FOR seafood aficionados who also love the Kingdom of Fife, it’s hard to think of a tastier pleasure than a fish supper on the quayside in the East Neuk.
Although Anstruther’s chip shop is more famous, Pittenweem’s is also top-notch, while the harbour is notable since it remains a working commercial fishing port.
Like its neighbours, Pittenweem has a vibrant culture and array of attractions, and revels in its modern identity as an arty wee place that is itself a work of art. And although the East Neuk has a shared history, each of the villages is well worth visiting in its own right – not least to compare the fish and chips.
With this in mind, Pittenweem makes the ideal base for your East Neuk adventure.
Founded as a fishing village in the early Christian times – St Fillian is said to have converted the Pictish locals – the “place of the caves” as it is known in Pictish and Gaelic came to prominence when an Augustan priory re-located from the Isle of May in 1318.
Pittenweem was made a royal burgh in 1541, when Scotland was an independent seafaring and trading nation; the distinctive Dutch-style architecture throughout the East Neuk is a legacy of this. The harbour was expanded in the 1770s by Sir John Anstruther, who needed a port to ship salt and coal being mined on his lands.
The Pittenweem Witches were held and tortured in the Tolbooth in 1704, after accusations of witchcraft were made by a local boy. One of them was murdered by a lynch mob, the others were eventually pardoned by Queen Anne.
The village was an east coast hub during the Scottish fishing industry’s late 19th, early 20th century heyday, with “herring girls” coming from all over Scotland and beyond to gut and salt the catch, as heard in John Watt’s traditional song, Pittenweem Jo. These days tourism and culture are the biggest industries, though there are still some working fishing boats.
What to do
Begin your visit to Pittenweem with a stroll around the stunning streets and wynds, with their white-washed cottages, bright orange pantile roofs and crow-stepped gables. Admire the boats bobbing in the ancient harbour, which is still home to a morning fish market. You’re also likely to see artists and photographers snapping and sketching away. There’s a small but perfectly-formed beach to enjoy, too, and a lovely pier to walk along.
Parts of the beautiful Old Parish Church on Kirkgate date back to the 13th century, though the official datestone reads 1532. The Tolbooth tower was added in 1588 and by this time Pittenweem was the 12th richest settlement in Scotland.
On the high street, the beautifully-restored Kellie Lodging, built in 1590 as a home for the earls of Kellie, is a must-visit. The family’s country home, 14th-century Kellie Castle, is three miles outside the village. Latterly owned by the Lorimer family, it boasts beautiful interiors and an Arts and Crafts garden.
Hazel Mills is a trustee of the Community Library and Information Centre on Cove Wynd. “Pop in and we’ll tell you all about Pittenweem past and present,” she says. “We can also share leaflets, maps and our popular history walk. Check our website for opening times.”
Also on Cove Wynd is St Fillian’s Cave, believed to date back to the seventh century and still an important site in Scottish Christianity. An atmospheric place of pilgrimage and worship, complete with its own altar, visitors can access it by asking for the key from the nearby Cocoa Tree café.
In August Pittenweem hosts its annual arts festival, a celebration of the visual arts that takes in galleries, studios and – famously – local residents’ houses.
And if you pick up the art bug while you’re here, try a course in stained glass at East Neuk Glass, just outside the village on the Balkaskie Estate. The studio, run by artist Keny Drew, also makes and sells a full range of bespoke stained glass.
Where to eat
The Dory Bistro and Gallery on East Shore pulls in locals and tourists alike with its lively brunch, lunch and dinner options, amid walls adorned with the work by local artists.
The West End Bar on South Loan has tasty bar meals and a pleasant beer garden. The Larachmhor, a traditional harbourside fisherman’s tavern, serves delicious burgers in the friendly bar.
And for that all important fish supper, resident Jackie Simpson recommends Pittenweem Fish and Chip Bar. “It’s small, retro and doesn’t have a website but the fish suppers are just as good as you get in Anstruther. For people of an Edinburgh persuasion, it offers proper chippy sauce as well as vinegar.
The home-baking at the Clock Tower Café on the High Street is also worth shouting about, particularly the caramel shortcake.
Where to shop
Still on the High Street, Pittenweem Chocolate Company is a must-visit attraction for those with a sweet tooth. There’s a breathtaking selection of home-made artisan chocolates, while the aforementioned Cocoa Tree Café not surprisingly serves up the tastiest chocolate cake in town. Pop in after you’ve explored the array of charming galleries on the High Street – and don’t be surprised if you have a new piece of art in tow.
Nicolson’s Sweet and Ice Cream Shop on Mid Shore has more than 200 varieties of sweets and chocolate and darned fine ice cream to boot.
Seaweed ‘n’ Stuff on James Street has a wonderful array of home-made relishes, chutneys and gifts, all made from, you’ve guessed it, seaweed.
Pittenweem Hub on Market Place serves a variety of needs as a newsagent, grocer, pharmacist and post office, while the Pop In, on Jamesgate, is the place to go for vintage and antique furniture.
Where to stay
Cosy: Pretty Albert Cottage B&B offers a warm and homely welcome, a great breakfast and lovely gardens to relax in. Rooms from £65 per night.
Waterfront: The historic House on the Rock offers luxury self-catering accommodation for eight people. Complete with a wood-burning stove that is perfect for snuggling up beside on an autumn evening.
Rooms with a view: Perched high in the village, The Crow’s Nest on School Wynd has a plethora of original features and a private terrace. Sleeps four. From £120 per night.
What to do nearby
The Fife Coastal Path stretches right round the Kingdom’s stunning coastline. The 3.5 mile section from St Monans to Anstruther, via Pittenweem, makes for a pretty and undemanding walk. Walking on north to Crail takes another hour and a half.
It’s just a 10-minute drive – or 90-minute walk – south to Elie Ness Lighthouse, erected in 1907-08 by David Alan Stevenson.
Take a boat trip to the Isle of May from neighbouring Anstruther. A cruise on the May Princess takes around five hours, which includes time to puffin-spot on the island itself.
In the coming weeks I’ll be going to Queensferry, Dumbarton and Battlefield/Pollokshields. Send your hints and tips to: email@example.com