History of Anstruther

Anstruther is a small town situated on a stretch of coastline known as the East Neuk of Fife on the East coast of Scotland (click here for map). The coastline from Largo to Kingsbarns is dotted with small fishing villages of which Anstruther is the largest, interspersed with rich fertile farmland. Indeed James II of Scotland famously once described the East Neuk as ‘a fringe of gold on a beggar’s mantle’. Edinburgh is approximately 50 miles South West and Dundee about 20 miles to the North. The area boasts a number of castles such as Kellie Castle (National Trust for Scotland) and golf courses together with a number of ancient churches.

There is strong evidence that Anstruther was settled early in Scottish History and there are a number of settlements that have been linked to the Picts. For instance the remains of a pictish cross slab was discovered at Kilrenny. Kilrenny was also the site of an early Culdee church that survived until the 19th century. Anstruther also became linked to the early Christian missions and it is probable that the Chapel Cave, Caiplie were used for early worship. The Isle of May about five miles off the coast of Anstruther became the site of an early monastery and in the later Medieval period became one of Scotland’s most noted places of pilgrimage. It is still possible to visit the Isle of May to see the archaeological excavations and view the birdlife – boat trips are operated in summer according to tides (see link from our East Neuk Links page).

At the reformation Anstruther comprised of three distinct communities – Anstruther Easter, Anstruther Wester and Cellardyke which was the harbour for Kilrenny. Anstruther Wester received a royal charter in 1587. Eleven years later a Spanish ship which had been part of the Armada was wrecked off shore but its sailors were given a warm reception from the townsfolk and helped to return to their native land. The town continued to grow throughout the 17th and 18th centuries with increasing emphasis on fishing and trading. Trade was vital to Scotland at this period to secure a much wider range of goods than would otherwise have been available. Ships from Anstruther and other East Neuk ports regularly sailed to ports in the Baltic such as Danzig (Gdansk) and to the Low countries where there were sizeable communities of Scots.

Much trade took place as smuggling when import duties rose dramatically in the 18th Century and on dark nights and high tides, brandy and rum were brought up the Dreel river – The ‘Smugglers Inn’ still remains with a seaward door down to the burn.

Anstruther Captains were famed for their seafaring skills and later in the 19th Century a number were actively involved in trade across the oceans, several in particular played a major role in the China tea trade. During the 19th century as trading ships got larger Anstruther increasingly turned to the fishing and the North Sea herring industry. Whole families would be involved with men at sea or mending nets and the women salting and packing the herring into barrels. Anstruther landed herring was particularly popular in Poland and the fishing fleet would follow the Herring run down the North Sea as far as Lowestoft.

Today the significant fishing port in the East Neuk is Pittenweem with the other harbours including Anstruther and Cellardyke being mostly used for pleasure craft. Indeed tourism is now the major industry for the town.

The Kilrenny and Anstruther Burgh Collection is committed to preserving and maintaining the historical records of the town. We hold a number of exhibitions throughout the year and produce a series of publications on topics relating to Anstruther and its history.

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