- For other places with the same name, see Fife (disambiguation).
Fife (Scottish Gaelic: Fìobha) is a county in the north east of Scotland, with a population in 2019 of 371,910. It's a lowland peninsula, with the broad Firth of Forth to the south and the smaller Firth of Tay to the north, and great bridges for its gateways. Its name may derive from the Pictish kingdom of Fib. It's not related to the fife musical instrument, which derives from the German Pfeife, a pipe.
"The Kingdom of Fife" is a mix of urban and rural, in four areas:
West Fife is close to the Forth rail and road bridges, so it's commuterland for Edinburgh, and there's a lot of industry interspersed with places worth seeing.
- 1 North Queensferry is below as you cross the bridge. Turn off and descend for Deep Sea World and vistas of the bridges.
- 2 Rosyth has a navy base and is industrial.
- 3 Dunfermline is a former capital of Scotland, with seven monarchs interred in its Abbey.
- 4 Culross is a gem, a charming 16th / 17th century restored coastal town.
- West upriver is farmland and muddy coast.
Central Fife is a former mining area with small rust-belt towns such as Cowdenbeath, Lochgelly and Kelty. Larger towns are:
- 5 Aberdour is an attractive village with great beaches and a castle.
- 6 Burntisland and Kinghorn are two small industrial ports.
- 7 Kirkcaldy was the birthplace of Adam Smith, "the father of modern economics".
- 8 Leven is a faded seaside town with a expansive sandy beach.
- 9 Glenrothes is a "New Town". It's not attractive but has visitor amenities.
- 10 Falkland is a must-see for its ruined palace and gardens.
The East Neuk is the attractive coast east of Leven.
- 11 Anstruther is the largest of its fishing villages, bracketted by Elie, St Monans, Pittenweem, Crail and Kingsbarns.
- 1 Isle of May, five miles out to sea, is a nature reserve swarming with birds and seals. It's usually visited by boat trip from Anstruther.
North Fife is near the Tay bridges, and commuterland for Dundee.
Fife is a peninsula between the Forth and Tay estuaries, so it was detached from early transport routes and in Pictish times may have been a semi-independent kingdom. It became more important from the 11th century when the main royal residence moved from Scone near Perth to Dunfermline, and St Andrews grew as a pilgrimage centre then university town. Fife produced grain and was industrial from an early stage through salt-panning, quarrying and coal: the same coalfield that outcrops near Edinburgh stretches under the sea to outcrop in Fife. A string of little harbours along the Forth exported these goods, and when the ships returned unladen from the Low Countries they used roof tiles for ballast. These were re-used for local building so Fife acquired its townscape of red-pantiled villages, crow-stepped in Dutch style. Its barons were wealthy and powerful and the county was informally referred to as the "Kingdom of Fife".
The big growth was in the 19th century, through deep mining for coal and other heavy industry. Ships were broken at Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy supplied linoleum to the world, and Rosyth became a navy base. Fife miners tunnelled out under the sea, thinking one day to meet their colleagues approaching from Monktonhall, but the seams were poor and the national coal industry collapsed in the 1970s. A greenfield "New Town" was established at Glenrothes but central Fife became a rust-belt. This however preserved the picturesque East Neuk, as its railway closed and it didn't attract new housing.
The Forth railway bridge opened in 1890, replacing the railway ro-ro ferry that from 1850 had carried coal trucks from Burntisland. Still the road crossing was by ferry until 1964 when the Forth Road Bridge opened (replaced in 2017 by the "Queen's Crossing"). This was connected to motorways and Fife suddenly became commuterland for Edinburgh, with the town of Dalgety Bay popping up out of nothing. It also made Fife the county you quickly motor across to reach Perth and the Highlands; but it's well worth pausing to explore.
Famous people from Fife include the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), the writer Iain Banks (1954-2013), Prime Minister Gordon Brown (b 1951), philanthropist tycoon Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), economist Adam Smith (1723-1790), and Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721) the inspiration for "Robinson Crusoe".
1 Edinburgh Airport (EDI IATA) has a good range of flights across Europe, to London and elsewhere in UK; and it's west of the city so you can continue to Fife without getting embroiled in city traffic. The Stagecoach Jet 747 bus from Airport Stop G runs across the old Forth Road Bridge to Inverkeithing and Halbeath Interchange, 45 min. It costs £6.50 single and £12 for a return within 28 days, and runs daily 24 hours, every 20 mins daytime. Change at Inverkeithing for trains across Fife and at Halbeath for buses, see below.
Otherwise, take the airport bus or tram to Haymarket for transport north. Or with a hire car, turn west and within ten minutes you're crossing the new Forth Bridge into Fife.
Glasgow Airport (GLA IATA) has good connections across Europe, but it's wrong side of Glasgow for Fife: reckon a 90 min to two hour drive to most parts of the county. However a direct bus X24 runs hourly from the airport via central Glasgow, Dunfermline, Halbeath and Glenrothes to St Andrews.
LNER daytime trains run from London Kings Cross via Peterborough, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh to Dundee and Aberdeen, stopping at Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Markinch (for Glenrothes) and Leuchars (for St Andrews). Leeds-Aberdeen trains join this route at York. Scotrail trains from Edinburgh stop at Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Markinch and Ladybank, then branch either west to Perth and Inverness, or east to Leuchars (for St Andrews), Dundee and Arbroath. From Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow, head for Edinburgh and change at Haymarket. Overnight from London, take the Lowland sleeper from Euston towards midnight, arriving in Edinburgh around 07:00, and change to a daytime train to Fife. The Highland sleeper also stops at Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy and Leuchars but ejects you onto a bleak platform at 05:00.
The last leg of the journey is usually on the Fife Loop train towards Glenrothes. (It's often called the "Fife Circle" but its route is a loop.) It runs every 15 min from Edinburgh and Haymarket over the Forth Bridge to North Queensferry and Inverkeithing, where the route forks. Two trains per hour loop east along the coast via Dalgety Bay, Aberdour, Burntisland, Kinghorn, Kirkcaldy and inland to Glenrothes, then return anti-clockwise via Dunfermline. The other trains loop clockwise inland via Rosyth, Dunfermline Town, Dunfermline Queen Margaret, Cowdenbeath, Lochgelly and Cardenen to Glenrothes, then return along the coast via Kirkcaldy.
The Fife Loop trains don't reach further north so for Markinch you need the Perth-Inverness trains, and for Leuchars the Dundee-Arbroath-Aberdeen trains.
Stagecoach is the main operator. The principal bus routes into Fife are:
- from Edinburgh X55 to Rosyth and Dunfermline, X54 / X59 to Halbeath, Glenrothes and Dundee or St Andrews, and X58 / X60 to Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Leven and St Andrews.
- from Glasgow X24 / X26 to Dunfermline, Glenrothes and St Andrews, and X27 to Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy and Leven.
- from Inverness and Perth change at Halbeath on the outskirts of Dunfermline.
From the south cross the Forth on M90 (no toll) and take A823(M) for Dunfermline, A921 for Aberdour and Burtisland, and A92 for Kirkcaldy, Leven, Glenrothes and St Andrews.
From the north come through Dundee onto the Tay Bridge for St Andrews and the East Neuk, but follow M90 for everywhere else.
From Glasgow take M80 then M876 over Kincardine Bridge then A985 towards Dunfermline.
The Fife Loop train is the quickest transport between the towns it happens to serve. Other trains make only 2 or 3 stops and they bypass Dunfermline and Glenrothes.
Buses radiate from Dunfermline, Glenrothes and Kirkcaldy as above. Others you might use (and see town pages) are:
- Bus 7 along the coast from Dunfermline to Inverkeithing, Dalgety Bay, Aberdour, Burntisland, Kinghorn, Kirkcaldy and Leven;
- X4 Glenrothes - Leven and X37 Glenrothes - Kirkcaldy;
- Bus 342 Perth - Glenrothes via Falkland Palace;
- Bus 99 St Andrews - Leuchars - Dundee (with night buses F Sa) and Bus 95 St Andrews - Anstruther - Leven.
The main highways are M90 north-south, A92 Dunfermline - Kirkcaldy - Glenrothes - Dundee, A915 Kirkcaldy - Leven - St Andrews and A91 a northern alternative from M90 at Kinross to St Andrews. The coast highway is much slower, which (as A917) is fine for the scenic East Neuk, but (as A921 to Kirkcaldy then A955 to Leven) otherwise drags you through places that are no great shakes to look at. However the cycle route across Fife and the Fife Coastal Path parallel or share these highways.
- Culross is a gem, a well-restored 16th / 17th century village.
- Dunfermline has a ruined abbey and the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie.
- The Forth Bridges can be viewed from east or west, but to walk across start from North Queensferry.
- Kirkcaldy is industrial but has a good museum and art gallery.
- Falkland Palace was beloved by the young Mary Queen of Scots.
- The East Neuk are a string of picturesque fishing villages.
- The Secret Bunker was a control bunker for a nuclear war.
- St Andrews is a pleasant historic university town.
- Fife Coastal Path is a 117-mile trail from Kincardine Bridge through North Queensferry, Kirkcaldy, East Neuk and St Andrews to the Tay estuary. See individual towns for the local route, but check the website for occasional disruptions and diversions. You can easily walk a section one way and ride back on the bus or train.
- Golf: St Andrews is the big, big name: you won't get onto the Old Course unless you're a top pro or celeb, but there are several more championship courses that you can play with prior booking and a suitable fee. Other towns have plenty of courses where you only pay double-figure green fees but can lose your ball just as irretrievably.
- Beaches get better the further east you go - from Leven onto Lundin Links, say.
- Boat trips to the Isle of May usually sail from Anstruther: they may land, or just circle to view the bird life.
- Football: there are pro soccer matches in Dunfermline, Cowdenbeath, Kelty, Kirkcaldy and Leven.
- Highland Games are held in June at Markinch, in July at Thornton, Burntisland and St Andrews, and in August at Inverkeithing. Fife County Agricultural Show is in Cupar in May.
- All the towns and villages have cheap and cheerful places, but the best settings are along the East Neuk. Fish & chips in Cowdenbeath in November is not the same experience as fish & chips in Anstruther in high summer, even if the gulls are equally predatory.
- St Andrews has the best selection of dining. Peat Inn in Cupar and Cellar in Anstruther get great reviews.
- Bananas: coffee and a banana are what Fifers like other commuters grab before heading to work in the morning. (Anyone remember "Go to work on an egg" and "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day", those 20th century marketing tropes?) Bananas, like coffee, only became mainstream British diet from the 1960s thanks to fast refrigerated boats from the Caribbean, docking at south and west coast ports such as Preston, but "The Kingdom of Fife" became dubbed "The Banana Republic" through allusion to Fyffes the leading banana importer into Britain, and industrial Fife's left-leaning politics. This moniker has fallen out of use as both unionised coalfield labour and Fyffe's brand have faded, and no-one can think of a spoof on "Chiquita".
- As with eating places, there are pubs in all the towns, and it's the ambience that counts, especially the little places along the East Neuk. These are usually part of hotels or restaurants, as the smaller villages can't support a free-standing pub.
- Who knew? - Japanese whiskey is made in Dunfermline and rum is made in Leven.
- Fife has lots of business hotels along the M90 and A92 - clean and efficient, but chain offerings.
- B&Bs mostly didn't open in 2020 or 2021 because of covid.
- The East Neuk has most caravan sites, though most are just static holiday homes, with only a few accepting tourers or tents.
Fife is lowland and pretty safe. Take care on the water but the main hazards are man-made: safeguard valuables, steer clear of idiot drunks, and always beware traffic.
- Dundee is north across the Tay, with Captain Scott's sailing ship Discovery, the V&A, and Verdant jute mills.
- Angus the county around Dundee has ancient artwork by the Picts, just about the only remnant of these mysterious people.
- Perth is a historic market town at the edge of the Highlands.
- Edinburgh, visible across the Forth, is Scotland's must-see capital.