The Fife Coastal Path takes us alongside some of Kirkcaldy's most picturesque but precarious structures, the apparently ailing Ravenscraig Castle and the sadly moribund Seafield Tower.
A third crumbling edifice, less famous but impossible to miss as you stride along the shoreline, is what remains of a proposed deep water dock at Seafield, that could have transformed both the town's industrial focus and its landscape.
Intended to be served by rail, 'the harbour that never was' is a tale, dredged from murky waters, of promise, prevarication, politics and unfulfilled potential. As with several of our stories, we are left to wonder what might have been.
Seafield Dock and Railway Company
Over the decades many groups and individuals will have made their way from Kirkcaldy, along what is now the Coastal Path, towards Seafield Tower and beyond.
For centuries, Ravenscraig Castle and Seafield Tower have stood as twin sentinels over Kirkcaldy Bay. The castle's history stretches back to circa 1460 with the tower slightly younger, dating to the mid16th century. Ravenscraig Castle is a scheduled ancient monument and Seafield Tower a Category B listed building. Despite this 'protection', both look forlorn and in considerable need of significant maintenance being carried out if they are not to deteriorate further. It is appreciated that Fife Council do not own a single stone of either but they have a voice and that voice should be being raised in the direction of the owners. It is a matter of regret that, at the time of writing, the public have no access to either structure despite both being fundamental parts of Kirkcaldy's history and heritage.
There is however another edifice at Seafield which can be seen just prior to the Tower coming into view. This structure was never completed and from time to time photographs appear on various social media platforms asking what its purpose was. In fact it is the ill-fated Seafield Dock. To date it would appear that there has been no significant effort made to relate its purpose, history, and especially, as to why it was never completed. The narrative for this story therefore required painstaking research through fifty plus years of newspaper articles as, seemingly, there are no existing publications to act as a guide or starting point. Over and above, from first to last, the project was a private venture and, if they still exist, the team were unable to locate any prime records or minute books.
So, just exactly why was an attempt made to build a dock on this remote spot and not just any dock? We have to travel back as far as 1839 to find the first mention of the project. It was a bold, audacious and ambitious, attempt to build the deepest and largest dock on the east coast of Scotland. What was also envisaged was a railway running from the dock into Kirkcaldy's Linktown, then sweeping up the Tiel Valley to Auchtertool. The intention was to capture and transport the coal and mineral deposits from the many mines and workings along the route and carry them to Seafield for export.
The route was far shorter and less circuitous than that of the competition and it was hoped that this would reduce freight charges and break the monopoly of the North British Railway Company in Fife. The other major attraction, with its significantly deeper water, was promoting Seafield as the north station for the proposed rail ferry over the Forth. The deep water meant that the new larger steam vessels could arrive and depart irrespective of the state of the tide. In the end Burntisland was the victor with John Gladstone's fortune, made from slavery, partially funding a new pier and also providing the facilities to make the rail ferry to Granton a possibility and a success.
It is difficult to determine just how serious the intention was to proceed with Seafield or even who was behind the proposal but with hindsight it has to be put down as a lost opportunity – given the success Burntisland has enjoyed from the twin benefits of exporting coal and the rail ferry – did Kirkcaldy miss out?
The project raised its head again in the 1870s when Kirkcaldy's existing harbour was the subject of much scrutiny. With increased tonnage and size not every vessel could dock at Kirkcaldy. Over and above it had a habit of silting up to an unacceptable degree. Plans were looked at to either extend the harbour or build a new one. One plan was to utilise the area under Ravenscraig Castle, which could possibly be incorporated into the existing harbour. Provost Swan made mention of Seafield as a potential site as the eminent civil engineer, John Sang, had suggested, many years ago, that Seafield was the best site for a harbour. One of the issues the Council faced was that Seafield was outside the town boundary – in fact it was in Kinghorn Parish and remote from the centre. There was concern as to what fate would befall the existing harbour if Seafield were completed. Sang was held in high esteem by the Provost as it was he who had designed Kirkcaldy's fresh water system running from the Lothrie, near Leslie, into the heart of Kirkcaldy. Unfortunately the question was shelved due to the time demands of bringing an extended town into being, by absorbing Linktown, Gallatown, St. Clairtown and Pathhead into Kirkcaldy.
However, in the 1880s Seafield once again came into vogue in a more determined and definite fashion. This time a limited company was formed to construct both the dock and the railway – The Seafield Dock and Railway Company. At the start of 1883 Kirkcaldy had three Bills going before Parliament which could significantly enhance the commercial prospects of the town.
There was a proposal for an internal tramway, the Seafield Dock project itself, and a scheme to connect Kirkcaldy to the west of Scotland via the Alloa, Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy Railway Company. The latter idea was an attempt by the Caledonian Railway Company to secure a toehold in Fife.
The dock scheme saw Mr R.C. Munro-Ferguson of Raith and Novar as its Chairman. There is every probability/possibility that the family were standard bearers for the earlier project. A Bill was prepared and presented to Parliament and gained the Royal Assent. However, the flotation was a complete disaster thanks to the tactics of the North British Railway and in particular their manager, Mr John Walker. Desperate to protect his business, which would suffer if competition for carrying coal became available, some questionable strategies were used. Walker's fear was that the carriage of some 400,000 tons of coal could be lost by Burntisland if the Seafield project came to fruition. It should be noted that Walker wore two hats also being the Chair of the Burntisland Harbour Commission.
Both by the spoken and written word he poured scorn on the Seafield site and the estimated costs of construction. He was unyielding in his opinion that the dock and line was unnecessary and could not make a profit. He went as far as producing flyers which he had circulated in the Stock Exchange – little wonder raising capital proved so difficult.
The North British were however able to use their muscle to stop the Alloa, Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy Railway dead in its tracks. This was deeply mourned in Kirkcaldy and all along the route by the public and business communities alike. A direct link with Glasgow, the second city of the Empire, would have given the town a massive uplift.
Little was heard of the project until, in 1884, it surfaced again – it seemed that the funding issue was resolved and the idea was now to run the line all the way to Cowdenbeath – penetrating deeper and deeper into the expanding Fife coalfield. But by the end of 1885 it was suggested that the project was again to be abandoned.
However, by 1886 newspapers were suggesting that a new company had taken over the project and there was a determination to press ahead. The first thing which required to be obtained was an extension to the time allowed to complete the work. As the Bill was granted in 1883 the work had to be completed by 1888 and that was not going to happen!
An application was made for the extension and also a change of name to the Kirkcaldy and District Railway. Once again, despite vehement opposition, especially from the North British, both requests were granted. This led to the appointment of John Howard, a noted Civil Engineer, as the contractor and finally there was progress in the shape of actual construction work starting to be seen.
The prospectus for the Kirkcaldy and District Railway had been issued but once again Walker made use of every tactic to try and prevent the £300,000 of capital being raised. Some monies were indeed secured and it was this which allowed work to be carried out and the railway line commenced. Quite simply, more capital was required or the project would grind to a halt.
In the face of the financial problem a decision was made to approach the Caledonian Railway to become a partner. The idea was that the line would be extended from Cowdenbeath via Dunfermline to Kincardine. There it would be carried under the River Forth by a tunnel before forking and joining the Caledonian Railway at both Grangemouth and Larbert.
This would give the holy grail of a direct route from Kirkcaldy to Glasgow. The Caledonian Railway would work the line, which would now be both passenger as well as freight for 50% of the gross income. For the Caledonian, the big positive was they would have entry into Fife. Over and above local minds in Kirkcaldy were set at ease as a rail link would be constructed along what is now the Esplanade linking the new dock and the existing harbour. The idea was that coal could then be transported to Kirkcaldy harbour allowing smaller vessels to be loaded there.
What was there not to like about the plan - the long sought after Glasgow connection, the Caledonian arriving in Fife breaking the monopoly, and an immense dock at Seafield – the maritime pride of the east coast! The Bill was prepared, submitted to Parliament, and sailed through the Commons. However, for reasons which can only be guessed at, the House of Lords rejected the Bill and it fell – the dream was over! Without the financial might of the Caledonian Railway it was impossible to continue as the Caledonian would no longer offer financial assistance given they remained frozen out of Fife. Walker's continual and damaging attacks would have made it almost impossible for the small railway to secure capital by its own efforts alone.
Howard's work in fighting the elements and constructing what we see today, plus over a mile of railway, was abandoned. When the Bill fell, The North British had promised the House of Lords they would part finance the dock (50%), build, as a mineral line only, the authorised railway to Cowdenbeath and connect the two Kirkcaldy harbours.
They were as good as their word in building the railway – but it did not connect to Seafield – it bypassed the town altogether - heading straight to Burntisland. The dock never saw another piece of concrete laid from 1891 until today. Naturally they also dismissed the idea of connecting the mineral line to Kirkcaldy Harbour! A litany of broken promises and not a word of sanction from Westminster! How far did the Railway's influence reach is a reasonable question? Very strange that they completed a line that they fought tooth and nail to prevent!
On refection, no matter the cause, this was a lost opportunity – the dock and a line to Glasgow would have revolutionised Kirkcaldy beyond belief. The whole story is contained in the full article reached from the icon on this page. It is well worth taking the time to review it including the sketches, newspaper reports and comments from the time. It is hard to believe that from first to last a period of 50 plus years are encompassed, yet the actual construction did not last longer than two years!
The edifice now only stands as a reminder of what might have been and to John Howard's skill in its construction. Much of the 400 yard retaining wall still stands even after the passage of 140 years.