The Royal Burgh of Earlsferry

The following introduction to Earlsferry is from The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland Volume 2 (1896)

Earlsferry a decaying coast village possessing the status of a Royal Burgh, in Kilconquhar Parish, Fife, until 1891, when, with all the coast district of the parish south of the railway line and the Cocklemill Burn, it was transferred to the parish of Elie.    It is traditionally said to have been constituted a Royal Burgh by Malcolm Ceannmor at the request of Macduff, the Earl of Fife, who, in his flight from the vengeance of Macbeth, was concealed in a cave at Kincraig Point, and thence was ferried over the firth to Dunbar by fishermen of the place.    The legend on the face of it is false;  but whatever its date, the original Charter having been accidentally destroyed by fire in Edinburgh, James VI. granted a new one in 1589, which speaks of Earlsferry as 'of old, past memory of man, erected into ane free burgh'.    Then and afterwards it seems to have been a place of considerable  trade, with two weekly markets and two annual fairs, the privilege of levying dues and customs, and the right of returning a member to Parliament.    These are all things of the past;  but Earlsferry is still governed by a provost, who has a seat on the County Council, a baillie, a treasurer, and six councillors, and has its town-hall(1872), with quaint old steeple, a gaswork, golf links, and a public school.   An abundant supply of gravitation water was obtained in 1882 from near Kellie Law at a cost of £11,000, conjointly with Elie and St Monance, followed by an extensive system of drainage.   The old custom of ringing the curfew bell still exists in the ancient burgh.   Pop. 1891 304.   See Elie.  (Appended at bottom)

Earlsferry - history

Today most people think of Earlsferry as an extension of its bigger neighbour Elie but of course it never has been, and even today the tiny number of locals left still regard themselves as 'Ferry folk'!   It was not until 1929 when the two villages united, with one local council running both, and  calling the new 'bairn 'The Royal Burgh of Elie and Earlsferry' that the two became one so to speak.    The proper name for the villages, which is now being used more and more, is 'Elie and The Royal Burgh of Earlsferry'.   However that is recent history, lets go back a bit before 1929.

What is now the village of Earlsferry came into importance in the mid 12th century when it became the landing place for pilgrims crossing the Firth of Forth on their way to St Andrews and beyond.     Although the story of Macduff's escape is  often credited with the reason for the village being so named, it was probably called the Earl's ferry for the same reason as the crossing further up the Firth was called the Queen's ferry, that is after the benefactor who donated the ferry.   Queensferry after the good and saintly Queen Margaret and Earlsferry  after the Earl of Fife (Macduff).

Most, if not all of the ancient Royal Burghs became so because of a  connection with the pre- Reformation Church...in Earlsferry's case the ferry from North Berwick which was run by the Cistercian Nuns there......Macduff not only owned land in Fife but also land around North Berwick some of which he donated to the nuns.   As the northern end of the link it is reasonable to surmise  that, because of the huge number of pilgrims traveling, benefits would accrue to those helping them on their journey, pilgrims were the forerunners of the tourists of today.   In fact when you really think of it the Old Church organized and ran a very lucrative 'pilgrim trade' (much like the 'tourist trade' of today) - that benefitted not only those 'in the know' but all those around them!    The destination of the pilgrims was the Shrine containing relics of St Andrew in the cathedral town of that name ....St Andrews.       In those days the fear of hell and damnation was very real.    Pilgrimage, prayer, and donations (a ferry for instance) by those that could afford them, were all ways to avoid the deadly drop into hell!   One has to remember that this movement of pilgrims was going on all over Europe, especially from the 12th to beginning of the 16th centuries when the influence of the Church was at its peak.

The only evidence that remains in Earlsferry  today are the Chapel/Hospital ruins on Chapel Green, the name Grange (as in Grange Farm,  Grange Road) and, on the west end of beach the jumble of rocks and slabs that are the remains of Earlsferry's ancient pier,.....which would have been rebuilt a few times over its lifetime though if you look closely you can make out the baseline which is probably as it was when originally built some 800 years ago.   Unfortunately part of the ancient  the  pier  was used in a vain attempt to 'manufacture' sea defences by a resident of Earlsferry in 1996, after a storm had removed much of the sand dunes.     The Grange farm is where the nuns and their 'lay' helpers would grow the vegetables, herbs and grain used to provide for themselves and pilgrims who were unable to provide for themselves.....the Church was duty bound to provide food and accommodation for  poorer pilgrims.    Then there is the Cadger's Road which ran from Earlsferry to the Royal Palace in Falkland traces of which can still be seen on the 4th and 17th fairways of the golf course.      Long before it became 'his' (the cadger's) road it would have been the Pilgrims Way that went over by Rires to St Andrews.   I remember in the mid 1950's, the local farmer ploughed up the old Right of Way that passed through the field just to the west of Colinsburgh.    Maggie (my wife) and I retraced that part of the Way a few years ago and it was still recognisable as such right up to the cottages at Rires...even traces of the last Rires castle can be seen in what is now a field dyke just south of the cottages.   In the 1950's stiles to allow easy passage still existed beyond Rires, sadly all gone now with the refencing that has happened since. 

With the Royal Burgh having good connections in Edinburgh and with the other Royal Burghs of Fife and the Lothians, a thriving trade in wool was begun with the Lowlands of Holland.    Culross  in the west of Fife was the centre of this trade in Scotland, with Veere being the partner in Holland.    Veere is well worth a visit by anyone interested in the trading links of medieval Fife.   With the decline of the wool trade and the unrest in the Church things started to change by the end of the 15th century....upheaval that would bring complete change to most of Europe, not just our Royal Burgh! 

Earlsferry - now

After the Reformation Earlsferry went into steady decline, as did most of the towns and villages that had been associated with the Old Church.   Fishing and weaving were the main occupations of the 'Ferry folk' and by the end of the 18th century the village was dying.    The town of St Andrews was also in this state  ...so much so in fact that plans were afoot to have the University moved to Perth.    St Andrews was 'saved' by the astounding energy and efforts of  Provost Playfair.    Earlsferry by the arrival of the railway line which reached and terminated at Kilconquhar in 1857.    The Royal Burgh was about to enter a new phase in its long history, as, along with neighbouring Elie the villages became favourite places for sea-bathing.....a get-away from city life, especially after the Forth Rail bridge was built in 1890.....by this time Elie had a railway station and the centre of Edinburgh was less than couple of hours away.

 The following entry for Elie is from The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland Volume 2 (1896)

Elie or Ely, a small police burgh and aparish on the SE coast of Fife.   The town stands close to the shore at the head of a bay of its own name, and has a station on the East of Fife section of the North British, 4 3/4 miles WSW of Anstruther, 14 ENE of Thornton Junction, and 44 3/4 NE of Edinburgh (via the Forth Bridge).   In bygone times a place of some importance, it retains a few antique mansions in a street near the beach, but mainly consists of modern well-built houses.   It has for a long time been a place of considerable resort for summer sea-bathing, and is even claimed by some as one of the best health resorts, particularly in winter., of any place in Scotland;  but carries on little trade, although it possesses an excellent natural harbour, much improved by quays and a pier, and affording safe and accessible shelter during gales from the W or SW.    The bay is 7 furlongs wide across the entrance, and thence measures 3 1/2 to its utmost recess;  it is flanked on the E by Elie Ness, and by Chapel Ness on the west.   Wadehaven, a little to the E of the harbour, has depth of from 20 to 22 feet of water at ordinary tide, and is said to have been named after General Wade, who recommended it to the government as a suitable harbour for ships of the Royal Navy.    Immediately to the west is the small old Royal Burgh of Earlsferry, on whose capital links an elegant golf clubhouse has been erected;  and Elie itself has a post office, with money order, savings bank, and telegraph departments, a branch of the National Bank, Elie and Earlsferry Savings Bank, 2 hotels, a gaswork, waterworks (conjointly with Earlsferry and St Monance), a subscription library of 4000 volumes, the old parish church (1630, re-seated 1885), with a spire and two stained glass windows, the Wood Memorial Free Church (1887), with a tower, a public school, and a coastguard station, curling, lawn tennis, and golf clubs, and an excellent system of drainage.   Having in 1865, along with the villages of Liberty and Williamsburgh, adopted the General Police Act, the united burgh is governed by a provost, 2 baillies, and three police commissioners, with a town-clerk and a treasurer.   Pop. (1881) 625,  (1891) 723.

The parish down to about 1939 formed part of Kilconquhar.   It is bounded W and N by Kilconquhar and Carnbee, NE by St Monance, and SE by the Firth of Forth, which here has a minimum width of 8 1/4 miles.   The Moorcambus detached part (containing 650 acres) situated to the north-west of the parish, and lying naturally into the parish of Kilconquhar, was in 1891 transferred by the Boundary Commission to Kilconquhar parish;  but in return all the coast district of Kilconquhar south of the railway line and of the Cocklemill Burn was transferred to the parish of Elie.   This addition to the area of the parish includes the Royal Burgh of Earlsferry and the villages of Liberty and Williamsburgh, and places the united burgh wholly within the parish of Elie.   The surface is generally flat, and rises nowhere to a hill.    Kilconquhar Loch (4x3 furl.) touches the northern boundary on the east, and the Cocklemill Burn traces the north-western border of the extended parish.   The rocks belong chiefly to the Carboniferous formation, but include, on the coast, greenstone, basalt, clinkstone, and trap-tufa.    The carboniferous rocks, too, are traversed by trap-dykes;  and they comprise sandstone, limestone, shale, coal, and clay-ironstone.   Some 50 acres are under wood; and nearly all the rest of the land, excepting the links, is in tillage.   Natives were Robert Traill (1642-1716) a Divine of The Church of Scotland, and Jemes Horsburgh. F.R.S. (1762-1836) the eminent hydrographer.    Elie House, to the NNE of the town was built towards the close of the 17th century, and is a large edifice in the Renaissance style, with beautiful grounds.   Its owner is William Baird, Esq. (born 1848; suc. 1864).   Elie is in the presbytery of St Andrews and Synod of Fife;  the living is worth £70.   The public school, with accommodation for 160 children, had (1891) an average attendance of 101, and grant of £94, 16s.   Valuation (1866) £6136,  (1882) £7234,  (1892) £8587, 13S, 6D.   Pop.  (1801) 730,  (1831)  1029,  (1861) 826,  (1871) 775,  (1881) 670,  (1891) 1172.   Ord.Sur., sh.41, 1857.

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