When it comes to subjects for my art, I am always drawn to faces and figures or monsters or anthropomorphised animals. What I really don’t tend to touch upon is botanicals, still life, or landscapes. I decided, therefore, to challenge myself to produce a landscape in the orange section of my Rainbow Art Journal. Having grown up in Fife, I thought of the orange pantiles that adorn the roofs in villages like Culross – a result of the tiles initially being imported as ballast. I grew up in the post-war new town of Glenrothes but always enjoyed visiting the fishing villages of the East Neuk so I decided to illustrate a harbour village in my art journal. There is zero verisimilitude in my illustration and I didn’t use any photo references so my buildings are all a fusion of memory and imagination. Landscape is definitely not my thing but I really enjoyed creating this page. I don’t even care that the scale is bonkers, including monstrous seagulls. Maybe I will force myself to do landscapes more frequently.
Lochore Meadows Country Park, in Lochgelly, Fife, is on the site of a former colliery. What was once an expanse of industrial waste and coal bing hillocks was transformed into an outdoor space for people to enjoy. Knowing that we had a long car journey ahead of us the following day that would keep us all cooped up, it was the perfect venue for letting the boys roam free and burn off some energy.
The playground is arranged around a series of mounds, echoing the coal bings I imagine, so there was lots to explore, loads to do, and plenty of fun to be had. The boys were especially impressed with the slides because they were long, steep and very slidey indeed. There were climbing frames that looked reminiscent of mining structures, swings and spinning discs that made the kids dizzy.
There was a gritty beach around the shore of Loch Ore – which is used for water sports – and the beach was populated by some moody looking swans. Their poop was all over the shoreline which just added to my loathing of sandy beaches. Nevertheless, my 9 year old decided to go paddling and ended up having soaking wet jeans for the rest of the day. At least nobody was attacked by a grumpy swan, however, so there’s that.
Having exhausted the playground, we wandered over to the area of the park that still has a tangible connection to the site’s coal mining past. A large concrete headframe with its winding gear looms over the horizon. Two of my sons immediately asked if they could climb it. Thankfully that is not remotely possible so I didn’t even have to put my foot down on the basis of safety. However, at the base of the headframe is a locomotive engine. It would once have been used to transport coal from the mine but now was a combined piece of local industrial history and a fun climbing frame. The kids immediately started scaling the engine and were soon crawling all over it. They had a whale of a time. The locomotive was definitely the highlight of the day for them.
My boys and I took a trip to Loch Leven Castle accompanied by my mother, one of my sisters and her youngest son. A trip to Loch Leven Castle necessitates taking a boat to cross the loch and, as there were eight of us, we were told that our group would have to wait for the 1pm crossing. This presented us with no problem since there is a fantastic playground on the mainland side of the loch. The kids had a great time careering up scramble nets and across rope bridges, whipping across zip slides and careering down slides. As it seemed apt to do so, I also taught the kids how to do “Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off” whereby a flick of the thumb is used to knock the head off a dandelion.
In no time at all, it was time to go to the jetty and clamber aboard the small boat that took us across the loch to the island. The boat ride was part of the whole experience for the kids rather than just a necessity as they loved being out on the water. In just a few short minutes we reached the island and were deposited on the shore.
Loch Leven Castle has a rather sad and sorry story, involved as it was in so much conflict and tragedy. It was built some time in the 13th Century and went through a period of being captured by the English and then recaptured by the Scots and then retaken by the English and taken by the Scots again … The story of Scottish medieval history really. The prominent keep dates from the 14th Century and was frequently used as a prison. Some notable prisoners died in captivity there.
The most famous of Loch Leven’s prisoners, of course, was Mary Queen of Scots. The story of her imprisonment and escape are the Castle’s main claim to fame. Scottish nobles, opposed to Mary’s marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, placed here there in 1657 under a form of house arrest, a sort of awkward guest of the Douglas family who owned the property. A few days after she miscarried twins, she was forced to abdicate thus making her baby son James the King. Under a year after she was imprisoned, however, Mary – aided by a member of the Douglas family – was able to make her escape, row across the water and flee to freedom.
The Castle changed hands several times and fell into ruin by the 18th Century. That, however, is my kids’ favourite kind of castle. They much prefer to run around and explore the empty spaces than to see historic buildings with restored and recreated rooms full of furniture, tapestries and treasures. The keep – or tower house – was originally five storeys. Access has greatly improved in terms of safety since I last visited. I felt completely at ease allowing my boys and my nephew to run in and around the keep unaccompanied. They could enter through one exterior door, ascend staircases inside and then emerge onto an external wooden staircase from a door part way up the tower – and they did so again and again. They also enjoyed running in and out of the Glassin tower, a round shaped tower of rooms in the opposite corner, and scaling the ruined walls.
We spent much longer on the island than our fellow visitors as the five boys were having a whale of a time playing in the ruined buildings and running around in the courtyard. Thankfully they had the boat ride back to look forward to and a trip to the sweet shop for a wee treat each otherwise we might never have got them to leave.
Fife* is a peninsula, bounded as it is by the Firth of Tay to the north and Firth of Forth to the South. Its coastline, therefore, has always been important to its culture and economy, from the docks at Rosyth and around the East Neuk. I wanted to take the boys to see a typical East Neuk fishing village and plumped for Pittenween, situated between St Monans and Anstruther, since it still has a working fishing harbour. I went with my four boys, my mother and two of my nephews.
We parked up on the West Braes and, after the six kids had all run off some energy on the playground equipment there, we wandered down a coastal path to the shore line. That vantage point gave us the perfect view over the village. I was able to point out to the boys the way in which the village was all clustered around the harbour and shoreline with other streets – narrow wynds – running up the hill from the coast. They were also able to see the traditional architecture: white stone houses with red tile roofs. The red pantiles are a legacy from the its history of trade with ships from the Low Countries. I remember being told that the pantiles would have been brought as ballast in the hulls of those ships and that the locals then put them to good use in their buildings. The buildings certainly makes the town very distinctive and the only Fife town I can think of that is more quaintly historic is Culross**.
It mattered not one jot to the kids that it was a chilly, overcast day. There was a beach and they were going to play on it. While my 12 year old – having the advantage of longer legs – rolled up his jeans and waded out into the water, the other boys got busy studying shells and soon I got them collecting sea glass. I was obsessed with collecting sea glass from the Fife coast when I was wee. Clear was common followed by green and brown but it was like finding treasure to find a piece that was either blue or red. Soon enough, all the boys were similarly obsessed with a mission to find interesting pieces of sea glass or sea pottery and they too would squeal with delight when they found a tiny piece that was a shade of blue or a sliver of red.
We then walked through the village. We stopped opposite the harbour in order for the boys to have an ice cream cone each. That village sweet shop did well out of us as I gave the six boys a pound each with which to buy treats on the way back too – doubling as an exercise in making budgeting decisions and addition. Replenished by the ice cream, we then climbed up a steep wynd in order to reach the High Street. There I popped into the Cocoa Tree coffee shop to borrow the key to St Fillan’s Cave. In all my years of living in Fife and returning to visit my family, I had never once been to St Fillan’s Cave so it was a new experience for all of us.
Just a brief wander down Cove Wynd brought us to the cave. The place name Pittenweem, by combining Pictish and Gaelic, actual means “place of the caves”, probably referring to St Fillan’s Cave rather than any other caves in the vicinity. Local schoolchildren had decorated the exterior with a mosaic using materials from the beach and a local metalworker had made a fantastic gate. Unlocking the gate, we entered, flicked on the lights and walked into the cavern. As its name suggests, the cave is associated with St Fillan. The legend goes that Fillan was a 7th Century missionary who came to Fife to convert the Picts to Christianity. He lived in the cave and could read and write in the dark because his left arm was luminous. The cave was probably used by spiritual hermits and was a place where pilgrims could stop in and visit en route to St Andrews. It was also used as a store for smuggling and for legitimate fishing equipment. Apparently it was then forgotten about for many years until a horse, ploughing the land above, fell through a hole. The cave was then cleared and turned into a chapel again, used for occasional services. The boys loved exploring all of the nooks and crannies of the cave and I let them experience the pitch dark by gathering them safely in the centre and then switching off the lights. Without the benefit of luminous arms, they soon wanted the lights back on.
We then wandered down to the harbour to watch the boats and just enjoy the peace and quiet. We then wended our way back towards the beach, where the tide had come back in to the consternation of the kids, and back up to the Brae for the kids to have another run around as a conclusion to our trip.
*Or the Kingdom of Fife as it is still known in reference to it being a Pictish realm, hence the title of this blog since I am a Fifer.
** We unfortunately did not have time to visit Culross on this particular trip to Britain but I heartily recommend visiting.
Tucked away in the middle of nowhere on a road not far from Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife stands what would once have just looked like a totally unassuming, small farmhouse. The house, however, is a tricksy little facade because deep beneath the building – over 100 feet underground – are two bunkers, one on top of the other, each the size of a football pitch. It was a nuclear bunker* dating from the Cold War, designed to house a regional government in the event of some sort of nuclear catastrophe. Mr Pict and I had been to the secret bunker in Essex but this was our first time visiting the one in Fife and it proved to be much more polished.
After entering the farmhouse, we travelled down the once-concealed, dimly lit 450 foot tunnel and passed through massively thick blast doors. Immediately inside the bunker, the space opened up. It was clear this space had been intended to house large numbers of personnel – military, political and civilian – and had been a huge operation to construct and create. It was quite a labyrinth and we – the Picts plus my Mum – wiled away quite some time exploring. Had we not had the kids with us, we could have spent even longer there reading all of the information that was provided and watching two Cold War era films.
There were a number of command centres dotted throughout the bunker. A few had those large perspex screens for writing and plotting on, just like you see in disaster movies, and map tables with pieces that could be moved around to symbolise the locations of various things, such as bombs or troops, as are depicted in many war movies. In the event of a nuclear emergency, this is where the location and force of bombs would have been recorded and where decisions would have been taken regarding evacuations and counter attack. Everything in these rooms was authentic, either original to this bunker – simply abandoned when it was decommissioned – or recreated using original items gleaned from other Cold War era sites. Obviously I have no expertise with such things but it certainly looked authentic to my untrained eye. It all had that well worn look complete with piles of unfiled papers and other office type detritus. I also enjoyed seeing the communications rooms, essentially a broadcasting studio operated by the BBC. This would enable transmissions to be made in the event of a nuclear crisis and contact made with other locations, other bunkers.
The dormitories were interesting too. There were military camp style bunk beds in large rooms, each resident allocated a tiny bit of space in which to house their possessions. Even the beds would not have been your own as a “hot bed” system operated. One would sleep in the bed and then vacate it when going to work so that someone on a different shift could sleep in the same bed. That skeeves me out. I guess material possessions would not matter much in the event of nuclear fallout but the idea of not having my own personal space would be aggravating I think. Worse, the idea of having to share a room with that number of people in such claustrophobic conditions would drive me batty. That said, I am sure potential residents were screened to ensure they had the right temperament and tolerance levels required for the job. I wouldn’t have been let through the blast doors. Up to 300 people could be housed in this bunker. Can you imagine having to live constantly side by side with the same 300 people for years? I am way too anti-social and introverted for that lark. I definitely would have been left to perish. Of course, the head honchos had their own private spaces but I definitely would not have made the cut to be one of those.
We also saw a radar room filled with equipment that had actually detected some of the last interceptions by the Soviet Union into Britain’s airspace and a medical room complete with a white coated, stethoscope wearing skeleton which my boys particularly liked. There was also a room filled with telephony equipment. Back in the day, my Mum had been a telephone operator using the exact same equipment as was on display so it was a blast from the past for her. She was also able to teach my boys how the whole thing worked so that was fun. The boys also thoroughly enjoyed getting to try on bits of uniform and – perhaps the biggest highlight as far as they were concerned – meeting the resident cat who proved to be very friendly. We also saw rooms filled with (deactivated I assume!) weaponry and ammunition from the era and spaces housing all the engineering equipment required to circulate air and extract air. We learned that the air inside the bunker could be completely changed every fifteen minutes using this filtration system. Pretty nifty stuff. The exterior of the site housed an array of vehicles from the Cold War era, a pretty impressive collection.
The Secret Bunker has earned the epithet of being one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions and I think the praise is well-deserved. My Mum, who had been before, noted that the recent refurbishments had made vast improvements on what was there previously. It is a highly informative time capsule of that period of history (I hesitate to refer to it as history given it was operational within my lifetime) and manages to convey something of the anxiety surrounding nuclear weaponry, the tension between West and East and the chilling atmosphere that accompanies the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. Off the beaten track as it is, I very much recommend a visit.
*I think this is what Americans would call a Fallout Shelter, though perhaps that only refers to smaller scale, domestic sized shelters.
We crossed the border between England and Scotland in order to go and spend some time with my family in Fife. My parents came out to stay with us last July but I had not seen my siblings or their kids since we emigrated almost two years ago. Thankfully tools like Skype and Facebook have shrunk the Atlantic.
One of the first places we headed out to was Falkland, a short drive from my home town. It has been one of my favourite spots since I was a tiny wee person. I have fond memories of visiting the palace, playing in its gardens, of climbing the Lomond hills, of wandering through the woods of the estate and of my Gran taking me to have a tea of scones with cream and jam. In my mid-teens, I did some work experience in the Palace, taking visitors on tours. There was a goat on one of the tapestries that used to freak me out when I was wandering around the building solo. In 2012, when the Pict clan were holidaying in Fife from Argyll, we actually rented a gorgeous little white cottage next door to the Palace as the base for our explorations. As I said, I have lots of fond memories of Falkland.
The whole village layout revolves around Falkland Palace. It was built in the 1500s by James IV, on the site of a previous Castle and hunting lodge. It is a striking Renaissance Palace, well worth visiting for its wonderful architecture, beautiful rooms and its rich history. Under James V, the gardens were developed and a Royal Tennis Court was installed. Those courts are one of the Palace’s main claims to fame as it is the oldest in Britain. The Palace was occupied by Oliver Cromwell’s troops and it was during that time that a fire broke out which completely destroyed the East Range. That section was never rebuilt, remaining a ruin open to the elements. The rest of the building was restored in the 19th Century. The Palace’s other main claim to fame is that it was there in 1542 that James V died thus making his very newborn daughter the reigning monarch. Said daughter was, of course, Mary Queen of Scots.
I had taken my kids for an extensive tour of Falkland Palace and Gardens when we had visited Fife in 2012 so we did not visit this time. Instead we decided – we being the Picts, my mother, my sisters and three of my nephews – to go for a walk around the woodland that once formed part of the royal hunting estate.
The boys all had a grand time running wild through the woods. They threw “sticky willies”* at each other, climbed trees, hurtled athletically over puddles, turned twigs, branches and pine cones into weapons, and spent time watching a herd of cattle pee and poop. An awful lot of time was, in fact, spent spectating the bodily functions of cows. Boys. We also stumbled upon an area where local school children, undertaking their Forest Schools education, had constructed various shelters out of branches and leaves. All seven boys had great fun playing in and around those structures plus clambering over fallen trees and sliding down their mud-plastered roots.
One of the side benefits of all the children being free range in the woods was that it allowed we grown ups to just chat and catch up with each other, punctuated obviously be children yelping that they had fallen and were hurt or by the need for one of us to yell at the kids to please not throw that really large stick, thank you. On our loop back to the village, we stopped in at the Pillars of Hercules, an organic cafe and store set in the woods, to buy the kids a snack. Artisan chocolate is an expensive treat. They wolfed it down like it was cheap as chips too, little scoundrels. Once back in the village, the kids had fun playing with the fountain and then we headed off to see the War Memorial that was just unveiled last November as part of the First World War centennial commemorations. We also saw a park bench dedicated to Johnny and Roseanne Cash who felt an affiliation for the area since the Cash ancestors originated from the Howe of Fife.
*What we call the plant whose scientific name is apparently Galium Aparine. What did you think they were throwing?