Our European correspondent walked 138 km (86 miles) along the Scottish coast in six days.
By Hans Egefalk
This past July I was planning a trip to Scotland for a week to participate in a six-day orienteering event.
I planned to camp in my tent, which gave me the idea to stay an extra week so I could walk somewhere in Scotland and camp along the way. After a bit of research I discovered the Fife Coastal Path, a long-distance walking track, just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, my planned point of arrival. I could take a bus directly from the airport and head out the same day. That sealed it and I firmed up plans to do just that.
Walking for days on end proved to be one of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve had for a long time.
After some initial procrastination in the town of Kincardine in a drizzling rain as I tried to find some fuel for my Trangia (camping stove) on a Sunday when only a couple of small shops were open, I set off. I had left my home in Örebro, Sweden at 1 a.m., biked to town, taken the bus to the Stockholm airport, taken the early flight to Edinburgh, and landed about 9 a.m., then taken the bus from the airport to reach Kincardine. It was now lunch time the same day. I didn’t have any fuel for the Trangia, but I didn’t worry. A day without some cooked food wouldn’t matter and I could go to the pub somewhere for a meal. I bought some bread, cheese and other stuff at the first store I found in Kincardine, walked towards the big steel bridge and found the trailhead, right by a roundabout and marked with an arched gate. A sign explained the track and noted that James Dewar was born in town—he’s the man who invented the vacuum flask, first made to keep liquid gas. He never took out a patent for his invention and it’s now known as the thermos flask. I had a small thermos flask, of course, and I suppose it’s the most important item a hiker needs besides a pair of good shoes. I took a photo of my big pack by the gate and was ready to set off.
My plan was to walk and camp along the way. The Scots call it wild camp and in that country there’s an agreement between landowners that basically allows you to camp anywhere for a night or two, as long as it’s not too close to someone’s house or backyard and as long as you leave the place as neat as you found it and don’t cut any trees for firewood. I had a bit of trouble locating suitable spots for camping and a few nights I camped almost in small towns on the town common. I asked people nearby and they always said it would be fine. The weather was a mix of nice days, some drizzle and overcast, chilly nights and also some rain. The route offered a wide mix of sidewalks along village streets, small dirt tracks, beaches, cliff scrambling, pavement along bits of smaller highways, retired railway tracks, bicycle paths, open grassland, and narrow tracks along stone walls. Every few miles there was a small village or town, and during the first two days also bits of industrial land.
It was just such an interesting mix. I had only walked about four miles when I came upon a very green jungle-like road into the quaint Culross with a village square, an art exhibition and a pub around the corner. I couldn’t resist the pub for a late lunch of fish and chips, and the timing was perfect as a heavy downpour began as I sat in the pub. The track kept following the train line for a while and more villages: Low Valleyfield, Newmills, Torryburn, Crombie (on a sloping hill) and then into some thick deciduous forests with old mines as I came into Charlestown and Limekilns. After 12 miles of walking and looking for half an hour on the outskirts of Limekilns, I found a small wooded and grassy island surrounded by fields. It was a good spot for my first camp.
The days rolled on. Day two took me past some industrial areas, but with a castle ruin stuck in the middle. Castle ruins in Scotland are just marvelous—I could wander for weeks just searching for stone ruins and castle ruins. I walked into North Queensferry past three huge bridges: anew highway bridge, an old highway bridge and a old steel rail bridge that looks like three giant Tyrannosaurus Rexes walking in a row. I took countless photos from all angles.
I asked a lady outside a house for a water bottle refill and got that plus my thermos filled with tea and a story about their neighbor who just so happened to be former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In the next little village of Inverkeithing—after some great walking among old stone quarries at a steep headland—I stopped at a bakery and bought a pie, sausage roll and vanilla slice, which I enjoyed right there on the steps. The mince pie topped with mashed potato and baked beans was great; it turned out to be a favorite that I looked for from then onwards during the trip. I passed through a few more towns in the afternoon, plus enjoyed some great coastal walking, a long stretch right by the coast and the train track into Burntisland, where I camped in the town common with views all the way back to that T. Rex train bridge. A long day.
Next day, still good weather. I had found fuel by this point so my mornings started with porridge. Pettycur was a small harbor with strange fishing shacks. Along the beach for a few miles, then Kirkcaldy and on past another castle ruin and strange stone wall ruins by the sea, where Ravenscraig Castle once housed gardens stretching to the beach and small stone bays. Around a bend and then the track went through a tunnel. A few meters through a tunnel and I came out in Dysart, a tiny harbor with steep rock cliffs, small shacks and a couple of tiny harbor basins. It was like coming into the pirate’s den, a lovely moment. I liked it so much that I searched for a café or bakery and found one just up the road and stopped for an hour, trying out most things on the menu while sitting in a couch in the corner.
The rest of the late afternoon and early evening was great coastal walking, past a private castle on a cliffside with a thick jungle of deciduous trees and ivy below. The thick greenery and jungle in places surprised me. I walked on the northern side of the Firth of Forth, so it was sheltered from northerly winds and often the vegetation was thick with a big variety of deciduous trees plus lots of ivy and other ground covers. Further on this afternoon I passed the overgrown Macduff Castle, then an old train line into Buckhaven, and then a few more towns strung together. I had to keep going through them, searching for a campsite. I passed Leven and then walked among coastal sand dunes, where I found a spot next to another camper. I learned his name is John and he came from somewhere nearby, was on a walk with his tent searching for a new job.
The morning was grey and rainy, so I lingered in the tent. I sat drinking tea and eating bikkies until lunch time. In Lower Large I discovered a statue set into a wall; Alexander Selkirk, the original Robinson Crusoe, came from this little village that consists of not much more than one main street, curving along with stone houses on both sides. A few miles of wide sandy, windswept beach and the occasional rain squall, before a steep, cliffy headland with stunning views in all direction. Steep up, then steep down to another beach and a very charming town, Elie, down on the flats. By then it was late afternoon and I was hungry, so I found a bakery. A happy, smiling young girl, Jackie, was just about to pack up for the day. I bought a cuppa and a pie and a sausage roll, but got the pie for free as it had been in the pie warmer for hours. We chatted; she talked about her horses and how she and her partner wanted to buy land, set up stables and a tourist business. “Do you want some scones? I’ll throw them out anyway,” she said. I stayed in the bakery for almost an hour, eating cakes and bread and doughnuts that would have otherwise been discarded. She offered me a chair from behind the counter and it was one of those little moments of pure joy. Talking to a happy young girl in a bakery that has closed for the day, eating more leftovers than I could possibly eat and getting a rest from walking, it was a trekker’s dream come true! When eventually I left, I carried a two kilo plastic bag full of scones, donuts, Aberdeen breads and a yum yum (like a sugar sprinkled croissant). My jar of raspberry jam and that bag of goodies lasted for the remaining days of my coastal walk. I later ate the last one during the orienteering week a couple of days later.
I hit the trails and that evening passed another couple of castle ruins (Ardross Castle and Newark Castle) on the rocky and lovely coast to St. Monans with its church a pyramid-shaped stone tower. A few more rolling grassy coastline areas led into tiny Pittenweem, where I camped on a small grassy reserve right by the small harbor. The lady in the ice cream shop said it was fine to camp there.
A brilliant morning the next day and a long day of walking along empty coastline. The day before I had noticed that the stitching on my pack was coming undone. It would probably hold all the way, but it slowly came more and more undone and I was a bit worried. I kept my eyes open for somewhere where I could have it stitched up. I walked into Anstruther, sort of snuck into town along some very narrow laneways, and said hello to a man taking out rubbish. I needed to fill up on water and asked him. Oh yes, no worries. I got drinking water in my bottle and boiling water in my thermos. We kept on talking. He spent the winters in South Africa and had retired from his job as an upholsterer. Then, as I was about to leave, it dawned on me what he said. Upholsterer! Would he have sewing machine or maybe a workshop at home? Oh yes, John was his name, had workshop in the backyard and was happy to stitch up the pack. At the same time he showed me his big garden, full of different sections with different plants, plus a little summer house in the middle. He showed his house too, where he lived with his wife and his old Mum. The oldest parts of the house dated from the 1500s!
A few more miles and then a pie and chips lunch in Crail, before a long afternoon and evening of walking in between golf courses and the ocean. I was nearing St. Andrews and it was golf course upon golf course, reaching all the way down to the beach. At a small section some steep cliffs reached the water and since it was high tide I had to walk in the ocean with water up to my knees to get onwards. Fun! That was some of the loneliest stretches I had on my walk. In the evening I camped by a stone wall and a stone house ruin, right on the coast of course. The farmer, 80-year-old Steven, came in his tractor to dump a concrete block and try to repair the old stone retaining wall. He used to live on the west coast of Scotland, but years ago he had bought his farm here. He had a dirty golf cap and I asked him if he played golf. He said he used to be a sugar beet farmer, but stopped when the bottom fell out of the market. “I used to grow sugar beet. When I stopped I started playing golf, as it was the same thing: Walking around hacking away in the dirt,” he said.
“And do you know what golf spelled backwards is?” farmer Steve continued. “Flog. Very appropriate. Once I held a long talk about it at the golf course. I’m not sure if they liked it though.” He rode home on his tractor and I had the whole coastline to myself, right there by the stone house ruin and sheltered by a long stone wall.
The next morning, when I walked on and the track climbed up a meter or so, I saw a huge potato paddock behind the wall. I could have had some potatoes for tea. I’m sure Steven would have been OK with it. More great coastal rocks and cliffs into St. Andrews. Buddo Rock looked like strange shaped sandstone formations in the Grampians in Australia. St. Andrews, the golf Mecca, with the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral and St. Andrews Castle were visible for miles. Stone houses, narrow streets and a very pleasant town. Someone had told me bad weather was coming and the next day I planned to take the bus from St. Andrews to Aberdeen and onwards to Ballater where the Scottish six-day orienteering event was to start on Sunday (it was Friday afternoon at this point). I went to a hostel and got a bed. Just a few more miles remained to do on the Fife Coastal Path. I had lunch and then took a bus to Leuchars, another five miles away, and then ran back to St. Andrews.
Six days walking, 86 miles (138 km) in all. Countless small villages, castles, beaches, cliffs, bakeries, harbours, old houses, grassy paths, some bitumen tracks, bits of highway roadside and, everywhere, friendly, pleasant and interesting people. I enjoyed every minute, it was simply lovely.
The world should be seen by foot, slowly walking along and coming into villages and towns slowly. Beaches and cliffs and everything are best appreciated the slow way, to give the mind and body time to soak it up, to adjust, to enjoy, and to be part of it.
The Scottish six day orienteering event was fantastic fun, too, but that’s another story.
– Photos by Hans Egefalk