Crail Heritage Walk – and the History of Crail

Crail Heritage Walk is an easy historical walking tour from Sandcastle Cottage with coffee, cake or ice cream stops on the way. Whether this is your first time or you are a regular visitor to Crail, I hope you and your family enjoy this walk.

Crail is one of Scotland’s oldest Royal Burghs gaining its first Royal Charter in 1310 from King Robert the Bruce.

Fishing has always played a big part in the local economy. Crail was noted in the middle ages for the export of salted herring and “Crail Capons” which were haddock dried in the sun or smoked by the fire.

Evidence of Crail’s trade with the Netherlands can be seen around the town today. A prime example being the Dutch Tower on the Tolbooth in Marketgate.

Walk Crail
Crail Tolbooth and Museum

The burgh has a long association with royalty. King David 1 resided at Crail Castle and Mary of Guise landed at Fife Ness in 1538 and stayed the night at Balcomie Castle before her wedding to James V in St Andrews Cathedral.

Start of the Crail Heritage Walk

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The walk starts at Sandcastle Cottage at the east end of Nethergate. Walk down the beach path to the 16th Century Doocot which has recently been restored. The Doocot was built for the former nunnery which was nearby and provided a valuable source of meat during the winter months.

Crail Sandcastle Cottage
Sandcastle Cottage at the east end of Nethergate where our walk starts.
Doocot and Priory
Newly restored 16th Century Doocot in Roome Bay and The Priory

Walk back up the path turn left and proceed along Nethergate. On your left hand side you can still see the old Priory Wall. This is all that remains of the Rufus Priory which stood on the foreshore. The baronial style house referred to as The Priory today was built in 1915.

On the south side of Nethergate is Downie Terrace. This was originally built in 1878 by George Downie a farmer from Balcomie to accommodate summer visitors during the Victorian era (for which he received the freedom of the burgh).

Crail Heritage Walk
McKinnon’s School now The Legion Hall

In the middle of the Nethergate you will find McKinnon’s School. The school was built in 1824 by Robert Balfour note the Gothic style windows, gabled porch and ball finial. The building was removed to this site from the entrance to St Mary’s Church when the new school opened in St Andrews Road in 1889. The building became the public library and is now the British Legion Hall.

At the back of the Legion Hall you will find Rumford. This was previously Crail’s Poor House. The buildings were restored by the National Trust for Scotland in 1961.

Crail Heritage Walk

To the right of Rumford overlooking the sea is the site of the Kings Mill. See the information board below. The mill buildings were demolished in the 1920’s. A photograph by Eric Eunson in Crail 1889 shows the mill buildings extending from the Watch House half way down the steps on the coastal path.

The site of the Kings Mills over looking the Firth of Forth
Information Board tells you the history of the Kings Mill

Proceed along the Castle Walk and admire the views over the Firth of Forth towards the Isle of May. Behind the wall is the remains of Crail Castle (now a private residence). The castle was built by David I during the 12th century. David gave it to his son’s widow Countess Ada de Warenne. She left it to her son William I (also known as William the Lion) who used it as the seat of government. Later his Queen Ermengade de Rosumont inherited it as a dowry portion. After her, it passed to Joanna Queen of Alexander II who willed it to Richard de Beaumont. The castle was destroyed in 1544 by Henry VIII’s troops and was a ruin in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots.

The sundial is a fossilised tree trunk surmounted by a table dial. It was relocated from the harbour in 1883. Below the castle wall you will find Maggie Inglis Hole. This was where they tested witches. If they drowned they were cleared of witchcraft however if they survived they were burned at the stake. Thankfully we don’t continue this practice in Crail today.

Crail Heritage Walk
Sundial on Castle Walk

Proceed down Shoregate to the historic harbour. Crail is still a working harbour where crabs and lobsters are landed daily. You can buy freshly cooked crab and lobster from the Crab Shack during the summer months.

Crail Heritage Walk – Crail Harbour

It is believed the Dutch helped to build the original harbour which was used to trade with the Netherlands. The harbour originally had one pier which protected vessels from easterly gales. At the beginning of the 19th century a second pier was built by Robert Stevenson grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson the novelist. Robert Stevenson was also responsible for building the lighthouse on the Isle of May.

Crail Heritage Walk
Crail Harbour

Crail is well known for its harbour which has been well photographed on social media. Why not stop for a coffee at Crail Harbour Gallery. Or just walk around and soak up the atmosphere.

Two buildings which stand out is the large white Customs House which is a late 17th century building with crowstep gables. Note the lintel above the pend with a fishing boat and the initials RW/HD (Richard Wood and Helen Daw) with an anchor. Next to the customs house is Lobster Cottage which dates from the 1630’s. In the far corner next to the beach is the site of the towns gas works. If you look closely you can still see the holes where the roof beams rested. The works made coal gas and a by product pitch was used on local fishing vessels.

Crail Heritage Walk
Lintel above the gate at the Customs House

Proceed up the steep path from the harbour known as “The Hens Ladder” or Bankhead Brae to Westgate. Here you will find the other church in Crail. Holy Trinity Catholic Church began life in 1859 as the United Presbyterian Church and reopened in 1942 as a Catholic Church.

Crail Heritage Walk – High Street

Proceed towards the High Street where you will find a variety of shops from an excellent butcher, baker, fresh fruit, veg, fish, cheeses, and fine wines. There is also a sweet shop, ice cream, card shop, chip shop, art gallery, pharmacist and two convenience stores. There is a cafe in the High Street, The Beehive if you want to stop for some refreshments.

Crail Heritage Walk
“Hen’s Ladder” Bankhead Brae leading up from the harbour

At the end of the High Street you will find the Golf Hotel. This is a former coaching inn and one of the oldest hostelries in Scotland dating back to the 14th century. The present building dates from the 1720’s. It was here in 1786 that the Crail Golfing Society was founded. As you approach the door the Hotel appears to have sunk. In fact it is actually the road outside that has risen over the centuries. The public bar is on the right and if you want to meet the locals this is place to go. On the fireplace at the back you will find a marriage lintel bearing the initials for Thomas Young and Isabella Martin who are thought to be the first owners of the hotel.

J B Penmans shops
Flower displays outside Penman’s Butchers in the High Street
Golf Hotel
Golf Hotel

The large prominent building next to the Golf Hotel and Dan’s Convenience Store is the Tolbooth. The smaller building to the side of the Tolbooth is Crail Museum which is well worth a visit. If you want to find out more about Crail Airfield this is the place to go. There is also memorabilia about old Crail,, the provosts robes, town criers drum, Crail Golfing Society as well as a tourist information and shop.

Victoria Gardens

Before you proceed along Crail Heritage Walk to the Tolbooth and the Museum why not take a slight detour up St Andrews Road toward Victoria Gardens. The gardens are tended by Tom Hutcheon assisted by other volunteers. In spring and summer the garden is filled with colourful bulbs and flowers.

Victoria Gardens
Victoria Gardens with its colourful flower beds

In the top half of the garden you will find an ancient standing stone. This is known as the Standing Stone of Sauchope. The stone was removed from its original site to the east of Crail. It is of Pictish Origin dating from the 8th Century. On one side is a Latin Cross, the stem and arms united by a Celtic wheel with two animals below. The other side has two horses with a rider, one with a lance and a small dog between.

Crail Heritage Walk
Standing Stone of Sauchope

Crail Heritage Walk – The Tolbooth

Crail’s Tolbooth is a prominent building in the town and much photographed. The present building dates from 1598. The lower part was a prison. It was here that Marjorie Paterson was imprisoned in 1625 whilst awaiting trial for witchcraft. The building also housed the local courtroom and was where the town council met before the reorganisation of local government in 1975.

Crail Heritage Walk
Burgh Coat of Arms found on the wall of the Tolbooth in Marketgate

The stone inset on the north wall is an early coat of arms dating from 1602. The tower you see today was built in 1776 incorporating the clock with slated roof reminiscent of a malt kiln. The steeple is home to a Dutch Bell which is the largest in Fife. The bell has an inscription in Dutch, “I was cast in the year of our Lord 1520”. The bell was cast in Rotterdam and until recently rung at 10.00pm. Closing time at the Golf Hotel before the licensing laws were changed. The wind vane at the top of the tower is a Crail Capon. A Capon is a smoked haddock according to James George Mackay in his book History of Fife and Kinross.

Crail Heritage Walk
The Clock Tower with Capon Weather Vane on Top

Today the Tolbooth or town hall is used for a variety of events.

Beyond the Tolbooth, Marketgate is an attractive tree lined street. The trees were originally planted in 1888. On the south side you will find the memorial fountain gifted to the burgh in 1897 by Andrew Mitchell a well known Glasgow merchant to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Crail Heritage Walk
Memorial Fountain

The Merket Cross dates from the 17th Century. The cap and unicorn at the top and octagonal steps were added later in 1887. It was here that important proclamations were read. Punishment was also served here by attachment of an iron collar to the cross.

Crail Heritage Walk
Crail Market Cross

On the North side of Marketgate you will find the Old House which dates from 1686. Look out for a marriage lintel dating from 1686 George Dishington and Isobel Strachan.

Next to the Old House is Kirkmay House which sits in its own grounds with large wall and gateway. The house was built in 1817 by Robert Ingis the owner of Kirkmay Estate. It later became a hotel and is now converted into flats.

Just past Kirkmay House you will find the entrance to St Mary’s Church and Churchyard. On the left hand side outside the church gates is the Blue Stane. According to folklore, the stone was thrown at the church by the Devil from the Isle of May. The stone split into two parts. The other part landing on Balcomie Beach. Still bearing the thumbprint of the devil himself.

Crail Heritage Walk – St Mary’s Church

Records show that the church was consecrated in 1243 by Bishop David De Bernham. However the building dates from 1175. In the early days the church belonged to the Cistercian Nuns of Haddington. In 1517 owing to the fund raising skills of Sir Thomas Myreton Provost of Crail supported by the prioress of Haddington. The church was elevated to the status of Collegiate Church. John Knox preached in the church in June 1559.

Crail Heritage Walk
St Mary’s Church

The most notable minister of St Mary’s was James Sharp who later became Archbishop Sharp. Sharp was brutally murdered on Magus Muir, just outside the village of Strathkinness (near St Andrews), in 1679, by covenanters. There is a memorial on the site which you can visit.

Over the years the church has undergone several alterations. The attractive south side facing the Marketgate dates from 1815. The interior of the church was renovated in 1963.

A 9th Century Celtic Cross and the tombstone of Sir James Ewart, a 16th century collegiate chaplain can be found in the porch.

St Mary’s Churchyard

The churchyard is worth exploring with gravestones dating back to the 16th century. Many of the inscriptions on the gravestones give you an idea of the main occupations in the burgh, farmer, fisherman, merchant.

The oldest grave that of James Lumsden of Airdrie dates from 1598 and can be found in the north west corner of the churchyard.

The Mort House

In the early 1800’s churchyards provided rich picking for body snatchers who sold the bodies to universities for dissection. Crail churchyard was not immune to this trade. In an effort to prevent the thefts, guards were posted in the Kirkyard, sitting in darkness in the Session House with loaded firearms.

In 1826 the Mort House was built to secure the bodies. In summer bodies could be housed for 6 weeks and in winter 3 months. After that date they were no longer useful to the medical practitioners and they could then be released for burial.

The Mort House can be found at the back of the church jutting out from the high wall. Note the thick granite walls, ventilation slits and stout wooden door. The inscription above the door reads “erected for securing the dead”.

The Mort House

In the eastern corner of the graveyard you will find the headless figure of a knight in early 17th century armour, standing between Corinthian pillars decorated with skulls and trophies. This is probably William Bruce of Symbister who died around 1630.

In the graveyard at the back of the church are several war graves of those who died in flying accidents in 1918 and 1939-45. Most of the fatalities occurred while taking part in dangerous low-level training near the Isle of May.

On leaving the churchyard our Crail Heritage Walk proceeds down Kirkwynd back to Sandcastle Cottage. At the foot of Kirk Wynd look out for a large stone set into the building. This was to stop horse drawn carts damaging the building when turning into Nethergate.

Kirk Wynd
Proceed down Kirk Wynd back to Sandcastle Cottage

I do hope you enjoy this walk and have learned something about the history of Crail. If you would like to learn more about the History of Sandcastle Cottage and properties on the north side of Nethergate click on the link.

To learn more about Crail why not visit Crail Museum on Marketgate. You will find details on the website by clicking the highlighted link.

Stay at Sandcastle Cottage

If you would like to stay at Sandcastle Cottage take a look inside by clicking this link alternatively click this link to check our availability. Or click the BOOK NOW button at the foot of the page.

We look forward to welcoming you to Sandcastle Cottage.

Thanks to Helen Armitage at Crail Museum Trust who provided the research for this blog.

Thanks also goes to Crail Preservation Society.

Blog post updated March 2024

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