Elie harbour was built in 1582 and took over from the landing point that used to be Earlsferry harbour (earlier established c. 1150 by Duncan, Earl of Fife, from whom Earlsferry takes its name). There, in days gone by, pilgrims on their way to St Andrew’s (and others) would land or depart, often travelling to/from Queensferry (named after its founder, Queen Margaret).
Elie harbour, after it was built, rapidly took over as the primary landing site and, in the 1800’s it was a bustling commercial port being one of the primary entry points to the Kingdom of Fife. The land journey was long and many found it more economical, despite the relative risks of the river crossing, to use the ferry.
In 1850 Elie’s harbour was expanded, and a road was laid along the headland leading out to it from the village. Elie’s fortunes improved further in 1863 with the arrival of the railway from the main line at Thornton via Leven and Kilconquhar. The visitors brought by the trains were supplemented by those on board the regular steamers from North Berwick and Leith; suddenly Elie and Earlsferry became desirable destinations for Victorian trippers. The railway ran just to the north of the village but the original proposal was to route it along the coast next to the beach. The railway and the steamers have all long gone, but the villages remain significant centres for yachting and together serve as a local resort whose beaches are matched as attractions by the golf available on Earlsferry links. It was here that the famous golfer James Braid first played the game.
There was a ferry service between Elie and Leith twice a week and the daily Leith to Aberdeen ferry stopped here as well. Apple Rock Pier was used by paddle steamers on excursions or as regular ferries from late 1890s to mid-1920s to and from Leith, North Berwick, Dundee and other ports on the coast of the Forth. Most ferries went to the Chain Pier in Newhaven due to a dispute with the other harbours and ferry owners. There are several photos showing steamers on the pier and also the timetable and various adverts.
Elie grew up around the bay which provides a safe anchorage protected by an island with a causeway. It became a Burgh of Barony in 1589 under the Lairds of Ardross. As such Elie was forbidden to engage directly in foreign trade and was dependent on the Laird of Ardross who controlled the Town Council and Court. In the 1850s the harbour was improved and a road built on top of the causeway. Fishing and trading were carried from the harbour and goods were stored in the granary at the end of the pier. The granary, which lay derelict for many years, was recently restored and converted into flats.
The rock on which the granary now stands was formerly an island and could only be reached at near low tide. In 1835 a group of gentlemen and farmers of the district invited engineer Robert Stevenson (yes him again) to survey the harbour which had been in a sorry state for many years. The plans produced were finally implemented to some extent in 1853 when Sir William Baird (who made his fortune through coal, iron and steel at Gartsherrie near Airdrie) bought Elie Estate, also in 1853, and the present causeway, road and pier were completed within two years. Much of the traditional activity such as fishing and potato boats did not resume after the Great War.
When Sir Michael Nairn of Elie House died in 1955 his son, Michael George Nairn, gifted the harbour to the Town Council. In 1974 ownership was transferred to the non-profit making Elie Harbour Trust, who continue to be responsible for the harbour area.
Nowadays there are few working fishing boats here (most operate from the other fishing villages in the East Neuk) and the harbour primarily plays host to sailing, powerboats, a rowing club, windsurfing and other water activities. Its sheltered embrace is ideal for paddling youngsters and novice water sportspeople.
(With thanks to the Elie & Earlsferry History Society – www.eliehistory.com)
Stewart Barclay (Harbour Master)
Nicola Hetherington (Company Secretary)
Ronnie Sinclair (Chairman)
Richard Spilsbury (Treasurer)