SOME may accuse me of cheating, but this week I’ve decided to feature not one, but two of Fife’s hidden gems.
Leslie and Markinch are two of the old villages around which the new town of Glenrothes was formed, right in the centre of the Kingdom. The former sits to the west of the town, the latter to the east.
Many folk drive straight past them on the way to Fife’s more famous and glamorous destinations and attractions. But history buffs and walkers in particular are missing out, since both have ancient roots, lovely settings settings and fascinating stories to tell. I can also confirm that you get an tasty scone in both.
Before Glenrothes came along in 1947, Leslie was the biggest and most important settlement in central Fife. It goes back to the 13th century when the lands, then called Fettykill, were granted to nobleman Norman de Leslie. The name changed to Leslie in 1455 to honour Sir James Leslie, first Earl of Rothes.
Leslie was granted burgh status by James VII, and grew up as a mill village producing textiles and snuff. In the 1840s, following the arrival of steam, Leslie became a papermaking town. The arrival of the railways resulted in the 14-arch Cabbagehall Viaduct – now a footpath – that separates Leslie from Glenrothes.
The earliest reference to Markinch – meaning horse-inch island/haugh in Gaelic – goes back to the 11th century, though the neolithic remains all around (more of which later) highlight how people have been living in the area for much longer. Once the capital of Fife, part of the tower of the village’s parish church, St Drostan’s, dates back to the 12th century.
During the industrial revolution, Markinch also became paper-making town, home to Tullis Russell, a big employer in the area until 2015. Whisky distiller Haig had its headquarters in the town from the late 19th century, and the huge red-brick former bottling plant that closed in 1984 (it is now a business park) is still a landmark on the main Dundee to Edinburgh railway line, on which Markinch is a stop.
The two villages served grand houses in the area. Leslie House was built in 1667 as country seat to the earls of Rothes. It was long one of the most admired houses in Scotland, containing pictures by Rembrandt and Sir Joshua Reynolds, becoming a Church of Scotland home for the elderly in the 1950s. It burned down in 2009 and now sadly lies derelict, deemed a building at risk.
Balbirnie House and gardens in Markinch was remodelled in the late 18th to early 19th century, and was home to the Balfour family for generations. It was acquired by Glenrothes Development Corporation, who laid out what is now Balbirnie Golf Course, one of the best in Fife. The house was developed into an upmarket hotel in 1990, but the 400-acres of parkland and woodland around it remain one of the most beautiful public parks in Scotland.
What to do
Leslie and Markinch are just 10 minutes from each other by car or bus, or around an hour’s walk.
Let’s start in Leslie, at The Green, the old gathering place at the easterly end of the village. Set amid pretty terraced houses and a beautiful church (now flats), The Green also contains an imposing War Memorial and the Bull Stone, the metre-high granite boulder believed to date back from crueller times when bull-baiting was a popular pastime at fairs. The worn part is where the bulls were tethered.
The Greenside Hotel makes for a pleasant lunch spot, and it’s also a great place to see live music. “The Greenside has been a tour stop for breakthrough bands from across the UK, Europe and the US for years,” says Kirsty Smith. “Sometimes they come to Leslie before Glasgow!”
From there, start walking along Leslie’s famously long high street, which has a reputation for neverending pub crawls. The Burns Tavern is a traditional cosy spot to enjoy a swift half, as is the Prinlaws at the other end of the high street. The cottages and Victorian buildings in between highlight Leslie’s once thriving industrial past.
Take a left down Glenwood Road and Cabbagehall Viaduct gradually reveals itself. Take a right up Douglas Road and you’ll come to the stunning vistas of the Lomond Hills that dominate the west end of the village. There’s also an excellent wee nine-hole golf course over this way.
Those looking for a more challenging walk can also start the 15km Lomond Loop from Leslie High Street, taking in the beautiful Lomond Hills Park before heading up to the summit of East Lomond (known locally as Falkland Hill) which affords stunning views across Fife and beyond. “My favourite walk in the world,” says Fiona McDonald. “It’s such an underrated part of Fife. Take a picnic and blow the cobwebs away.”
Over in Markinch, start your tour at the railway station, taking in Haig’s as you make your way along the High Street, on to Balbirnie and Betson Streets, and start getting a feel for life in this family-friendly village, which is increasingly popular with Edinburgh commuters. Then head up Commercial Street past the handsome stone houses and cottages in this oldest part of the village, where St Drostan’s sits stoically on the hill.
From there it’s just a five-minute walk to the gates of magnificent Balbirnie Park. There are a multitude of parkland and woodland trails to enjoy on foot, bike or horseback, not to mention one of the most beautiful rhododendron collections in Scotland and an array of exotic trees. It’s also a wildlife haven. When you’re ready for refreshments, Balbirnie House Hotel’s delicious afternoon tea awaits. Mark Gourlay, from Glenrothes, says: “I go to Balbirnie Park three or four times a week to walk my dogs and it never looks the same two days running. There are always new trails to discover.”
While you’re in the park, don’t forget to visit Balbirnie Stone Circle, eight stones erected around 2000BC and thought to mark a burial site.
Markinch Highland Games takes place in early June each year in nearby John Dixon Park. Recent chieftains have included actor Dougray Scott, who grew up in the area.
Where to eat
In Leslie, Devine Cakes on the High Street more than delivers what it promises. Indeed, the selection of cakes, scones and traybakes is so extensive you may find yourself going back for seconds or thirds. Great breakfasts, too.
The nearby Reya Tandoori does a good chicken tikka, while the Fettykill Fox, at Leslie roundabout, serves tasty pub grub.
In Markinch, Drummond’s Hotel on Balbirnie Street is gaining a good reputation for its afternoon teas and steak nights. The Carlton Coffee House and Bakery on Balbirnie Street is as welcoming as they come. And the scones are top notch.
Where to shop
Markinch Wine Gallery, on the High Street, is known throughout Fife for its excellent stock and knowledgeable staff.
In Balbirnie Park, meanwhile, the Balbirnie Craft Centre is home to an array of artisans and makers selling beautiful hand-crafted leather, jewellery and pottery.
Aladdin’s Cave has been an institution on Leslie High Street for many years, serving as an old-fashioned outdoor pursuits haven – hunting, fishing, cycling – and bric-a-brac emporium. I defy you to leave this place empty-handed.
Where to stay
Country house grandeur: With its elegant bedrooms, salons and hallways, the Balbirnie House Hotel makes for a wonderful destination break. From £150 a night.
Park Life: If you’re bringing your own accommodation – motorhome, caravan or tent – Balbirnie Park has a an attractive and dog-friendly campsite with excellent facilities.
Gigger’s delight: The Greenside Hotel in Leslie offers rooms from just £59 a night, making it ideal for music fans.
What to do nearby
Although no longer open to the public, 13th century Balgonie Castle, just a 30-minute walk from Markinch, is still worth admiring from the surrounding grounds.
Incorporating sections of the River Leven, Riverside Park in Glenrothes has a charming duck pond and picnicking area, not to mention lovely trails and an excellent skatepark.