Cunningham. Reminisences of past times.History of St Monans, Fife and Fairlie, Ayrshire.

This page contains a 'potted' history of St Monans, culled mainly from an old Statistical Account of Scotland and from Aitken Fyall, a native of St Monans, who now resides in Carmarthen. Aitken has written a book on the subject of St Monans entitled :-

St Monans

History, Customs and Superstitions

The book, as is title implies, is a comprehensive history of St Monans, tracing its growth from the ninth century to the present day. The Auld Kirk's history (see the picture in my article on St Monans below), is described fully. Local involvement with early conflicts from an English invasion to the Covenanters' cause and the Jacobite Rebellion are discussed.

Topics of every day life include the village Charter, language, education, revenue, taxation, public utilities, health, crime, the law, building restoration, archaeological finds, clubs, associations, freemasonry, customs, superstitions and witchcraft, among other things. The text is complemented by fifty illustrations.

Read the story of The Miller Family , boat and yacht builders in St Monans since 1747.


The Parish of Abercrombie or St Monan's

Abercrombie or Abercrombin appears to have been a Parish since 1174. Towards the end of 1646 another name was added, viz. the Barony of St Monan's. For some years after this the Parish was designated in Presbytery records as "Abercrombie with St Monan's". In the course of years Abercrombie was dropped and St Monan's became the sole designation. At the beginning of the 19th. century Abercrombie was revived as the proper name of the Parish and was applied to in all public documents.

The village, now known as St Monans has at least six different sources of the saint's name, all differing widely, but the most likely appears to be, that it took its name from a hermit or religious recluse, belonging to a neighbouring monastery (Pittenweem), who, in the sixth century when Eremite devolution was prevalent, is said to have lived here. The precise spot pointed out (in the year 1844) as his habitation (St Monan's Cell or Cave) was then covered by a byre. A path, which is an ancient right of way, proceeds from Braehead at the top of the Dawsie Wynd, leading to the Church. On the right, at the lower end of the path, is what is left of the cave, overhung by a mass of dark coloured whinstone. The name turns up all over Scotland. e.g. in Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake are the following lines:

The stag at eve had drunk his fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan's rill.

The Parish of Abercrombie is situated on the Northern shore of the Firth of Forth, opposite to North Berwick Law, and about midway between Fifeness and Leven-water, about 10 miles from each. It is bounded by the Parishes of Elie and Kilconquhar on the West, and Carnbee on the North and Northeast, and by Pittenweem on the East, and by the Forth on the South, in the shape of nearly a parallelogram, a mile and a half long, from South to North and a mile wide from West to East.

There is a very abrupt ascent from the low and rocky beach, consisting of sandstone and limestone to the arable part of the Parish. This arable land, for about a quarter of a mile descends gradually and then re-ascends till it reaches its highest point at the farmhouse and steading of Abercrombie. From this the ground falls in all directions to the boundary.

The climate is fairly mild. In winter and early spring there are occasional violent gales from the south-east, of several days duration. The effect of these was to bring ashore vast quantities of sea-weed, which, at one time, the farmers on the estates of the Anstruthers of Balcaskie, made use of as manure.

In contrast to the southern boundary of the Forth, on the west is the small stream in times gone by called Inweary (Inverie) , rising in the marshes of Kilconquhar Parish, and after a course of about two miles falls into the Forth close by the old church of St Monan's. On the North-east there is the Dreel burn, rising in the heights of Baldutho, and after a course of five or six miles, with Carnbee and West Anstruther Parishes on its left bank and Abercrombie and Pittenweem on its right , falling into the Forth at West Anstruther.

There were several perennial springs in the Parish, the water excellent and was well adapted for domestic purposes. There is one spring (chalybeate) situated on the East Braes, contaminated by drainage from old coal workings(q.v.). It is said that at one time fishermen washed their nets here because they thought that the iron in the water would strengthen them. This spring was originally St Monan's Well and thousands of pilgrims visited it to cure their ills, from Bubonic Plague and Smallpox to Infertility and Chilblains!

The position of the rocks along the seashore is diversified, and the stratification very varied. The rocks, consisting of sandstone and limestone, run out from the land in parallel ridges, of different elevations. The direction of the ridges is from NE to SW, and their dip to the SE in various angles to the horizon. A wide opening occurs in general, between these ridges, (about 200 feet) and presents an obvious and natural harbour opposite to the middle of the village. The sides of this inlet, instead of dipping like consecutive ridges in one direction, expand and mutually fall back, forming a spacious entrance, of which due advantage has been taken in forming the harbour. The original pier (on the site of the present middle one), was built by Baron Newark in the 15th. century. In 1863 the foundation stone of a new pier, to the east of the old one was laid and was finished in1865. The old West Pier was demolished and a new harbour was surveyed, designed and constructed by Thomas and David Stevenston (Thomas's son was Robert Louis, of Treasure Island fame) The foundation stone was laid by John Williamson, W.M. of Lodge St Adrian. There is an account of this ceremony contained in the Fife News dated 11 October, 1879. (Murray Library, Anstruther).Further improvements were carried out in1885 and both basins were deepened in 1902/5.

There are said to have been six seams of coal in the Barony of St Monan's, splint and cherry. These seams ranged in thickness from18 inches to 7 feet. In former times coal was worked to a depth of 10 fathoms; but had been given up for about 25 years and when it was resumed in about 1820, the shafts were driven to a depth of 27 fathoms. The working of coal was completely abandoned because of the lack of capital to invest in it. There are understood to be several seams of coal in the lands of Abercrombie.

Other minerals which abound , but do not appear to have been developed, are limestone and ironstone. The limestone rock is very deep and is understood to be continued under and across the village till it reappears, with very prominent features, like the other ridges on each side of it, on to the sea. Ironstone was found in considerable quantities on the beach and is formed chiefly of small stones and was used by the shipmasters as ballast. The nature of the arable soil is of a light loam, friable, with very little clay, quite free of stones and is fertile and manageable. It is perfectly adapted for green crops, but yields all the usual crops with abundance.

One of the earliest documents connected with the parish is a charter granted to the feuars of St Monan's by Sir William Sandilands, dated 1622. One of the most important clauses in this document is that by which 'the said bailies, council, feuars and inhabitants of our said town of St Monance, their heirs and successors shall be holden and restricted to repair, beet (refurbish) and uphold the Kirk and Kirk-yard dykes of St Monance, in timber, slate, lime and glass, sufficiently, as effeirs, in time coming.' There was no mention of metal and so the Kirk stood open for a whole summer at one time, for the want of a latch!! This clause was not lost sight of by the heritors of future days. Sandilands was paid £10 for the 'mair' and also given fish from every boat every year. He also kept the mineral rights for himself.

There was one eminent person in British history connected with the parish, one, Lieutenant-General David Leslie who, according to Sibbald (History of Fife, Cupar Edition, 1803, p335) was created Lord Newark by Charles II . The name Newark had belonged to the residence of Sir James Sandilands and became the property of David Leslie by purchase. It is understood that this is the General Leslie who made so distinguished a figure in the civil wars in the middle of the 17th. century. He defeated Montrose at Philiphaugh, 13th. September, 1645, and he completely suppressed the civil war in Scotland in1647. When Cromwell invaded Scotland in 1650, David Leslie sustained a signal defeat at the battle of Dunbar. The reason for the defeat was because of the zeal of the Committee of the Church and State, who precipitated him into a battle for which he was not ready. He was overthrown on 30th. September 1650, and confined in the Tower of London. However, justice was done, as he was later acquitted of misconduct and restored to his command. To mark his release, he built the Doocot in 1660.

The biggest landowners, according to a valuation in 1695 were, Sir Robert Anstruther of Balcaskie, Sir Alexander Anstruther of Newark and, to a lesser extent, the Earl of Balcarres.

The earliest entry in the parochial registers is 16th. April 1597. It is very brief and not very legible, appearing to record the settling of an account. Matters of discipline were often dealt with by the Kirk session, extending to all manner of delinquencies. The first volume of the register ends in 1638 and the second begins in 1641 and goes on to 1660, the third from 1664 to 1681. Then there is a blank until November 1689 and since then records have been kept regularly. The first record of a marriage is in 1634 and there are only three records of births and baptisms before 1707.

In those days, St Monans was one of the principal fishing stations on the east coast of Scotland, mainly line fishing (for white fish ) and herring fishing. Children were used to gather bait, the women folk baited the lines and the men ( including boys from 14 to 18) went a-fishing. The herring fishing season was in the winter and spring months, locally, then to the North-east of Scotland starting in June and finally to Lowestoft and Yarmouth, in England at the back end of the year.

The most memorable occurrences in those days (the 19th. century) were losses by sea, from swamping of boats and other accidents, for the 30 years from 1800, four boats perished with the loss of five lives in each, one with four and one with three. These boats crews were composed of near relations making the catastrophes more afflicting to survivors. The worst happened at Kings Lynn, Norfolk on Friday 19th. November, 1875, when three boats were lost. The Quest, the Beautiful Star and The Thane, all with seven men in each. In all with two boats from Cellardyke, 37 men were lost, leaving 19 widows and 72 orphans. These tragic events served to bring the people together, by awakening and bringing in a great deal of good feeling, mainly by raising substantial sums of money for the dependants.

The parish church is conveniently situated for the great bulk of the population, but, up till comparatively recently, not for the minister and his family. The manse was situated at Abercrombie and the original parish church, abandoned in 1646 was only about a five minutes walk from the manse, in the grounds of Balcaskie estate. The Auld Kirk The present church, which is on the site of the original St Monan's shrine, is said to have been built about the fortieth year of David II's reign(1369) . Tradition says that he and his queen, narrowly escaping shipwreck on the "stormy frith," had found a landing on the shore hard by St Monan's, and that, as an expression of gratitude for their deliverance caused a chapel to be built to St Monan, the tutelary saint of the place. By David's charter, dated in Edinburgh, he grants to this chapel the lands of Easter Birney in Fife, and some lands in the sheriffdom of Edinburgh. James III gave it to the Black-friars. It had afterwards a convent at Cupar annexed to it and both it and the convent were annexed by James V to a convent at St Andrews. The church is situated at the west end of St Monans and separated from it by the small burn of Inverie, and within fifty yards of what is known as St Monan's Cell or Cave. The church is a beautiful specimen of Gothic architecture, in the form of a cross, with a steeple of hewn stone in the centre, square so far and terminating in a spire of eight sides. There is no sign of building to the westward; but to the north and south of it are two transepts at right angles to the main construction. It was a most uncomfortable place of worship, damp, cold, its walls covered with green mould and presented an aspect of chilling desolation, and by 1772 the church was in a ruinous condition, the transepts were without roofs. The then incumbent decreed against the heritors for extensive and substantial repairs. The feuars did not think this was a burden for them to bear and the matter was taken to the Court of Session and the feuars were found liable. They did then apply a repair, but only partial, and nothing like that which was necessary as had been deemed by the Presbytery and it remained in this state till 1825 when the then minister, the Rev. Robert Swan, brought the state of the church to the notice of the Presbytery. An inspection was made and it was decreed that the building be condemned. The heritors protested and asked for a delay, a further meeting was convened and an architect was employed (a Mr. Burn) who deprecated the idea of it being abandoned to ruin and gave his decided opinion as to its capability of its being repaired into a beautiful specimen of ecclesiastical architecture and a place of worship well adapted for seeing and hearing.

This report was immediately accepted by the Presbytery and acted upon and work commenced in June 1828. The remains of General David Leslie and his successors were buried in the north transept, but were removed during the rebuilding of the church, when the floor was lowered. Seat rents were established to help defray the expenses of renovation and were continued on until the early part of the twentieth century. A number of changes and improvements were made to the church in succeeding years, but much more needed to be done. It was in the 1950's that a sister of the late Rev. Dr. Turnbull, who had been minister for very many years, left money in her will for 'the restoration of the church'. It was thought by many that she had meant renovation, but the powers that be at church headquarters took the literal meaning of the word restoration and decided to go ahead and restore the church to its original form. As a result the church was closed for worship for approximately four years while the work of restoration took place. The level of the floor was raised, the vestibule which had been added at the east end of the church was removed and the entrance built up.

This meant that the only entrance to the church, apart from through the vestry, was by the double doors in the south transept, as a result there was no vestibule. The pulpit was moved from its offset position at the left of the chancel to the centre of the west wall under the window which was reduced in size. The church was finally rededicated in 1961.

Old St Monans has many distinctive architectural features. House walls are mainly 'harled', many roofs are pantiled and the tiles are not nailed down. As a result the gable walls were continued above roof level to prevent the wind getting under the tiles. Sandstone is difficult to cut diagonally, so the tops of the gable walls were finished with the distinctive 'crow steps'. Houses of more than one story had an outside stair to the upper flat. Very few are left now, as many were removed to widen the streets. In comparatively recent years, the National Trust for Scotland have restored many of the old houses in St Monans as well as in other East Neuk towns.

There were salt pans, on the East Braes, just past the site of the putting green and bathing pool. These were in use in the 18th. century, when sea water was evaporated using fires fuelled by the local coal. The windmill (Roondel) on top of the raised beach, pumped the sea water up into the pans. The salt and coal operations lasted about 30 years and by1844 the salt factory had completely disappeared. The ruined windmill has since been upgraded and grassy 'hollows' mark the location of the salt pans.

John Cunningham
March 1998

St Monans

The Miller Family - St Monans.

Boat & Yacht building.

In 1779, David Miller came to St Monans. The Miller family had been in the building business since 1745, when John Miller started a business of wheelwright and joiner at Overkellie. The business moved to St Andrews in 1768.

 At that time, 1779, St Monans had quite a large fleet of fishing vessels, the burgh was growing and was in a flourishing condition. There was no proper harbour only a jetty built of stones, where the middle pier now stands, and probably the first boats to be built by Miller were of the 'beaching' type. i.e. the boats were pulled up on to the beach when not in use.

 These boats were very primitive in comparison to the present day fishing boats. They varied in length from 16 to 40 feet and had a shallow draft. They were open, single masted and a lug sail and oars were the means of propulsion. Miller developed from this type of boat to the modern fishing vessel, latterly made of steel, with all the modern technological aids to fishing and safety, with a modicum of comfort for the crew.

 Up to 1888, the business was purely a local concern, building for St Monans and the neighbouring ports of Pittenweem and Anstruther. My late grandfather, James Thomson Niven Miller took over the business and he soon began to extend and develop it further, opening a second yard in Anstruther where he built many of the larger, 50 to 80 feet, 'Fifie' type fishing boats . With the advent of the steam engine, he immediately began building the larger steam trawlers and steam drifters, fitted with compound steam engines.

 He diversified the business further, by building cargo boats, launches, fishery inspection vessels and then yachts. The first yacht was steam driven with a clipper bow and an overhanging stern. From then on the name of Miller became famous world wide for the quality and craftsmanship of the vessels they built, from the smallest dinghy to the largest yacht.

 Again, in the early days of experimenting with the internal combustion engine, J.T.N.Miller was at the forefront, being one of the first in the installation of a diesel two-stroke engine in a 62 ft. Fifie fishing boat. It was in 1908 when a 40 ft. yacht was built and fitted with a four cylinder Kelvin paraffin engine, the simplicity and efficiency of the engine appealed to my grandfather and he immediately became an agent for Kelvin engines, an agency which lasted for the lifetime of the business.

During the two World Wars, Millers played their part in providing the Royal Navy with the type of vessels which could be constructed in a comparatively small, local yard. Motor launches for use in the Near East were built during World War I, while during and immediately after World War II, a total of 59 vessels, Motor Torpedo Boats and Motor Launches, were built.

Between the wars, fishing boats continued to be built, but it was at that time that yacht building came into its own. From 1920 to 1939, 66 yachts were built, covering sail. auxiliary and motor types. Many were to Miller's own design but some were designed by such well known naval architects as G.L.Watson, W.G.McBryde and others.

After the second World War, a whole new fishing fleet was built for various parts of the country and also several large, luxurious yachts. Then, in 1957, Jimmy (q.v), James's grandson, designed the 'Fifer' yachts ,  on fishing boat lines and the first one. a 31 footer "Royal Fifer", was taken to the 1958 Boat Show at Olympia and was sold on preview day. 110 Fifer yachts in all were built up to 1969, the largest being 45 feet. Several made Round the World trips.

My uncle Tom served his time as a boatbuilder and became an expert in the design and building of craft of all kinds. One fault, if it was a fault, was that he carried all the ins and outs of boatbuilding and the layout of the yard in his head, even down to where any particular item was. There was no organised store in those days. Overhead costs were low. Uncle Willie, a bit younger than Tom, served his time as an engineer with the Bergius company in Glasgow, they were the suppliers of Kelvin engines aforementioned. A motor driven capstan was designed and developed by Willie. It was patented and named 'Fifer', it was assembled in an enlarged engineer's shop, where formerly, smaller boats had been built.

Both took over the business in 1934, when my grandfather, James, retired. He continued to run and manage the ship chandlers cum grocery store until his death in 1944. Tom and Willie successfully ran the business and in 1948 they celebrated the bi-centenary. They both had sons named James and there were high hopes of continuing the business -- and the family name.

Jimmy, Tom's son, served his time in the boatyard, studied naval architecture, and was responsible for designing most, if not all of the fishing boats that were built after WW II. He was so keen that when his new house was built, a drawing office was built alongside it.

Jim, Willie's son, was sent off to Bergius in Glasgow, like his father before him, to serve his time as an engineer. I think he did this under protest, as he had a fine voice and his interest seemed to be music and not engineering nor boatbuilding. However serve his time he did, but never really took an active part in the fortunes of the boatyard, but became known as the singer, Niven Miller, of Scottish and Classical songs.

On uncle Tom's death, his son Jimmy, who was well qualified, took his father's place in the business and his youngest sister, Jessie worked in the office and became Company Secretary. The business continued to flourish.

As time went by neither Jimmy nor his cousin Jim managed to produce any male offspring. Willie had left the business, with great reluctance, because of illness, and eventually went off to New Zealand to live with his daughter Jenny. Jimmy and his sister Jessie carried on, but it was seen, regretfully, that there was no chance of the business being carried on by a Miller. It was the end of the line.

In 1972, Geo. Moodie, Port Seton, approached Jimmy about the construction of a steel fishing boat. (A complete change from building wooden vessels). However, Jimmy designed one, and approached Jas. McBurney of McTay Marine, for whom two Fifer yachts had been built, to ascertain if they (McTay) would be interested in constructing the steel hull. They were. Millers fitted the hull with an engine and steering gear and it was brought to St Monans for fitting out.. This was followed by the 'Ocean Herald ' for John McBain of Pittenweem , and another designed by Jimmy, a 76 footer, in steel, for Robt. Clark of North Berwick, followed by the 'Ocean Triumph' another 76 footer for Ian Murray of Anstruther.

 It was then, in 1976, that the company was taken over by McTay Marine a company which was a member of the Mowlem group, Jimmy and Jessie continued to manage it for a while , but after Jimmy retired, things began to change. McTay (the company was still called Jas. N. Miller & Sons Ltd.) changed entirely to the use of steel in the construction of the fishing boats. Gone were the days of my childhood in the 20s and 30s, when the smell of sawdust and shavings pervaded the air. No longer were steaming planks rushed from the steam box to be moulded on to the wooden frames of a fishing boat. No longer would there be the chipping away at a timber or planking with an 'each' (adze), nor the sound of oakum being caulked between the planking strokes. No more the creation of the upper structures (the wheelhouse and hatches) in the joiners shop. Deck furniture for yachts were made of the finest teak and the interiors lined with mahogany. The craftsmanship of the St Monans carpenters and joiners was without equal.

 Sadly, the economics of big business ordained that the yard would be closed. It now lies derelict, more than 200 years of family history had come to an end.

John Cunningham
March 1998

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