Principal Town: Glenrothes
Population (1991):
Area (hectares): 134045
Entry Updated: 27-AUG-2019
Local Authority Contact Information

Address: Fife Council
Fife House
North Street
1.1. The bounds and extent of Fife

Forming a peninsula that separates the estuaries of the Tay to the north and the Forth to the south, Fife is surrounded on three sides by water and has a coastline of about 115 miles. Its relative physical isolation is reflected in the old saying 'Bid farewell to Scotland, and cross to Fife.'

In the west, the regional boundary of Fife begins on the River Forth just west of Kincardine Bridge; it follows the boundary with Clackmannanshire and Perth and Kinross east and north for 61 miles to the River Tay just west of Newburgh. The total area of the region is 507 sq. miles (1,312 sq. km).

The maximum width of Fife, from Fife Ness in the east to its southwestern extremity, is 41½ miles (67 km), and its breadth from Burntisland in the south to Newburgh in the north is 21 miles (34 km).

1.2. Administration

Between 1975 and 1996 the former County of Fife, as Fife Region, was divided into the three districts of Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy and North East Fife. In 1996 the region reverted to a single tier system of administration with its regional headquarters in Glenrothes.

1.3. The lie of the land

The structure and surface features that make up the topography of Fife follow an essentially simple pattern that consists of an alternation of upland and lowland zones with a predominantly WSW - ENE trend.

In the extreme north, the Tayside coastal plain is a narrow strip of lowland developed on Lower Old Red Sandstone which is covered for the most part with raised beach deposits that form excellent farmland. The coastal plain to the south of the Tay is backed by a line of volcanic hills which are an easterly, less prominent extension of the Ochil Hills with a general summit level of less than 183m (600 feet). The highest hill in this range is Norman's Law which rises to 285m (936 feet).

Between the eastern Ochils in the north and the plateau of the East Neuk of Fife in the southeast lies the Howe of Fife ('Howe' = 'hollow') and the valley of the River Eden (Stratheden). The edges of this central Fife basin have generally good soils, but there are patches of gravel and impermeable clays in the more low-lying central zone. As a result of the drainage of waterlogged soils since the mid-18th century, much of this area has become productive.

In the extreme east, the sand dunes of Tentsmuir, fixed for the most part by coniferous plantations, lie on a raised beach forming a unique exception to the general rule of high fertility along the coastlands. In the west, the Lomond, Cleish and Benarty Hills form the boundary between Fife and Perth and Kinross. These, the only major areas of uncultivated upland in Fife, rise to maximum heights of 522m (1712 feet) in West Lomond, 448m (1471 feet) in East Lomond, 356m (1167 feet) in Benarty Hill and 364m (1194 feet) in Knock Hill.

The uplands of the East Neuk plateau in the southeast are composed of Carboniferous limestone and sandstone, with considerable outcrops of igneous material which decomposes to give fertile soils that contrast with the less productive colder and heavier soils overlying boulder-clay-covered sedimentary rocks. With a general level of 152-213m (500-700 feet), this area rises to 290m (965 feet) in Largo Law and 182m (597 feet) in Kellie Law. The East Neuk coastlands include large areas of raised beaches which yield excellent soils.

West of the East Neuk of Fife lies the valley of the River Leven which flows eastwards to the Firth of Forth from the southeast corner of Loch Leven in Perth and Kinross. It is an undulating lowland area floored with Carboniferous limestone and coal measures.

The southwestern coastlands of Fife slope gently from about 107m (350 feet) to the sea and are developed on Carboniferous Limestone and Millstone Grit with some igneous intrusions. The soils are chiefly clays and loams and are of particularly high quality along the coast, where raised beach deposits again occur.

The two principal rivers of Fife are the River Eden and the River Leven both of which flow eastwards to meet the North Sea and Forth estuary respectively. In addition to Fife Regional Park which extends over 6500 ha (16,000 acres) of central Fife there are many protected areas including 53 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserves at Morton Lochs, Tentsmuir Point and the Isle of May, Local Nature Reserves at the Eden Estuary and Torry Bay, and Country Parks at Craigtoun, Lochore Meadows and Townhill.

1.4. Climate

To the favourable conditions of soil and terrain that make Fife one of the most productive farming areas of Scotland must be added those of climate. Over 75 per cent of the region has an annual rainfall of less than 890mm (35 inches); large areas in the east have less than 760mm (30 inches) and the eastern coastlands have between 698mm (27.5 inches) and 635mm (25 inches) only. Throughout Fife there are four months with mean temperatures above 50°F.

1.5. Population

During the past 250 years the population of Fife has increased fourfold. Much of that increase took place between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries when the population doubled. Thereafter population growth has been slower.


The contrast between east and west has undoubtedly been one of the most outstanding features of the demographic history of Fife during the past two centuries. In 1755, the eastern half of the county contained 52% of the population, while the west, where the larger urban centres were situated, had 48%. Two hundred years later the east was the home of a mere 20% of a considerably larger total. While the population of the eastern area increased by 50% from 42,000 to 63,000 between 1755 and 1951, that of the west rose from 39,000 to 244,000, an increase of over 500%.

The population growth in the west is largely attributable to the growth in the textile towns of west Fife and the subsequent development of the coal industry. While the coal industry has largely been replaced since the 1960s by the commercial growth of the 'Bridgehead Dunfermline' area, west Fife has also experienced a rise in commuter settlement as a result of the opening of the Forth Road Bridge in 1964. In 1991 there were 137,041 households in Fife, but this had grown to 159,475 by 2001.

Evidence from Tentsmuir on the sandy tip of the Fife peninsula tells us that this part of Scotland was occupied by nomadic hunter-gathering people over 8,000 years ago. The archaeological record, particularly burial sites and sites of ritual, suggest that Fife was well settled with a resident population around 4,000 years ago.

Known as the 'Kingdom of Fife', the region has inherited a strong sense of identity that is partly derived from its sea- and firth-girt isolation and partly its historic links with a regional kingdom of the Pictish confederation. The Pictish connection is still reflected in symbol stones, the remains of fortresses and place names, particularly those including prefixes such as 'pit' or 'place of'.

The region continued to be associated with royalty throughout the Middle Ages with royal residences at Dunfermline and Falkland and Royal Charters granted to 18 of Fife's burgh towns. Of these Royal Burghs, 15 were ports whose trade with northern Europe was an important feature of Scotland's Mediaeval economic growth and cultural development. The burgh of St Andrews became one of Scotland's greatest towns as a centre of the cult of St Andrew, the seat of the primacy of Scotland from 1472 until the Reformation and the home of Scotland's oldest university.

Fife prospered from the 18th century with improvements in agriculture, the expansion of fishing and boat-building and the establishment of large-scale coal mining, textile and paper industries.

The opportunities provided by the growth of the electronics industry and by the development of offshore oil and gas have significantly influenced the shape of the modern Fife economy. They have established the region as a centre of high technology and information based industries which have grown up alongside traditional long-established industries such as papermaking, food processing, engineering, textiles and clothing. The tradition of manufacturing remains strong, employing almost 30% of the workforce of 155,000 compared with 21% nationally.
References and Further Reading
Bennett, G.P. The Great Road Between Forth and Tay from early times to 1850. Markinch Printing Company, Markinch
Bruce, William Scott (1980) The Railways of Fife. Melvin Press, Perth
Fife Regional Council (1996) The Kingdom of Fife. The British Publishing Company
Gifford, John (1988) The Buildings of Scotland: Fife. Penguin, London
Lamont-Brown, Raymond (1988) Discovering Fife. John Donald Publishers Ltd., Edinburgh
Lang, Theo (1951) The King's Scotland: The Kingdom of Fife. Hodder and Stoughton, London
MacGregor, A.R. (1968) Fife & Angus Geology. William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, for the University of St. Andrews
Mackay, A.J.G. (1890) History of Fife and Kinross. County History Series
Millar, A.H. (1895) Fife, Pictorial and Historical, its People, Burghs, Castles and Mansions.
Pride, Glen L. (1999) The Kingdom of Fife: An Illustrated Architectural Guide. Second Edition, Royal Incorporation of Architects, Edinburgh
Sibbald, Sir Robert (1710) The History, Ancient and Modern of the Sheriffdoms of Fife and Kinross.
Silver, Owen (1987) The Roads of Fife. John Donald Publishers Ltd., Edinburgh
Snoddy, T.G. (1950) Afoot in Fife. Serif Books, Edinburgh
Walker, Bruce and Graham Ritchie (1987) Exploring Scotland's Heritage: Fife and Tayside. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and HMSO, Edinburgh
Walker, Bruce and Graham Ritchie (1996) Exploring Scotland's Heritage: Fife, Perthshire and Angus. Second Edition, The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and HMSO, Edinburgh
Wood, Rev. Walter (1887) The East Neuk of Fife. David Douglas, Edinburgh

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