hidden europe 14

Beckoning rocks: the Elie chain walk

by James Carron


The coast of Fife, just over the water from Edinburgh, is scarcely wild country. But it is home to one of Britain's most engaging coastal excursions - the Elie chain walk. More a scramble than a walk, the route allows the sure-footed to skirt the cliffs of Kincraig Point.

In 1854, The Gentleman's Magazine in London recorded the deaths of Misses Mary and Isabel Russell, two young ladies who had the misfortune to be swept away while bathing at Kincraig Point in Scotland. As so often following such incidents, the local Fife media worried about the evident di!iculties that would-be rescuers always had in reaching that peculiarly inaccessible portion of Scotland's coastline. Just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh and Leith in what is generally a rather tame landscape, the south coast of Fife has one or two rugged surprises - and the pedestrian route that skirts Kincraig point is one of them.

A few years prior to the unhappy demise of the Russell sisters, the Monthly Review, another London journal, had chastised the Swiss geologist de Saussure for not properly exploring the coast around Kincraig Point: "a hasty and superficial examination," the reviewer moaned, going on to extol the merits of "the delicate and basaltic columns near Kincraig point... well deserving of particular investigation, though generally overlooked by travellers because they are out of the track of the public road."

James Carron, a veteran of many Scottish byways, has been exploring the route around Kincraig Point for hidden europe.

To call the Elie chain walk a walk is not strictly accurate; it is more of a scramble, requiring a healthy spirit of adventure, a good measure of agility and a strong head for heights. Created in the nineteen-twenties by a group of enterprising locals on Fife's south coast, it is the only trail in Scotland to utilise fixed chains and posts. Such aids, generally given short shrift by Britain's mountaineering community, are commonly encountered on ascents in some continental ranges: the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites. So Elie is an exception, a one-off that may affront the purist pieties of Scottish mountaineers, but nonetheless appeals to a wider public. For the chain walk provides access to a fascinating and otherwise inaccessible stretch of the Fife coastline, one littered with secret coves and caves, all with a story to tell.

The chain walk has the feel of a Victorian enterprise, a genteel seaside distraction for well-todo holidaymakers. It dates, however, from much later - 1929 to be precise - when a group of Elie and Earlsferry residents took steps to make the shoreline around Kincraig Point more accessible. They raised one hundred pounds by public subscription and commissioned a local blacksmith to install posts and chains and carve footholds in the volcanic rock.

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