History of Crail

Photo by Colin Morrison

The Royal Burgh of Crail is the most easterly village in the East Neuk of Fife and on the Fife Costal Path situated 90 minutes by car from Edinburgh and 10 miles from St Andrews. Built around the most photographed harbour in Scotland, Crail has a particular wealth of historical buildings from the 17th to early 19th centuries. It was well settled by the 800s and was a thriving town by the 1100s.

Crail was made a Royal Burgh in 1178 by King William the Lyon, in fact, it was one of the earliest Royal Burghs in Scotland. It had conducted trade with the Low Countries – Holland, since the 900s. A Royal Burgh gave rights to hold markets which were obviously beneficial for Crail’s merchants but also enabled the King to collect taxes. The royal connection was very strong at the start of the first millennium, with a royal castle and religious connections with the Cistercian Nunnery in Haddington across the Forth.  Evidence remaining of this is the Priory Doocot at Roome Bay. The castle fell into disrepair in the 16th century.

 

Crail was a very large and important medieval market town based on trade from the harbour – now one of the most photographed locations in Scotland and which is also recreated in Legoland, Billund, Denmark, the home of Lego. Over the centuries there were three market places – Rumford just above the harbour, then the High Street and finally Marketgate. There are many features visible today of Dutch influence - pantiled roofs, the design of the Town Hall and parts of the harbour were built by the Dutch. The bell in the Church was cast in Holland and sounds out every Sunday.  The bell in the Town Hall was also cast in Holland and rings the curfew at 10pm every night.

 

The Church of St Maelrubha was an important ecclesiastical centre from the 12th century and was made a Collegiate Church in 1517. John Knox preached a rousing sermon in Crail, 1559, before proceeding to St Andrews at the start of the Reformation.

The Crail Golfing Society is the seventh oldest in the world, formed in 1786. Their oldest course, Balcomie, was formally laid out by Tom Morris Sr. in 1894, but competitions have been played there since the 1850s. Despite the fact that the ‘home’ of golf is now Crail’s neighbour, St Andrews, Crail was the first to have a golf course. 

In 1786, two years before George Washington was elected the first President of the USA and three years before the storming of the Bastille in Paris, a group of eleven gentlemen met at the Golf Inn in Crail and together formed the Crail Golfing Society. Since then, through the upheaval of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Victorian Age, two World Wars and the Cold War, the gentlemen of Crail have continued to enjoy their golf while playing a full role in the events happening around them. 

 

There is evidence that golf was played in Crail long before 1786, on part of the farm at Sauchope under a dual rights of occupancy arrangement – golfing and grazing. According to the Gazetteer of Scotland published in 1832 there was a golf club at Crail in 1760 – there are no records.

 

The records of 1786 are still preserved; indeed the Society still possesses a complete set of minutes from the date of its inception.  The first Secretary was Mr Stuart Grace, also Secretary to the Royal and Ancient at the time.

 

There are, in fact, only six older golf clubs in the world:

The Royal Burgess Golfing Society of Edinburgh (1735), The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (1744), The Royal and Ancient Golf Club (1754), The Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society (1761), The Royal Musselburgh Golf Club (1774) and The Royal Aberdeen Golf Club (1780). 

More on Crail Golfing Society.

Crail Airfield. During the 20th century land east of Crail  was used for airfield bases at the end of the First World War and during the Second World War. There are no visible remains from WWI but the buildings and runways from WWII form the most complete naval airfield from that time. The airfield was developed at the start of WWII as HMS Jackdaw to train naval pilots to deploy torpedoes, before the pilots were deployed to an aircraft carrier. At the end of the war there were around 2000 people stationed at Crail Airfield. 

 

Following the war, it was recommissioned as HMS Bruce, a training station for boys going into the navy. Then from 1956 to 1960 it was the Joint Services School for Linguists where National Service Men were taught Russian and other eastern European languages to provide a capability for the cold War. The station was closed completely in 1960.

By Crail Community Partnership