Scottish Coast: Fringed with Gold – Fish ‘n’ chips

 

Anstruther harbours

A queue snakes along the cobbles, restless with hunger, teased by the scent of frying fish and the waft of vinegar. The tide laps at anchor chains and barnacled hulls. Seagulls eye toddlers’ dripping cornets.

We sit with our haddock and chips on the sea wall, Ss rising from steaming boxes. A terrier snatches in the golden sand at a chucked tennis ball. It is this sand that led King James VI to describe Fife as ‘a beggar’s mantle fringed with gold.’

The line of coaches are proof this fish ‘n’ chip shop draws people from as far afield as Newcastle, Manchester and York.

It’s such a draw even Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have shared a table here. The fish bar isn’t big and, judging by today’s long line of hungry punters, the owners could fill their restaurant five times over. But maybe that’s the appeal. There’s something special with fish ‘n’ chip shops that doesn’t translate to a franchise.

Perhaps it’s the authenticity, as well as the taste, that packs them in. In an age when fishing quotas are rigid and fish stocks are declining it’s heartening to watch the catch landed.

Vast herring fleets no longer stalk shoals here, but trawlers still work these waters. For many of the townies chomping chips on a quayside bench it is the connection between plate and ocean, rather than supermarket and freezer, which feels like luxury.

The tang of diesel, the rattle of crates or spool of rope is Anstruther’s secret weapon. It is every bit as important as the taste of that crisp, golden batter.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum stands just across the road. Here, and just along the coast at the St Monan’s Collection, the folklore and tradition of fishing and maritime is captured in a charming selection of photographs, engravings, maps and curios.

There are early photos of the East Neuk harbours packed with herring fleet where the masts of the vessels are so numerous they could just as easily be matchsticks or toothpicks.

The men could be away for days or weeks in bitterly cold, mountainous seas. But if the men were tough, the fishwives’ feats are the stuff of legend. They would carry their men piggyback to their boats to keep their boots and leggings dry ahead of a voyage. With a flash of their razor-sharp knives they could gut a herring, sometimes several, every second. Their lightning-fast work and their hardened, weathered faces and thick shawls are almost lost to a blur by the slow exposure of early photography.

Fife has a rich fund of maritime stories from the Forth to the Tay. Alexander Selkirk – whose story was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – still watches over his hometown of Lower Largo. There is the might and majesty of the Forth Bridge and the tragic broken stumps that tell the tale of the Tay Bridge disaster.

Whaling fleets left these ports for the southern seas. In the coastal caves at West Wemyss there are circles carved into the rock by the first fishermen. The sea has brought food, trade, salt, escape and death to generations. There is truly a story in those fish and chips.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Richard Lakin is married with two sons and lives in Staffordshire, England. His work has been published by the Guardian, Independent on Sunday and Daily Telegraph newspapers in the UK and in 2009 he won the Daily Telegraph Just Back annual travel-writing prize. Twitter: https://twitter.com/Lakinwords Website: http://richlakin.wordpress.com/

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