenweem becomes an Art Gallery

Posted 2017-03-16 15:06:56

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.

                                         


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