Subscribe to our Newsletter


Member login

Facebook Share

Share on facebook

Pittenweem from the outer harbour wall

Pittenweem is a small and secluded fishing village and civil parish tucked in the corner of Fife on the east coast of Scotland. According to the 2006 estimate, the village has a population of 1,600. At the 2001 census, the parish had a population of 1,747.

The name derives from Pictish and Scottish Gaelic. "Pit-" represents Pictish pett 'place, portion of land', and "-enweem" is Gaelic na h-Uaimh, 'of the Caves' in Gaelic, so "The Place of the Caves". The name is rendered Baile na h-Uaimh in modern Gaelic, with baile, 'town, settlement', substituted for the Pictish prefix. The cave in question is almost certainly St Fillan's cave, although there are many indentations along the rocky shores that could have influenced the name.


Pittenweem was awarded the status of royal burgh by King James V (1513–42) in 1541. This status was lost in 1975 but was restored to Pittenweem along with a restored Burgh Crest, in 2008 by the Lord Lyon King of Arms. Founded as a fishing village around a probably early Christian religious settlement, it grew along the shoreline from the west where the sheltered beaches provided safe places for fishermen to draw their boats up out of the water. In due course a breakwater was built, extending out from one of the rocky skerries that jut out south-west into the Firth of Forth like fingers. This allowed boats to rest at anchor rather than being beached, providing a means for larger vessels to use the port. A new breakwater further to the east has been developed over the years into a deep, safe harbour with a covered fish market. As the herring disappeared from local waters and the fishing fleet shrank, this harbour and attendant facilities led Pittenweem to become the main harbour for the fishermen of the East Neuk of Fife.

The white houses with red roofs shown in the above picture "Pittenweem from the outer harbour wall" illustrate the classic East Neuk building style, influenced by trade with the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands). The East Neuk offered natural trading ports for Dutch and Belgian captains as they sailed up past the east coast of England. These ships brought red pantiles as ballast and the locals soon found them to be excellent roofing material. It is just possible to make out the "crow step [Scots: corbie-steppit] gable", where the gable ends rise in steps rather than the more normal smooth angled line - an architectural feature imported from the Low Countries. These and other vernacular features are common throughout the small town, which has one of Scotland's best-preserved and most attractive townscapes, with many historic buildings (some restored by the National Trust for Scotland). The 'organic' layout of the town centre, which grew up piecemeal over several centuries, with numerous winding streets and alleys, is one of its particular charms. Few Scottish towns have so well preserved their ancient character.

At the shore end of the outer harbour wall, some of the paving stones have numbers engraved in them. The numbers are now randomly scattered, but once were vital to the smooth operation of the fish market. Before the pier was re-surfaced, the stones were placed in numerical order at the quayside running outwards from the shore. The first fishing boat to return with its catch placed its haul alongside stone number one, the second boat at stone two and so on. When the market opened, the fish was sold in strict order of landing.


Pittenweem is currently the most active of the fishing ports in the East Neuk coast of Fife. Other primary industries are farming, tourism and, recently, arts and crafts.

In former times, Pittenweem had two coal mines, one inland at Easter Grangemuir, the other at Pathhead, on the coast between Pittenweem and St Monans. A spin-off from the Pathhead mine was salt production. Receptacles below the tideline collected water that could be pumped up to salt-pans, the pans then being heated by coal fires fed from the mine to extract the salt. Evidence of the ash produced can still be seen on the coast.

Geology / Geography

The village sits astride a raised beach, with the lower part of the village housing the harbour and the older houses, and the upper part having the main shopping area, churches, school and more recent housing.


Pittenweem Primary School is a traditional village school with its own playing fields on the northern side of the older part of the village. It caters for children aged 4/5 to 11/12. Secondary education (up to ages 16, 17 or 18 depending on educational ambitions) is provided at Waid Academy in the neighbouring town of Anstruther. The nearest private educational institution is St Leonard's School in St Andrews, or the High School of Dundee.


In the Middle Ages, Pittenweem Priory was a small Augustinian monastery linked to that on the Isle of May and built over the ancient sacred cave associated with St Fillan. The cave, recently fitted out as a chapel, is situated in Cove Wynd (leading from the High Street down to the harbour) and is open to the public with the key available locally from the Cocoa Tree café. From this rough dwelling St Fillan is said to have converted the local Pictish population. The cave was re-discovered around 1900 when a horse ploughing in the priory garden fell down a hole into it. The cave has flat rocks that are presumed to be 'beds' and a small spring of "holy water" at the rear. St Fillan's Cave was also used as prison for witches during the witch hunts of the 17-18th centuries (see below).

A shrine was dedicated to St Adrian on the Isle of May. It is said that St Adrian's men undertook the first harbour improvements, laying the foundation for the fishing industry, but no evidence for this currently exists.

The present Church of Scotland parish kirk is on the site of the priory church. Much of the fortified east gatehouse of the priory survives (15th century), as does the 'Great House', one of Scotland's best-preserved late medieval houses, which may have served as accommodation for the prior and monks.

As befits a village steeped in the dangerous and uncertain practices of fishing and farming, there are many churches in the village. Current denominations with churches include: Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Baptist. Other denominations have had churches or the equivalent, but these have been converted to other purposes. The "Church of Scotland" Church Hall, for example, was once the "Free Church of Scotland" kirk.

The late 17th to early 18th centuries saw a number of notorious witch-hunts by the local minster. The town at this time had become bogged down in debt and this was used as an excuse to seize the assets of some local women in order to alleviate money problems. The Church of Scotland building at the top of the High Street was used as the jail for the accused females and the door to the cells can still be seen. It is the studded door at the bottom of the tower.


In the late 1960s the fishermen of the area celebrated the re-opening of the re-designed harbour with a Gala Day, where the boats were dressed overall and people could have short trips on the boats. By the early 1980s, however, increasing regulation, higher fuel costs and a shrinking fleet were bringing this event to its knees. In its place sprang up an Arts Festival, which initially incorporated the Gala Day as its finale. Many artists have rediscovered the charms and the light of the area, which was always popular with itinerant and hobby artists, and have moved to the village, creating a vibrant artistic community.

The village is home to a number of members of the Fence Collective; as well as the Scottish Collection of Art Extraordinary Gallery belonging to The Art Extraordinary Trust. Art Extraordinary (also known as Art Brut or outsider Art) arises from a powerful compulsion to create an inner personal vision.

Pittenweem had the first newspaper in the area - the Pittenweem Register (1844–52?). It caused a great stir in the town when the London daily newspapers contained extracts from the Register's eighth edition.


The local (representing North East Fife) Member of the UK Parliament is Sir Menzies Campbell CBE QC MP, former leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The local (representing Fife North East) Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) is Roderick Campbell of the Scottish National Party. It is also represented by the MSPs of the Mid-Scotland and Fife parliamentary region.

Pittenweem is in the East Neuk and Landward ward of Fife council and is represented by a number of members elected by Single Transferable Vote.

From 1885–1983, Pittenweem was part of the East Fife Parliamentary constituency, its most famous MP being Prime Minister Herbert Asquith (Liberal) from 1886–1918.


The local Football team is Pittenweem Rovers AFC. The local Rugby team is Waid Academy FPRFC.

Famous Pittenweemers