A few hundred yards east of the beautiful village of St Monans and standing above a raised beach close to the shore is St Monans Windmill. The East Neuk of Fife is a stunning area, and the villages strung out along its southern coast are sublime. Combine this setting with the traditional rural associations of a windmill and it is hard to imagine a more idyllic place. Nothing could be more misleading. St Monans Windmill is the most tangible reminder of an industry that for centuries blighted the environment of coastal communities right along both shores of the Firth of Forth: salt production.
Salt had been a valuable commodity through much of history, and the Roman's occasional use of it to pay their troops brought the word "salary" into being. Traditionally it was mined as "rock salt", though later on, shoreside locations in sunny climes started to be used to evaporate sea water in shallow ponds to produce "bay salt". By the late medieval period, in places where coal was produced in coastal locations, it became common for "industrial salt" to be produced. This was a process in which coal fires burned under metal pans full of seawater until the water had evaporated, leaving just the salt.
Coal has been mined for many centuries from both sides of the Firth of Forth, and salt pans were in use in Culross from as early as the 1500s. Before long there were few places along either bank of the River Forth where salt was not being extracted to serve the needs of industries like glass and pottery manufacture. Salt was also increasingly in demand as a food preservative, and especially as a fish preservative, allowing the growing catches of Scotland's fishing ports to be exported.
The legacy of salt extraction remains mostly in a series of placenames alongside the River Forth involving "pan" or "pans". The most well known of these is Prestonpans, where industrial salt extraction continued until as recently as 1959. Most production alongside the Forth ceased after 1823, when changes in the tax regime meant rock salt from England became much cheaper.
Salt production at St Monans is due to Sir John Anstruther, who became the local laird in 1753. In 1771 he and his business partner, Robert Fall, established the Newark Coal and Salt Company. Coal was extracted from land immediately to the north of the windmill from a mine whose site is now occupied by Coal Farm. The salt pans were housed in nine buildings on the raised beach below the windmill, whose locations can still be seen today. The role of the windmill was to provide the power to pump sea water from tidally-fed reservoirs cut into the rocks offshore into the salt pans. Production went on round the clock and at the height of operations the salt pans employed 20 men, while the colliery serving it employed a further 36 men.
The salt pans were linked to the coal mine by a waggonway, which also connected both to Pittenweem harbour. Here major improvements were paid for by Sir John Anstruther, on condition that ships carrying his coal and salt had priority over other traffic. An indication of salt's value lies in the high levels of tax it attracted; the way it was stored in bonded buildings, like whisky today; and the way it was actively smuggled to avoid duties. Perhaps the most telling sign of its relative value was that it was deemed acceptable to burn eight tons of coal to produce one ton of salt.
An underground fire in 1794 badly disrupted the local production of coal, and it seems that from this time use of the waggonway to Pittenweem ceased. Coal continued to be produced to feed the salt pans into the early 1800s, but it seems that the entire operation had already ceased production by the time of the tax changes in 1823. The stump of St Monans Windmill survived, and has been restored and re-roofed since the end of the 1980s. You can also see where the salt pans would once have stood. Imagining the choking fumes and smoke that would once have permeated the whole area is, thankfully, more difficult against the beautiful backdrop of the East Neuk.