The town of Leslie is aligned east-west along a ridge immediately to the north of the valley of the River Leven as it flows through central Fife. It was for a long time the most significant settlement in the area. That all changed with the development of Glenrothes as a new town in the decades after WWII. Today Leslie seems simply a western extension of its much larger neighbour: albeit one with a much stronger sense of history.
The first settlement to be established along the ridge between the River Leven to the south and the Camby Burn to the north was called Fettykill. The origins of the later name start with one Bartolf, a Flemish or Hungarian trader who arrived in Scotland as part of the entourage of Queen Margaret in 1057 and was subsequently appointed Governor of Edinburgh Castle by King Malcolm III. Bartholomew, as he became known, was also granted estates at Leslie in Aberdeenshire, from which his family later drew their name.
In 1283, Bartholemew's descendant, Norman de Leslie, was granted land around Fettykill in Fife by King Alexander III. The settlement seems to have continued to grow as Fettykill until 1455, when it was renamed Leslie after the then laird Sir George Leslie. Two years later, in 1457, Sir George Leslie became 1st Earl of Rothes, and the following year the town of Leslie was awarded the status of a burgh by King James II.
In 1667, John Leslie, 7th Earl of Rothes, was appointed to the post of Lord High Chancellor by King Charles II. In 1680 the king promoted him to become 1st Duke of Rothes. John Leslie's appointment as chancellor coincided with the start of work on Leslie House, on the north bank of the River Leven, south of what is now the east end of the town. Work was completed in 1672 and the palace that emerged has four ranges surrounding a courtyard and was said to rival Holyrood Palace in size. It became known locally as Villa De Rothes. Writing in 1720, Daniel Defoe said "the Palace of Rothes...is the glory of the place, and indeed the whole province of Fife."
Leslie House burned down in 1763, and two years later work began on a new house occupying the area of the west range of the earlier palace. This was renovated and updated a number of times during the 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1950s the house was gifted to the Church of Scotland, and then became a care home and a proposed development site. Another fire followed, and today it stands as a sadly derelict shell between the east end of the village, where Leslie merges into Glenrothes, and the River Leven. The most obvious sign of its existence are the fine gate piers beside the entrance lodge.
The presence in the valley below of a fast flowing river led to the early development of mills along its length. By 1799 it was described as "a neat village... containing about 800 inhabitants... chiefly employed in the manufacture of linen and cotton." Further flax, lint and other textile mills were built during the 1800s, and snuff was also produced in the town. Steam power began to supplement then replace water power from the 1830s, and by the middle of the century several thousand people were employed in the town's mills.
The railway arrived in 1861, having taken a very roundabout route from Markinch, apparently because the then Duke of Rothes insisted it should come nowhere near Leslie House. The railway has long gone, but you can see a reminder of it in the form of the 14 arch Cabbagehall Viaduct over the River Leven immediately to the south of Leslie. The textile mills closed during the 1900s, but the Fettykill paper mill continued to employ several hundred people until 2006. It has since restarted production on a smaller scale under new ownership. The main reminder of the large old mills alongside the river is a single standing brick chimney, and its rather smaller metal neighbour.
Leslie is a town that carries its history comparatively well: perhaps helped by the fact that the town occupies the line of the ridge while the industrial development took place mainly in the valley to the south. The western half of the High Street is broad and straight, giving good views east towards the Catholic Church of St Paul and St Mary. The eastern half of the High Street climbs over the summit of the ridge before descending gently to the east and is known as the Old Town. This is more intimate in feel and more historically interesting: which is doubtless why it falls within the Leslie Conservation Area.
At the east end of Leslie, opposite the wall delineating the grounds of Leslie House, is the original core of the village, The Green. This offers a broad grassy area flanked on one side by a fine terrace of houses and with Leslie Parish Church (converted into flats in 1993) at the rear. Leslie's very imposing war memorial stands at the south-west angle of The Green, while towards its rear is the Bull Stone. This irregularly shaped granite boulder stands about a metre high and has a very heavily worn groove around its centre. It is said that it is a reminder of an era when bull-baiting was a pastime practiced during fairs held in Leslie, and the groove is said to have been worn by the ropes used to tether the bulls.