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Pittenweem

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Pittenweem (Celt., ? Pet-an-weem, 'the town of the cave'), a small parish containing a town of the same name in the SE of the county of Fife, on the shore of the Firth of Forth. The parish is bounded N by the parish of Anstruther-Wester (landward), E by Anstruther-Wester (burghal), S by the Firth of Forth, W by the parish of St Monans or Abercrombie, and at the NW corner by the parish of Carnbee. The boundary line on the E and W is artificial, but on the N it is formed by the Dreel Burn. The greatest length from E to W is 1¾ mile, the average breadth about ¾ mile, and the area 772.488 acres, including 109.738 foreshore and 2.294 detached. The coast is rocky, and the surface rises steeply from the shore to a height of from 50 to 60 feet, but does not rise much thereafter, the extreme height being 82 feet. The whole surface is cultivated, the soil being mostly a very fertile black loam. The underlying rocks are carboniferous, with limestone and some small seams of coal. The parish is traversed throughout its entire length by the coast road from Elie to Crail, and also by a stretch of the Thornton and Anstruther section of the North British railway system; is in the presbytery of St Andrews and the synod of Fife; and the living is worth £276. It was after the Reformation united with St Monans, Anstruther, and Kilrenny under the charge of one minister; but James Melvil (nephew of the famous Andrew), who succeeded the first minister, Mr William Clark, in 1586, 'finding the four congregationes a burding intolerable and importable, with a guid conscience,. . .sett himself cairfullie for the separating and several planting of the said congregatiounes, resolving to take himself to Kilrynnie alean; and delt with Pittenweim, and causit thame prepare ane auditorie and kirk within thair awin town, in the quhilk he teachit to thame, bathe on the Sabothe and week days, nocht intermitting his ordinarie doctrines in the uther kirkis, until Pittenweim was provydit and plantit with a minister of thair awin, and that without hurt or impearing of the stipend of the kirk of Anstruther Waster; 'and the parish became independent about 1588. The churches are noticed in connection with the burgh. The proprietors, inclusive of those in the town, are 2 holding each an annual value of £500 or upwards, 4 holding each between £500 and £100, 7 holding each between £100 and £50, and 45 holding each between £50 and £20. Landward valuation (1856) £647, 11s., (1875) £904, 19s. 8d., (1885) £658, with £150 for the railway. Pop. (1801) 1072, (1831) 1317, (1861) 1710, (1871) 1803, (1881) 2119, of whom 1019 were males and 1100 were females; while 2116 were within the boundaries of the royal burgh.

The Town of Pittenweem, near the E end of the parish just described, is a seaport and a royal burgh, and has a station on the Thornton and Anstruther section of the North British railway. By rail it is 9 miles E of Largo, 17½ E of Thornton Junction, and 1¼ mile W of Anstruther. By road it is 5½ miles SE of Crail, and 11 S by W of St Andrews. Like so many of the Fife fishing towns, it is a place of considerable antiquity, and probably dates back to the 13th century. It belonged originally to the priory afterwards mentioned, and was by James III. created a burgh of barony. In 1542 James V. granted a further charter constituting the town a royal burgh, and in 1547 the prior and convent executed two charters granting to the 'provost, bailies, council, community, burgesses, and inhabitants, the burgh as the same was builded or to be builded, and the harbour thereof, and all moors, mosses, and waste ground, common ways, and other commonties, liberties, customs, -anchorages, etc., belonging thereto. 'In 1593 James VI. farther increased the property of the town by granting to it the 'great house or lodging of the monastery of Pittenweem,' and all these charters were confirmed by Act of Parliament in 1633. Nor were the inhabitants unmindful of their royal benefactor, for when James passed through the burgh on his way to Anstruther House, where he spent a night, he was received by the magistrates, councillors, and minister 'in their best apparel,' and accompanied by a guard of twenty-four of the stoutest men of the place also in their "-best apparel" and armed with partisans; and besides these there were "other twenty-four with muskets.' Substantial provision was also made for the royal appetite at a table spread at 'Robert Smith's yeet,' where, for the entertainment of the King and his train, there were provided 'sundrie great bunns of fine flour and other wheat bread of the best order, baken with sugar, cannell, and other spices fitting, as also ten gallons of ale, with canary, sack, Rhenish wine, Tent, white and claret wines;' and when his Majesty departed there was a salute of 'thirty-six cannon, all shot at once.' It was at Pittenweem that the customs collector of Fife was, in 1736, robbed by Wilson and Robertsonan incident which, though of little local importance, resulted in the Porteous riots in Edinburgh, and thus aided in the invention of the plot of Scott' Heart of Midlothian. The house in which the robbery took place was on the N side of the street to the N of the church. In 1799 the squadron of Paul Jones lay for some time off the harbour, but otherwise the 18th and 19th century history of the place has been of a most uneventful nature.

The town has three main streets with cross intersecting lanes. Of these one follows the line of the coast along the low ground at the harbour; a second, High Street, runs parallel to this on the top of the slope; and a third, still farther N, is along the Elie and Crail road: the second is the principal thoroughfare. Near its E end is the parish church, originally a structure of the first half of the 17th century, but extensively remodelled and altered in 1882. The old tower at the W end still remains with the old clock and bells. It has a balustraded top and a spire, and in the base is a small chamber, with door and grated window looking to the street, which has evidently been used as the tolbooth. Fixed to the W wall of the steeple is the town cross, a simple pillar with the town arms in the middle and the date 1754 on the top. Down the slope to the S is the Cove Wynd, in which the plain town-hall (1821-22) occupies the site of the refectory of the priory. Farther down the lane on the E side is the entrance to the cave or weem from which the name of the town is said to be derived. It is a long cave with two branches, in one of which is a small hollow supplied with good water from crevices in the rock, and both well and cave are associated with the name of St Fillan. From one corner a staircase, now destroyed, has led to the grounds of the priory above, where it is said to have been connected with a secret underground passage. The priory buildings and grounds covered a space of from 2 to 3 acres to the E of Cove Wynd and the church. The northern gateway was removed in 1805 to make room for the Episcopal church. The chief entrance was on the E side, and not far off is the Great House of the priory, and to the S what is termed the Prior' Hall. The priory dates from about 1114, but the buildings that remain are of much later date. One of the later priors was John Rowle, who was a lord of Session in 1544, and accompanied the Regent Moray to France in 1550. In 1583 William Stewart, a captain in the King' guard, descended from Alan Stewart of Darnley, obtained a charter of the priory and lands of Pittenweem, and in 1606 his son, Frederick Stewart, got them erected into a temporal lordship with the title of Baron Pittenweem; but he disponed the superiority to the Earl of Kellie, and dying without issue, the title became extinct. The superiority was afterwards surrendered by the Earl of Kellie to the Crown. The Great House is intimately associated with David Low (1768-1855), the well-known Episcopalian Bishop of Ross and Argyll. Behind the eastern entrance is the 'witch corner,' where the Pittenweem witches were buried. The town seems to have been very much troubled with witches at various times, and the last of them caused a great commotion in 1705, when several poor women were, at the instigation of a hysterical boy, imprisoned and placed at the mercy of a guard of " drunken fellows, who, by pinching and pricking some of them with pins and elsions, kept them from sleep for several days and nights together. 'Under this gentle treatment some of them became 'so wise as acknowledge every question that was asked them.' One of them, Janet Corphat, was put in the prison under the steeple -probably the cell that still remains-but escaped by the low window, and got away to Leuchars. Sent back by the minister of that parish, she was set on by a rabble, 'who fell upon the poor creature and beat her unmercifully, tying her so hard with a rope that she was almost strangled; they dragged her through the streets and alongst the shoar by the heels' till they were disturbed by one of the magistrates. Gathering again, however, they 'streach'd a rope betwixt a ship and the shoar to a great height, to which they ty'd her fast; after which they swing'd her to and fro from one side to another, in the meantime throwing stones at her from all corners until they were weary. Then they loos'd her, and with a mighty swing threw her upon the hard sands, all about being ready in the meantime to receive her with stones and staves, with which they beat her most cruelly. They laid a heavy door upon her, with which they prest her so sore that she cried out to let her up for Christ's sake and she would tell the truth. But when they did let her up, what she said could not satisfy them, and therefore they again laid on her the door, and with a heavy weight of stones on it prest her to death; and to be sure it was so they called a man with a horse and a sledge, and made him drive over her corps backward and forward several times.' These and other particulars of similar brutal behaviour may be read in the pamphlets published at the time in connection with the case, which excited a great deal of attention,-and led to legal proceedings against the magistrates, which must have led some of them at least to wish for no more witches in the neighbourhood.

No fewer than thirty breweries are said to have been once in operation about the town, but they have long since vanished, and the present industries are connected with the harbour, which is a creek under Kirkcaldy. Greatly improved in 1855, it has an outer and inner basin, and is safe and commodious, but suffers from its small depth of water. The imports are of the usual description for such a place, and the exports are principally grain and potatoes. A large number of the inhabitants are fishermen, and in 1882 the port, which is for fisbery purposes included in the Anstruther district, had 67 first-class fishing boats, 18 second-class boats, and 6 third-class boats; in connection with which 290 resident fishermen and boys found employment. Few of the boats prosecute the fishing from the port itself. Besides the Established church already noticed, there is on the N side of the town a U.P. church erected in 1846, and an Episcopal church erected in 1805-7 on the NE. Two public schools, the East and the South, with respective accommodation for 326 and 219 pupils, had (1884) an average attendance of 229 and 153, and grants of £215, 16s. 11d. and £123, 12s. A distinguished native was John Douglas (1721-1807), Bishop of Salisbury, eminent for his literary abilities as well as for his ecclesiastical position.

A burgh of barony under the priors, and after 1542 a royal burgh, Pittenweem is now, under the General Police and Improvement Act of 1862, governed by a provost, two bailies, a treasurer, and 8 councillors, and unites with Kilrenny, Crail, Anstruther-Easter, Anstruther-Wester, Cupar, and St Andrews in sending a member to parliament. Parliamentary constituency (1884) 302, municipal constituency 358, including 56 females. The corporation revenue is, on an average, about £700 per annum. There is a post office, with money order, savings' bank, and telegraph departments, branch offices of the Clydesdale and National banks, a National Security Savings' bank, and a gaswork. Valuation (1856) £3890, 9s. 1d., (1885) £6216, 19s. 11d. Pop. (1831) 1309, (1861) 1617, (1871) 1760, (1881) 2116, of whom 1016 were males and 1110 females. The parliamentary burgh, which is slightly smaller than the royal burgh, had at the same time 2090 inhabitants, of whom 1003 were males and 1087 females. In the royal burgh there were 451 houses, and in the parliamentary burgh 443; while 22 were uninhabited, and 1 was being built.—Ord. Sur., sh. 41, 1857.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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