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Earlsferry, Fifeshire

Historical Description

EARLSFERRY, a burgh of regality, in the parish of Kilconquhar, district of St. Andrew's, and county of Fife ½ a mile (W.) from Elie, and 2 miles (S.) from Colinsburgh; containing 496 inhabitants. This place, which is of great antiquity, and was originally an inconsiderable fishing-village, derived its name, and, according to some, its erection into a royal burgh, from Macduff, Thane or Earl of Fife, who, fleeing from the usurper Macbeth, took shelter in a small recess in Kincraig hill, a precipitous rock rising abruptly from the south-western coast of the parish. After remaining some time in concealment, Macduff was conveyed across the Firth of Forth, to Dunbar, by the fishermen of the village; and in return for the kindness he had experienced, he is said to have obtained from Malcolm III. a charter of incorporation for the inhabitants, erecting the village into a royal burgh, to which, in memory of his escape, he gave the appellation of Earl's Ferry. Among the privileges conferred was that of sanctuary to all who should sail hence across the Firth; it was ordained that their persons should be inviolable while here, and that, after their embarkation, no boat should be allowed to go in pursuit of them till they were half way across. After it became a burgh, the place appears to have carried on a large trade; two weekly markets and two annual fairs were held, and the provost and bailies levied dues and customs. But the want of a convenient harbour prevented its attaining much consideration as a port: its trade, which had for many years been declining, was, from the construction of a harbour and the erection of a pier at Elie, in its immediate neighbourhood, at length wholly transferred to that place; and both its fairs and markets were consequently discontinued. The inhabitants are chiefly employed in the coal-works in the vicinity of the town, and in weaving for the manufacturers of Dundee, Kirkcaldy, and other places; the articles woven are sheetings, dowlas, and checks, which are wrought in hand-looms by the people at their own dwellings. There are about seventy seamen engaged in the harbour and at the ferry; and during the months of July and August, a few of them are employed in the herring-fishery on the northeast coast. Many of the weavers who have been brought up as seamen occupy themselves in summer in the whale-fisheries on the coast of Greenland, from which pursuit they return to their looms in the winter.

The original charter of Malcolm, bestowed in the eleventh century, was destroyed by fire; and a new charter, confirming all the privileges it had conferred, was in 1589 granted by James VI., by which the government is vested in three bailies, a treasurer, and a council of sixteen burgesses, assisted by a town-clerk and other officers. The bailies and treasurer are elected annually by the council for the time being, and on their appointment nominate the council for the following year; the chief magistrate is ex officio a justice of the peace. There is power to hold courts for the determination of civil and criminal causes; but since 1820, only five civil cases and one criminal case have been decided. At one period the burgh enjoyed the privilegeof sending a member to the Scottish parliament; but it was relieved on its own petition, some time prior to the Union in 1707. The prison is in a state of dilapidation: it was latterly seldom used, and only for the temporary confinement of persons found guilty of misdemeanors; and after the passing of the Prisons' act for Scotland about ten years ago, it was abolished as a place of confinement.

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