The end of the line: Remembering Fife's glory days as a holiday destination

Almost 40 years after the Beeching Axe fell on the East Neuk line, Chitra Ramaswamy meets the driver of its very last engine

• Fife residents are keen to promote the area's beaches as fun places to take a holiday

The East Neuk of Fife on a drowsy summer's day, the kind that smells of fish 'n' chips. The sea and sky are companionable shades of blue. Sand the colour of butter melts into rolling green fields and white houses with red roofs. In the ancient harbours, dotted along the coastline like dropped shells, the water is still. The streets of the fishing villages of Crail, Elie, Anstruther, and St Monans are quiet. No one is sitting on the benches facing out to sea. The beaches are deserted.

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It's hard to believe that this "fringe of gold on a beggar's mantle" as James VI famously described the Kingdom of Fife, was once heaving.

From the 1870s, when the Victorians went mad for seaside holidays, thousands started coming to the East Neuk. The villages were dubbed the Brightons of the North. Elie, with its imposing stone villas was once known as the Scottish Riviera.

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Today there are just a few pensioners ambling up the high street and a couple of cyclists eating sandwiches overlooking the bay.

People came to the East Neuk for the seabathing and the air, the golf and the restorative quiet that set it apart from the pleasure-seeking bustle along the piers and promenades of English seaside resorts.

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In July and August holidaymakers arrived in droves from Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dundee, travelling on trains that trundled along the coast at such a leisurely pace you could outrun them.

So little has been recorded about this period. The coastal line that ran from Largo to Crail doesn't even a have a Wikipedia page.

In a rare mention, Scottish journalist Ian Jack recalls the engines named after characters from Walter Scott novels, "the sight of James Fitzjames clattering through our station at the head of the Fife Coast Express was (and still is) more vivid to me than any scene from the story."

So little is left of the line today. A few crumbling railway bridges and grassy embankments interrupting the rolling landscape like afterthoughts. The Station Road signs in villages that no longer have stations. The only way you would know a line ran here is by walking the Fife Coastal Path, which picks up sections of it along its 150km length.

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Now, thanks to the East Neuk Festival, that's about to change. The award-winning chamber music festival that takes place every July in churches and halls across the East Neuk has commissioned a film, exhibition and sand sculpture to commemorate the line. The atmospheric archive film by Kenny Munro and Ed O'Donnelly will be shown in Crail's community hall. An exhibition of memorabilia will take place next door in a room turned into a railway waiting room. A team of sculptors will make a steam engine out of 15 tons of sand.

In Crail, where the old station is now a garden centre, I meet local residents to talk about their memories of holidaying here. "We came from Glasgow during the war when the cars were taken off the road," recalls Graham Cox, a dapper, ruddy-cheeked 76-year-old. We're in Crail Museum, along with Jean Watson, 74, and Ann Robertson, 75, a dusty heritage centre lined with sepia-tinted photos.

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Like many people I talk to in the East Neuk, Cox was so taken with his holidays that he moved here. "I remember the preparation, getting out the hamper and then the railway people coming to take it away." In 1939, the year war broke out, Cox's summer in Crail turned into a year. "We were advised not to return to Glasgow because the war was imminent. And so I stayed in Crail and went to the local school. We had to use slates and scratchy old pencils, very different to Glasgow where we had paper." During the war the trains became a lifeline, serving the airfields at Crail, Dunino and Stravithie.

The crowds became more socially mixed after the war. Working class daytrippers came from the cities. Middle class families rented houses over July and August, sending their luggage on a week in advance. Temperance societies were drawn to this notoriously devout corner of Scotland where the old stone churches have always been disproportionate to the population and many of the villages were dry. Campers threw their tents from the train to the fields. By the summer of 1933 around 150,000 holidaymakers were descending on the East Neuk.

Cox's father was a minister who discovered the East Neuk on an evangelical mission to Fife in the 1920s. Cox still has the postcard his father wrote home to his mother about the little seaside village he had found on his travels that would be perfect for a holiday.

Many East Neuk residents would move out into the garden to rent their homes during the summer. "We stayed with Miss Meldrum and she lived in a huge hut in the garden," recalls Watson, who came from Dundee every summer, bringing bicycles and huge hampers of linen. "She prepared meals for us. But we stopped coming in 1940 for five years because of the war."

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Robertson, a quiet, well turned out woman and the only one of the three who grew up in Crail, remembers the trains most of all. She used to take the 6:45am to Edinburgh, which would pull into Waverley at 9am. "The best thing was to get a carriage that had a corridor," she recalls. "And you had to sit with your back to the direction of travel so you didn't get all the soot – we called it the smuts – from the engine." All three remember the station guard handing over the tablet to the driver, a loop used on single-track lines to prevent two trains colliding.

"It was lovely in those carriages," Robertson continues. "Coming back from Edinburgh the train would stop for 20 minutes at Anstruther while the driver had a cup of tea. Finally it would start up again for the four miles to Crail. I could have run it in the same time. But it was wonderful. The pictures on the carriage walls. The roaring fires in the station waiting rooms in winter. There was nothing like being on a train going through a field as the cows moved out of the way. Going right along the coastline, where you can hardly get to now. In the spring you could watch the March hares on the golf course at Lundin Links. You could fall asleep coming home and know you would wake up at Kirkcaldy because of the smell of the lino factory."

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They all quote lines from Mary Campbell Smith's famous poem, The Boy In The Train, still on the station wall, that ends: "or I ken mysel' by the queer-like smell/That the next stop's Kirkcaddy!"

But the boom was short-lived. In the 1960s, the stations started closing. The Beeching Axe, the report commissioned to lower the cost of the nationalised railways, came into force and the effect on this quiet corner of Scotland was soon felt. But the Fife coastal line was just one casualty. More than 4,000 miles of railway and 3,000 stations closed across Britain in the following decade.

People were using cars more and holidaying out of Scotland. The line, which had been so crucial to the local economy in carrying fish, hemp and, of course, linoleum, was no longer used for freight traffic. It was considered unprofitable. In September 1965 the last passenger train pulled into Leven from Crail. Four years later, on the other side of the East Neuk, the last train left St Andrews for Leuchars. What's worse, the line was torn up to the extent that it can never be reinstated. "The beaches here were busy until the Seventies," notes Watson. Robertson nods: "Yes, ever since they've been empty."

Thornton, a village in Fife, was once a major junction. It used to be on the Aberdeen to London mainline and in the 1950s had the biggest railway marshalling yard in Scotland. These days it's served by one small station, Glenrothes with Thornton. I'm here to meet Davy Mackie, a 92-year-old retired train driver, who is something of a local legend. He used to drive the trains along the holiday line, dropping people off at the neat little stations fronted by tended flowerbeds. As he proudly tells me, he's the oldest male resident born in Thornton, the oldest golfer, "and the oldest railwayman left".

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Mackie, who has recently been in hospital with pneumonia, can't come to the door. I've been instructed to knock and let myself in. He is clearly very frail but so keen to talk that I end up adjusting his hearing aid and staying for more than two hours. His son, Bill, is there when I arrive. "This is his passion," he says. "He's in his element when he talks about the railways. There's more information in his head than in any computer."

And it's true. Mackie is a fountain of knowledge and it's clear just how precious it is. He's the last of a generation. Recording the story he is so keen to tell feels important and long overdue.

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His stories are long, rambling, entertaining, and usually end with someone giving him "a piece and a cup of tea" at a station. Mackie comes from three generations of train drivers. "My dad did 45 years, my grandfather 54 and a half," he says. "He started in 1874, retired in 1927. He lived with us. Oh, he was a gentleman. When he came home from work he would not go out until he was dressed in his soft hat and everything."

Mackie was fastidious about his appearance too. Even today in pyjama bottoms and slippers, his shirt collars pulled out neatly over a red golfing jumper, he looks smart. His nickname on the railways was Young Swank, after his father, Old Swank, who he worked with for five years as his fireman. "That was because I was always dressed nice," he says. "I wouldn't go out with my working clothes on. I always cleaned myself up before I went to the billiard room. That came from my grandfather. He would say to my mother on a Saturday 'get your good clothes and shoes on. We're going to Kirkcaldy'."

Mackie started on the railways in May, 1935 at the age of 17. "My father took me down and asked if there was a job for me," he remembers. "The shed master said 'oh yes, we'll take him as a cleaner'. I had to go to Glasgow and talk to an inspector. A doctor examined me. You had to be a certain height, 5ft 4inches. Well, I passed all that and got on the railway."

Mackie worked as an engine cleaner for two years, though the first year he was paid off and was on the dole all winter. Finally he got a permanent job in Thornton as his father's fireman, shovelling coal into the engine for eight hours a day. "Me and my father used to drive the Fife Coast Express from Leven to Glasgow," he says. "I tell you, being a fireman is hard work. I could shift seven ton of coal into that engine just going to Glasgow."

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By the time he was 30 he was working as a driver, first on goods trains, then high speed goods and finally on passenger trains. One of his favourite routes was the holiday line through the East Neuk. "Ten carriages full of everyone going down to the sands," he remembers with a toothless smile, his pale blue eyes bright and watery. "Three or four trains a day at the weekend, each one carrying 500, then we had to bring them back. Aye, we were busy."

What does he remember of the journey? "Oh it was a beautiful run around the coast. I knew every station. All closed now." And what about when the Beeching Axe fell? "It was terrible," he says after a pause. "Beeching robbed British Rail. He was allowed to close down about 30 stations in Fife. You still feel it on the railways now. They just kept shutting wee lines and stations."

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He shows me his dad's diaries, a beautifully cared for series of railway notebooks. He takes me through the one from 1928, which meticulously notes his dad's every shift, his earnings, and the journeys he made on the rails. Without these records, without Mackie's life story, we would know even less than we do about the holiday line and the thousands it brought to the East Neuk. Mackie himself seems saddened by how rarely he gets to talk about it, how little people seemed to care even when the railways started closing, let alone now.

In the late 1970s he drove the last train between Fife and Glasgow. "You used to be able to go direct from Inverkeithing," he says. "I drove that last train and you won't believe me but there was no one to see it on the platform, not even the inspector at Glasgow. So I looked for one and said to him 'were you not told that this is the last train from Fife?' He wasn't interested. I gave him my camera and he took photographs of me and the train. Then he just walked off. All those years and people didn't care."

• The East Neuk Festival, 30 June-4 July. The Holiday Line will be shown six times daily in Crail Community Hall, admission free, www.eastneukfestival.com

• This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday, June 26, 2010