Stand where James II of Scotland stood and watch the dying light fade beyond the Pentland Hills. Spy the ships lying at anchor, twisting and turning as the tide races through the deep channels of the Firth of Forth. Far to the east is the Bass Rock; a chalk-white lump pasted thick with guano and teeming with gannets. The Bass Rock once served as a remote and daunting Scottish Alcatraz, where the North Sea heaped further punishment on desperate political prisoners. Follow the Lothian coast westward through golf courses and farm fields and it’s possible to pick out the gleaming multi-million development of Leith. Beyond, Edinburgh is hemmed in by hills and Arthur’s Seat.
My vantage point is Ravenscraig Castle, which lies on the Fife Coastal Path a mile or so to the east of Kirkcaldy. These old ruins receive little attention from tourists bound for more obvious guidebook treasures in Edinburgh or Perth.
Ravenscraig Castle was built in 1460 by James II as a home for his wife, Mary of Guelders. James wanted to build thick castle walls that could withstand artillery. Or perhaps he was making atonement for Mary’s last birthday when he turned up late with flowers wrapped in cellophane from a petrol station forecourt. The castle is built of amber stone, blackened in parts and assaulted over the years by merciless gales and reckless climbers. It is broad and square with two main towers, one of which resembles a Fairy liquid bottle, and a neat wooden bridge that enters the main gate and allows men to act out Errol Flynn fantasies. A lush expanse of emerald turf, bounded by railings, stretches out to sea like a deck giving the impression of an ocean-going liner rising from the rocks.
A teenage boy and his girlfriend walk to the bows of this imaginary ship and lean out to face the waves in a crucifix position, playing out that famous scene from Titanic.
Rain slants in from the east in thick splodges. The boyfriend pats himself down in search of his car keys, while his girlfriend runs for the trees. I turn to face the headland. Three fifteen-storey high rises run in a line along the coast road, towering over the castle and beach. They’re a typical 1960s build which the local authority has tried to brighten up by painting the balconies alternate shades of yellow and red and blue. So the castle is unlikely to adorn any shortbread tins or labels of 20-year malts.
A landscape where pebble-dash high-rises compete with ancient stones and golden sands seems a perfect metaphor for Fife. Nature has had to overcome or adapt to the ravages of heavy industry for centuries. Beyond the gentle curve of the shoreline are a drab concrete harbour wall and a development of crowded and garish new apartments. Further to the west a new housing estate with terracotta roof tiles, block-paved driveways and double garages has been built on the site of the former Seafield colliery. From here, and the nearby Francis pit, mine shafts went out for miles under the Forth estuary. My father-in-law was an engineer in the Francis. He’d walk to work a mile-and-a-half underground in sweltering heat, checking the pumps as seawater poured in from the cracks in the coal face above.
The pits, like many of the linoleum factories, are gone forever. But even now I can see an old man picking sea coal from the shore line. It will crack and spit and hiss in his grate, giving a reminder of harder times and tighter communities. Each time the tide falls it still leaves a faint trace of coal dust on the sand, like a tide mark of scum or stubble left on an enamel sink.
Industry was, or is, everywhere in Fife, yet it never overwhelms nature. I close my eyes, touch the damp, cool stones King James leaned on and grip them as the easterlies gather force. I can taste the salt-fresh breeze and the iodine tang of seaweed. A dog barks on the shoreline. Beech and sycamore leaves rustle and tumble from branches and a church bell rings. Breakers smash against the rocks and suck pebbles scratching and clacking into the depths.
At Ravenscraig Castle there are no oak-panelled walls bearing hunting trophies. No haggis is piped in and no one dances in tartan over crossed Claymores. There are few photos that will find themselves framed on office walls in New York, Toronto or Sydney. At Hogmanay the castle will be in darkness while fireworks whiz and blur across the Forth in Edinburgh. This corner of Fife may be passed by, but stand in James’s shoes and tell me it isn’t special.