Kirkcaldy: The Lang Toun - The Kingdom Of Fife

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Kirkcaldy: The Lang Toun

Town & Districts

In current times, Fife is the smallest administrative region within a devolved Scottish Parliament of the United Kingdom and has a total population of about 350,000 people. There are no cities in Fife but the region lies centrally between Edinburgh, Dundee and Perth. More than a third of the population live in the four main towns of Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy, Glenrothes and St Andrews. This section describes these four communities.

The town of Kirkcaldy (pronounced kir-caw-dee) lies on the south coast of Fife Region and has a population of about 49,000 people making it the largest single settlement in Fife. Often referred to as the 'Lang Toun' or 'Long Town', Kirkcaldy is a conurbation in its own right having absorbed several neighbouring coastal villages over a period of time and which resulted in a very long High Street and which promoted the nickname. The name, Kirkcaldy, may owe origin to Kirkcaladunt, a shire granted to Dunfermline Church by King Malcolm III in 1075 or else the Pictish word for a 'hard fort'.

It's known that a community existed in the Kirkcaldy area from at least 2500BC since Bronze Age burial cists dating from that period has been discovered nearby. There are very few Roman sites in Fife but it is known that a Roman camp was established at the present day Carberry Farm on the outskirts of the town.

During the medieval period, the main industries associated with Kirkcaldy were salt panning, coal mining and nail making. Starting early in the sixteenth century, Kirkcaldy became a prominent trading port in which imported timber, possibly from Balkan countries, was employed in shipbuilding and in the construction of Falkland Palace and Edinburgh Castle. Popular exports from Kirkcaldy during that period of time included wool, animal hides and skins, coal, salt and salmon.

The earliest record concerning the area is of that described above. Later, King David I awarded the burgh to Dunfermline Abbey, a status fully ratified by King Robert I in 1327 and providing taxation amounting to about £50 in 'modern money' was annually paid to the Abbot of Dunfermline. Kirkcaldy became a ‘Royal Burgh’ in 1644 under the reign of Charles I and thus became independent from the abbey. During the Civil War periods under the reign of Charles I, about 250 local men were killed at the Battle of Kilsyth in 1645 and further 450 throughout the conflicts. A mere dozen of the town's fleet of trading ships, allegedly about one hundred before the conflicts, survived the wars.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the popular diarist and author Daniel Defoe, described Kirkcaldy as a "larger, more populous, and better built town than...any on this coast". Between 1778 and 1793, local shipbuilders launched thirty-eight vessels and manufacturing industry was expanding. The local pottery industry was originally established in 1714 as an offshoot of the local Brick and Tile Works, the most famous of which remains that of Andrew and Archibald Grey whose Fife Pottery, established in 1817, produced 'Wemyss Ware' products named after the Wemyss family who owned nearby Wemyss Castle and many other local properties.

In 1813, 'The Earl Percy' became the towns first whaling ship but just fifty three years later, Kirkcaldy's last whaling ship, 'The Brilliant' was sold off to the town of Peterhead and thus bringing further investment and involvement of this trade to a close.

The production of linen began in 1672 and became a major export from the town and where the presence of flax in quantity may have influenced linen manufacturer Michael Nain to expand into the production of sailcloth for use by the many ships visiting Kirkcaldy harbour.

As demand for this product reduced in the nineteenth century, Nain switched to the manufacture of floorcloth; a fore runner to modern carpeting and before contributing significantly to the introduction of linoleum manufacture to Kirkcaldy from about 1877. The large scale manufacture of linoleum was apt to produce a not too unpleasant odour immediately noticeable by visitors to the town as remarked upon in jest by comedian Billy Connelly upon alighting from a train at Kirkcaldy rail station more than a century later, "What's that f*cking smell?" One might have answered that it was the smell of wealth being drawn into the town.

Nairn flooring occupied seven factories in the town by 1883 and employed circa 1300 people at its peak. Linoleum production still continues in the town albeit on a much lesser scale under the Swiss ownership of Forbo-Nairn whose marmoleum floor covering products are popular in many countries.

Nelbarden swimwear may not strike an instant chord of memory in current times but in the 1970s, the brand name was globally renowned on a scale akin to the Speedo brand in current times. The factory site where these garments were made is now occupied by a car retails and service facility.

As explained above, Kirkcaldy's harbour was an essential part of the olden economy and expansion of this harbour was completed in 1908. Despite this, and amid changing times, the harbour was closed in 1992 only to reopen in 2011 for cargo vessels bringing cargoes of wheat directly to the nearby Hutchison Flour Mill and in favour of less intermediate handling and substantial reduction of road haulage formerly required to operate the plant. It’s a project managed between Carr's Flour Mills, owners of the local mill, the Forth Ports Authority as owners of the harbour, and Transport Scotland, who provided funding exceeding £800,000 to pay for the new silos and conveyor systems permitting rapid delivery to the mills from the harbour. The scheme has led to removal of one quarter of Carr's transport fleet of trucks formerly needed to supply the mill.

The long seawall and esplanade was constructed by unemployed residents and funded by the Unemployment Grants Commission in 1923. The traditional Links Market and Fair dominates the esplanade for a few weeks in April each year and although smaller than in previous years, it draws many people to the town and is still regarded as one of the largest street fairs of its kind in Europe.

By 1970, the projection for the town’s populace was expected to reach 60,000 within a decade but it never happened. It reached a peak figure of 53,750 in 1961 then fell back to 47,962 by 1981 and is currently about that same figure some thirty years later.

In the early 1970s, Kirkcaldy was alive with industry giants having many factories representing a large degree of inward investment from overseas and mainly from the United States of America. Notably, GEC were actively developing the first digital telephone exchanges in the World.

Despite being ‘knocked back’ on three occasions by opposition from French President Charles de Gaulle, the United Kingdom finally entered the fledgling European Economic Community in 1973. Within days of this agreement, retail prices of basic food items escalated by huge measure in order to support the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) designed to support less efficient farmers in Europe. It led to ‘wine lakes’ and ‘butter mountains’ in which huge reserves of food were placed in storage in order to support the price of these goods. It also led to less viability for foreign investors to remain in the UK and it didn’t take long before many of these sought better marketing and labour conditions most notably in the Far Eastern countries. One exceptional stalwart is Andrew Antennae of Chicago whose local base at nearby Lochgelly has been there for many years while many others have come and gone. Emerging and improved technology on the military front during the ‘Cold War’ era may have also played in a part in economic theatre and where the US felt less need to support offshore reserves in Europe.

In current times, there are approximately 22,000 people fully employed in the Kirkcaldy area. In 2010, more than 7,000 people claimed benefits in the Kirkcaldy area and which was 90 less than in 2009 but a full 500 more than in 2008. The average wage figure for the Kirkcaldy area tends to be less than the average for the region and yet, the overall demographics aren't wildly out of step with many other parts of Scotland. The largest singular employer in Kirkcaldy is Mgt plc with several locations in the town but most notably at Cluny House and Iona House in the John Smith Business Park. Other notable employers include NHS Fife, the Adam Smith College and R Hutchison Ltd whose flourmill has already been described on this page. A huge proportion of the local workforces are engaged in financial, construction and retailing sectors.

The town has many famous sons including many musicians, writers and politicians who are described in more detail elsewhere on this website and excluded from mention on this page simply because Kirkcaldy is host to the main 'Forth Park' maternity hospital in Fife. Naturally then, there are always bound to be more famous sons of the region born in this town.

That wasn't the case when Kirkcaldy's most famous son, Adam Smith, was born in 1723. He became a well renowned lecturer in economics and he is best remembered for the first serious study of economics on a massive and International scale originally titled, ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations' and later abbreviated by publishers to 'The Wealth Of Nations'. It was written at his mother’s house in the High Street of Kirkcaldy.

I remains an incredible piece of literature given that major effects of the industrial revolution took place during Adam Smith’s lifetime and where, centuries later, it is still required for modern economists throughout the World and where the Adam Smith Institute is influential. Many recent books or additions of Smith’s basic themes but one of the best is the ‘Wealth of Information’ in which computers and data are discussed in a similar context and which were completely absent during the life of Adam Smith.

Not surprisingly, the name of Adam Smith is applied to several places in the town.

The Adam Smith Technical College was, until quite recently, mainly located at the St Brycedale Complex near the town centre but in recent years and in common with other local colleges, a series of mergers have taken place and where the Glenrothes Technical College and the Adam Smith College are now united under the Adam Smith College banner and with the main building located in nearby Glenrothes.

The Adam Smith Theatre is Kirkcaldy's main auditorium and cinema. It is often the host venue to live music performances by popular local artists and the presentation of offbeat 'art house' cinematic offerings.

Located close to the theatre is the Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery that was opened in 1925. It contains many works by Scottish artists and has a permanent display dedicated to Kirkcaldy's industrial past. The same building also houses the main regional library and which was first introduced to the building in 1928. Writing in 2012, the museum is currently closed and subject to a £2.4 million restoration project with an anticipated completion date early in 2013.

There are three main public parks in Kirkcaldy, namely Beveridge Park, Dunnikier Park and Ravenscraig Park with the latter sited beside the ruins of Ravenscraig Castle.

The castle was originally built upon the orders of King James II for his queen, Mary of Gueldres, but also as a defensive structure mid-way between the important harbours of Kirkcaldy and Dysart. The castle was one of the first designed to withstand cannon fire and explains why some walls are thicker than many other castles. Ironically, King James II died at the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460 while standing close to a cannon that misfired then exploded. Mary of Gueldres resided in Ravenscraig Castle until her death in 1463. During World War One, the castle was used as a store for explosives. There's a popular myth that local author John Buchan was thinking about Ravenscraig Castle when he wrote the infamous novel, 'The Thirty Nine Steps' but there is no evidence to support this. There are no stairs of that precise number within the structure.

The beach area at Ravenscraig Park is where any visitor to Fife is most likely to see seals surprisingly close to the shore. Ravenscraig Park is located to the east of the town and was formed from the estate of Dysart House bequeathed to the town by the linoleum manufacturer Michael Nairn in 1929.

Dunnikier Park, purchased by the town council in 1945, consists of an area around the Dunnikier House Hotel to the north of the town, and is home to numerous woodland walkways. The hotel has often been a firm favourite with some artists performing at the Adam Smith Theatre.

From this author's personal perspective, Beveridge Park, located to the west of the town is one of the best in Fife and for many reasons. It measures 420,000 square metres and was created from a former smaller park and expanded using part of a £50,000 bequest from the late Michael Beveridge who died in 1890. Two years after his death, on 24th September 1892, his widow opened the park and where a crowd of 10,000 people included many local dignitaries.

In current times, the main feature of the park is a shallow freshwater lake with an island in the centre. In mid-summer, the lake is sometimes used for boating yet irrespective of season, frozen over or not, it is the natural focus for a variety of bird life including that of swans, geese and ducks; the existence of the former tending to indicate cleanliness of the water since Swans are picky in that respect. Naturally, there may be times when Swans are close to the shore and venturing closer to them while walking your friendly canine companion isn’t a good idea! The warning signs of hissing and spitting means backing off and walking the other way because argument with a Swan is never a good idea inviting consumption of food prepared in the local hospital! In winter, it’s a bad idea to step on the ice for similar reasons!  

To the north side of the lake is where there used to be a ‘community farm’ with many animals but this has disappeared in the wake of changing attitudes and costs. Similar comments apply to the former aviary and where caged birds were on view but no longer and the park is perhaps better for their absence for reasons described above.

There are several well-maintained ‘gardens’ in the park. One has carefully maintained hedges with a water fountain in the centre; another smaller garden area of interest lies closer to the park entrance and often sporting different varieties of roses. In summer, the park offers boating facilities and a crazy golf course while the children’s play park, skateboard park and woodland walks remain available all year round without fees of any kind. Despite man visits to this place, I’ve never seen the small gauge railway in use nor seen anyone using the tennis courts. Similar comments apply to the small stage area where I guess the intent was invite local musicians to play there but again, I’ve never seen it in use and maybe never will. That remains in sharp contrast to other places in Europe and the USA that I have visited and where many popular music acts started out without payment using impromptu venues of this kind.

The local football team is Raith Rovers whose ground at Starks Park lie close to Beveridge Park.

Fife Flyers, established in 1938, are the oldest ice hockey team in the United Kingdom. The team, who play at the Fife Ice Arena in Kirkcaldy have been members of the Elite League since the 2011/2012 season. The Fife Ice Arena is the only surviving ice rink in Fife since closure of the Crystal's Arena facility in Glenrothes some years ago and on land now given over to a housing estate called Crystal Gait.

At present, in summer 2012, a new £15 million leisure centre is under construction on the site of former Tollbooth Street car park with completion anticipated mid-summer 2013. This will replace the current leisure centre and swimming pool building located next door and where the old site will eventually become parking space for may cars.

Kirkcaldy has four secondary schools, twelve primary schools and some dedicated to those with special learning facilities. The University of Dundee has a sizeable School for Nursing and Midwifery. Originally built by the Fife Health Board for the use of Fife College, this campus was taken over by the University in 1996.

Healthcare issues in the town and region are the preserve of NHS Fife whose headquarters are located at Hayfield Road in Kirkcaldy. The nearby Victoria Hospital serves as the principal accident and emergency hospital in the region. A new £153 million expansion covering nearly 530,000 sq ft or 49,000 square metres extension to the hospital was completed in February 2012. The new extension contains a cancer centre, maternity unit, eleven operating theatres, 528 new beds, and a relocated Accident and Emergency Department. Whyteman's Brae Hospital, which is also part of the same complex, is intended to remain in present form to serve psychiatric and elderly patients.

Communications to and from Kirkcaldy are good and especially from the South since the main Fife arterial highway, the A92 begins at Junction 3 of the M90 motorway shortly after crossing the Forth Road Bridge and entering Fife. It’s a dual carriageway extending from this point until a few miles north of Glenrothes and passes adjacent to the northern boundaries of Kirkcaldy,

The rail station at Kirkcaldy is also part of the main East-Coast line starting at Kings Cross in London and terminating at Aberdeen far to the north of Fife.

Photographs by Kilnburn and Alandon.
Text by Alandon.

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