The kingdom of Fife – so called because it is believed to have been the site of one of the Picts’ dominions – is, even to Scots, regarded as something of a mystery. Situated between the firths of Forth and Tay, its natives have long had a reputation for plain speaking and unvarnished opinions. This, after all, was where the Enlightenment economist Adam Smith was born and bred. A hotbed of political activity, inspired in large part by the miners who toiled in its coalfields, the county elected one of Britain’s last Communist MPs, Willie Gallacher, who represented West Fife at Westminster from 1935 to 1950.
Heading through Fife recently on my way north, I couldn’t help contemplate its contrary nature as reflected by its writers, prominent among whom are Val McDermid, who hails from Kirkcaldy, and Ian Rankin, who is from Cardenden. The coastal area, known as the East Neuk, is the territory of Christopher Rush, who was born in St Monans. Much influenced by George Mackay Brown, Rush writes in his collection of stories Peace Comes Dropping Slow of the claustrophobia of a close-knit community reliant for its survival on the fish in the North Sea. To him, it is both a wonderful and awful place, replete with tales from the past. ‘There was the old cold gold-earringed sailor,’ he writes, ‘who drew me conspiratorially into the folds of his sea-waistcoat, pointed his white buccaneering beard at me, and whispered unto me the strangest sentence I have ever heard: “I’ve seen monsoons and typhoons and baboons – and teaspoons!”’