A queue snakes along the cobbles, lured by the scent of frying fish and waft of vinegar. The tide laps at anchor chains and barnacled hulls. Seagulls eye toddlers’ dripping cornets. A terrier snatches in the sand at a chucked tennis ball. The line of coaches prove this fish and chip shop draws people from Whitley Bay, Manchester and York; even Hollywood. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg shared a table here. Brian Cox visited with his family. The fish bar isn’t big and, judging by today’s long line of hungry punters, the owners could fill their restaurant five times over. But maybe that’s the appeal. There’s something special with fish and chip shops that doesn’t translate to a franchise.
Perhaps it’s the authenticity, as well as the taste, that packs them in. In an age when fishing quotas are rigid and fish stocks are declining it’s heartening to watch the catch landed. Vast herring fleets no longer stalk shoals here, but trawlers still work these waters. For many of the townies chomping chips on a quayside bench it is the connection between plate and ocean, rather than supermarket and freezer, which feels like luxury. The tang of diesel, the rattle of crates or spool of rope is Anstruther’s secret weapon. It is every bit as important as the taste of that crisp, golden batter.
The Scottish Fisheries Museum stands just across the road. Here, and at the nearby St Monan’s Collection, the folklore and tradition of fishing and maritime is captured in a charming selection of photographs, engravings, maps and curios. There are early photos of the East Neuk harbours packed with herring fleet where the masts of the vessels are so numerous they could just as easily be matchsticks or toothpicks. The men could be away for days or weeks in bitterly cold, mountainous seas. But if the men were tough, the fishwives’ feats are the stuff of legend. They would carry their men piggyback to their boats to keep their boots and leggings dry ahead of a voyage. With a flash of their razor-sharp knives they could gut a herring, sometimes several, every second. Their lightning-fast work and their hardened, weathered faces and thick shawls are almost lost to a blur by the slow exposure of early photography.
Fife has a rich fund of maritime stories from the Forth to the Tay. Alexander Selkirk – whose story was the inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – still watches over his hometown of Lower Largo. There is the might and majesty of the Forth Bridge and the tragic broken stumps that tell the tale of the Tay Bridge disaster. Whaling fleets left these ports for the southern seas. In the coastal caves at West Wemyss there are circles carved into the rock by the first fishermen. The sea has brought food, trade, salt, escape and death to generations. There is truly a story in those fish and chips.