Kirkcaldy lies around a broad curve of the north shore of the Firth of Forth. Often know as the Lang Toun (Long Town) it now incorporates a number of once separate surrounding communities like Dysart and Pathhead and has a main street that measures over four miles in length.
The name is an oddity. Beginning with "Kirk" you'd normally expect it to be named after the presence of a church, and one theory is that it refers to a church of the Culdee sect of early Christians. More likely, however, is that it comes from caer-caled-din meaning "fort on the rocky hill". And the most likely location for a dark age fort would have been on the rocky promontory later occupied by Ravenscraig Castle, towards the north east end of Kirkcaldy.
In 1075 Malcolm III granted the lands around Kirkcaldy to Dunfermine Abbey and the monks were quick to exploit the many outcrops of coal which occurred in the area. By the mid 1200s a parish church had been built here. Today's Old Parish Church stands on the same site, but although its tower looks impressively ancient, it "only" dates back to around 1500 and carries gun loops that suggest it has been used for defence as well as for worship. The rest of the Old Parish Church is rather younger, dating back to the very early 1800s.
If coal provided one reason for Kirkcaldy's early growth, another was its proximity to the sea. Even on a south east facing shore exposed to storms coming in from the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the sheltered cove around the East Burn provided a viable anchorage, and the town developed rapidly as a port. As many as 100 vessels were based here in the mid 1600s, trading as far afield as the Baltic and the Eastern Mediterranean: in 1632 the Kirkcaldy-based ship The Blessing was looted by pirates off Turkey.
By the end of the 1600s Kirkcaldy was one of the most important ports in Scotland, though it declined in relative importance during the 1700s. In 1723 the hugely influential economist Adam Smith, whose father had been Controller of the Customs, was born in Kirkcaldy. By the 1820s it had become a significant centre for whaling, with nine locally based whalers. Whaling declined when town gas began to replace whale oil for lighting.
The railway arrived in Kirkcaldy, and at its harbour, in 1847. With the simultaneous development of Fife's coalfields, Kirkcaldy became a very busy port indeed. The harbour was improved again in the early 1900s to service the linoleum industry with its raw materials, and to ship out the end product as well as coal. But visitors to Kirkcaldy today will find that the harbour has largely been redeveloped for housing.
Kirkcaldy has also seen other industries come - and go - over the years. The locally available coal meant that salt pans were developed along the shore from the 1100s. The mining industry itself was very significant for many centuries: though no longer. And textiles also came, developed into an economic force of considerable importance, then declined.
But the town was particularly known for one offshoot of its textile industry. In the late 1800s linoleum - lino - started to be produced here. Jute from Dundee was combined with cork from the Mediterranean and processed into a new flooring material that took the world by storm. The industry thrived into the 1960s, when legislation meant that pricing agreements between the town's producers were made illegal, leading to competition they were not able to maintain. And at the same time public preferences were moving away from lino towards the cheap carpets then coming onto the market.
Today's Kirkcaldy is a surprising place. There are many fine buildings in the centre, and parts of the main street now form an attractive pedestrianised shopping area. Meanwhile, although the charms of a traditional harbour are no longer on show, Kirkcaldy's broad Esplanade is a reminder that this is a seaside town. It is also the location of the Links Market, Europe's longest street fair, held here every Easter.