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Dysart, Fifeshire

Historical Description

DYSART, a burgh, seaport town, and parish in the district of Kirkcaldy, county of Fife; including the villages of Boreland and Gallatown, the former quoad sacra parish of Pathhead, and part of that of Thornton; and containing 7591 inhabitants, of whom 1885 are in the town, 2 miles (E.) from Kirkcaldy, and 14 (N. by E.) from Edinburgh. This place appears to have retained its original Gaelic name, signifying the "Temple of the Most High", from its rise to the present time. The earliest event upon record connected with it is the invasion of Fife by the Danes, towards the close of the ninth century, when, bringing their fleet to anchor in the Firth of Forth, they landed on the coast of this parish, and marching into the interior, were opposed by the natives, who, assembling to obstruct their progress, gave them battle in a field about a mile northward of the town. To commemorate this occurrence, a large stone was erected in the centre of the field of battle, which still points out the spot. Few particulars of historical importance have been preserved to throw any light upon the origin and progress of the town; the records of the burgh, and other ancient documents in the possession of the Sinclair family, were burnt in 1715, when the mansion of Lord Sinclair was destroyed by an accidental fire. The castle of Ravenscraig, a little to the west of the town, was granted with the adjoining lands by James III. to William Sinclair or St. Clair, Earl of Orkney, on his resignation of that title, and has ever since been in the possession of the family: here Lord Sinclair used to hold his baronial court, and the castle continued to be a residence till the Restoration, after which it was suffered to fall into decay, being now a ruin of romantic appearance, seated on a steep rock overlooking the sea.

The TOWN, which is of great antiquity, and was once the principal trading port on this part of the coast, comprises three narrow streets diverging from an open area in the centre, where the town-hall stands. It still retains much of its original character; the high street consists of substantial houses of antique appearance, and several of them till lately had piazzas in front, under which the merchants and dealers formerly sold their wares. Extensive salt-works appear to have been established here at a very early period, from which, about the middle of the fifteenth century, not only the chief towns in Scotland were supplied, but also great quantities were exported to Holland. From that period the trade of the town continued to flourish for two or three centuries. Malting and brewing were carried on to a considerable extent; large quantities of merchandise of every description were regularly exposed for sale, and the high street and the square were thronged with merchants. Its port was crowded with shipping, and its foreign and domestic commerce advanced beyond that of any other town in this part. This state of prosperity lasted till the Union, after which it began to decline; its port was almost deserted, its trade with foreign coasts nearly annihilated, and its manufactures greatly diminished. From this depression, however, it in some degree recovered, though it has not yet regained its former importance. A manufactory of nails was established in the town, in which, till within the last fifty years, about 100 persons were constantly employed, and the quantity of nails annually made was valued at £2000: many of them, used in ship-building, were sent to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the principal towns in the north; but for some years this branch of trade has been declining, and it is at present only carried on to a very limited extent. The manufacture of linen-cloth has also greatly diminished; but one branch of it still continues to flourish. The chief trade now pursued is the manufacture of checks and ticking, which was established about a century since, and has been uniformly increasing: 2000 looms are constantly in use; the number of yards annually produced is more than 31,000,000, and the value above £150,000. This trade affords employment to about 5000 persons; the articles are sent to London, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Leeds, and other places, and likewise to the Cape of Good Hope and the East and West Indies. A mill for spinning flax was erected some years since, in which about 100 persons are engaged; and there is a pottery of stone-ware, affording employment to a nearly equal number; also a small rope-walk. Great facilities of intercourse are afforded by the Edinburgh, Perth, and Dundee railway, which has a station here.

The business of the port consists chiefly in the exportation of coal and ironstone from the pits in the parish, and in the importation of flax and other goods from Holland and the Baltic. There are eight vessels of the aggregate burthen of 638 tons belonging to the port; and the number of vessels that entered during a recent year, to deliver or receive cargoes, was eighty-seven, of the aggregate burthen of 5296 tons. Formerly the harbour, from the ill construction of the eastern pier, was exceedingly dangerous, and the swell so great as to subject the vessels sheltering in it to occasional damage. It was proposed to take down that pier, and to rebuild it in a new direction, which, according to the opinion of several engineers, would not only have remedied the evil, but have rendered this one of the most commodious harbours on the coast; but as the expense of the improvement would have been beyond the means possessed by the town, it was resolved merely to convert a quarry adjoining it into a wet-dock, which has been carried into effect, and has answered the purpose admirably. The depth of water in the new dock, which adjoins the western pier, is eighteen feet at spring-tides; and it is capacious enough to hold seventeen or eighteen vessels of moderate tonnage, which may ride in perfect safety, in addition to what the harbour would formerly accommodate. A patent-slip has likewise been constructed, at a considerable expense, for repairing ships; and ship-building, particularly the repairing of vessels, is carried on upon a large scale. A sailing-packet leaves the port every day for Leith, and another for Dundee occasionally. Fairs are held six times in the year, for the sale of wool, white cloth, linseed, and black-cattle; they were formerly attended by numerous merchants from Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Stirling, but have of late altogether declined. Two subscription libraries have been established; and there are also a mechanics' library, a library exclusively of religious publications, and two public reading-rooms, which are well attended.

The town was made a burgh of barony by Lord Sinclair, and there is still extant the copy of a summons issued from Ravenscraig Castle to the bailies, and commanding their appearance at his baronial court. It was afterwards erected into a royal burgh by charter of Charles II., and the government was vested in two bailies, a treasurer, and a council of twenty-one burgesses; but in consequence of an error in the election of the council in 1831, the burgh was disfranchised by judgment of the court of session, who appointed three managers to take charge of its affairs, by whom, from the impossibility of electing a council subsequently, the concerns of the town are still administered. The jurisdiction of the magistrates extends to the bounds of the royalty. The treasurer, the town-clerk, who acts also as assessor, and the other officers are at present appointed by the managers; the bailies act as justices of the peace for the royalty, and hold a court for the determination of civil actions, but in 1831 only four civil cases were brought before it for decision, and there is no record of any criminal cases whatever. Burgesses and freemen residing within the burgh are exempt from one-third of the dues paid by strangers on the landing of goods at the quay. Dysart, by the act of the 2nd and 3rd of William IV., unites with Kirkcaldy, Kinghorn, and Burntisland, in returning a member to the imperial parliament; the right of election being vested in the resident householders of the annual value of £10 and upwards, the number of whom within the limits of the municipal burgh is thirty-two. The number of £10 householders resident without the municipal, but within the parliamentary limits, is 124; and the whole number of voters at a late general election was 106. The town-hall is a plain substantial building of stone, with a tower surmounted by a spire; it was originally erected in 1617, and contains a spacious hall for the transaction of municipal affairs, a guard-house, weigh-house, and prison. During the civil war in the reign of Charles I. the former building was converted into a barrack by Cromwell's soldiers, one of whom entering the magazine with a lighted match, the powder exploded, and reduced the whole building to ruins, in which state it remained for some years, till it was rebuilt.

The PARISH is situated on the Firth of Forth, is about four miles in length and three in breadth, and comprises an area of 3850 acres, of which about 500 are natural wood and plantations, and the remainder arable land in good cultivation. Its coast, which extends for about two miles, is abrupt and rugged, and marked in several parts with rocks of considerable elevation. The surface rises gradually towards the north, and in the more level tracts is enlivened by two small rivers, the Oar and the Lochty, the former of which has its source in the parish of Dunfermline, and receiving in its course two streams issuing respectively from the lochs of Fittie and Gellie, flows in an eastern direction into the river Leven in the parish of Markinch. The Lochty rises in the parish of Kinglassie, and falls into the Oar at a short distance from the influx of that stream into the Leven. In general the soil is fertile, and the substratum abounds in mineral wealth; the most improved system of husbandry is adopted, and much waste land has been reclaimed, and brought into cultivation. The crops are wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, and turnips, of which large quantities are raised for the supply of the neighbouring markets. Great attention is paid to live stock; the cattle are generally of the Fifeshire, Ayrshire, and Teeswater breeds, and the rearing of horses is an object of particular solicitude: there are very few sheep. The plantations, of which more than 380 acres are on the property of the Earl of Rosslyn, are chiefly fir, oak, and elm, which are well managed and very thriving. The lands are inclosed, and the fences kept in good order; the farm-buildings and offices, also, are very superior. The annual value of real property in the parish is £10,775.

The SUBSTRATA are, limestone, which is extensively quarried for agricultural and other purposes; sandstone, which, though inferior in appearance, is notwithstanding of good quality; claystone, worked on a large scale for pavements, hearths, and other uses; coal, of which there are not less than fourteen beds on the estate of the Earl of Rosslyn; and ironstone, which is found below the coal, of excellent quality, producing about twelve hundred weight of iron from every ton. Most of the beds of coal are thin; but three of them, lying one above another, are now being worked, of which the uppermost is five, the next eight, and the lowest five feet in thickness. The pits are sunk to a depth of seventy fathoms, and produce an abundant supply: the coal is slow in burning, but throws out an intense heat; it was among the first wrought in Scotland, and there are the remains of some exhausted mines that are supposed to have been in operation more than three centuries since. Five beds of ironstone are worked a little westward of the coal-mines, where it lies nearer to the surface; it is wrought on an extensive scale, and the produce is shipped to Carron, for the supply of the foundries of that place. The landed proprietors of the parish, by the encouragement they have given to improvements of every kind, have contributed greatly to its prosperity. Lord Rosslyn occasionally resides here, in a mansion situated not far distant from the town, commanding an extensive view of the Firth and the richly-varied scenery of the adjacent country. The house is spacious, and of handsome appearance; the grounds also are extensive, and finely planted with ornamental timber and forest trees, many of which are of stately growth.

Dysart is ecclesiastically in the presbytery of Kirkcaldy and synod of Fife; patron, the Earl of Rosslyn. The church is collegiate, there being two incumbents: the stipend of the first minister is £265. 10., with a manse, and a glebe valued at £21. 8. per annum; the stipend of the second is £207. 11., without either manse or glebe. The church, erected in 1802, is a neat and substantial edifice, situated at one extremity of the town, and adapted for a congregation of 1600 persons. A church was erected by subscription in the village of Pathhead within the last twenty or thirty years, at an expense of £3000; and the parish has for ecclesiastical purposes been divided by the presbytery, and one division allotted to each of the parochial ministers. There are places of worship for members of the Free Church, the United Presbyterian Synod, and Antiburghers. The Burgh school, which is also the parochial school, affords a liberal course of instruction, but from its situation is accessible only to residents in the town; the master is elected by the town-council, and has a salary of £43 per annum, arising partly from the funds of the burgh, and partly from the interest of money bequeathed for that purpose, with £50 school-fees, and an allowance in lieu of a house and garden. In addition to this school is a subscription school, erected within the last few years, and which forms a great ornament to the town from the elegance of its architectural design. There is an endowed school at Pathhead, the master of which has a good salary for teaching 150 children reading, writing, and arithmetic; also a school in Boreland, the master of which has £8 per annum, with a school-room and dwelling-house rent free, and a supply of coal. Several religious societies are established, among which are, a Bible and missionary association which gives part of its income to the Gaelic and Hibernian Societies; a Sabbath-evening school society; and a society for the education of children, which pays one-half of the school fees for the children of such parents as are willing to pay the other half. There is also a society for the support of indigent and aged females, which appropriates about £40 annually to that purpose. Three friendly societies, belonging respectively to maltmen, bakers, and sailors, have been established in the town more than two centuries; and their funds, which are ample, are exclusively appropriated to the relief of poor members.

In the south part of the town are the remains of a chapel dedicated to St. Dennis; parts of the ancient walls are standing, but the building itself has been converted into a forge. Near the site of this chapel are the remains of the old church, which appears to have been a venerable structure, the porch and tower bearing evidence of great antiquity; the former has a groined roof of stone, and above the door are two sculptured stones, one of which seems to have been a pedestal for a statue, probably of the tutelar saint. Nearly in the centre of the harbour is a high rock called the Fort, supposed to have been fortified by the troops of Cromwell during the parliamentary war; but no traces of any military works are visible. On the lands of Carberry farm the Romans are said to have had a camp, though no vestiges are at present discernible; and about a mile west of the town are the Red rocks, concerning which many traditionary stories are current. Robert Beatson, who obtained an ensigncy in 1756, and was present at the taking of Martinique and Guadaloupe, was born in this parish; he was distinguished as the author of a Political Index to the History of Great Britain and Ireland, a Chronological Register of both Houses of Parliament, and other works. Dysart gives the title of Earl to the family of Tollemache; the first earl was son of the Rev. William Murray, incumbent of the parish, and acted a conspicuous part in the reign of Charles I.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis