West Wemyss lies half a mile down a minor side road off the A955 east of Kirkcaldy. Blink and you'll miss the junction, which would be a shame because this is a small detour well worth taking. The village owes its origins to the Wemyss Estates based at Wemyss Castle, just to the east of the village. The Wemyss family have lived in the castle ever since it was first built in the twelfth century.
The early origins of West Wemyss lay in its harbour and in industrial development. Coal was mined in the area from the 1430s, and by the 1560s at least one pit was working out under the River Forth. Scotland's first glassworks was also set up near here in 1600. It is said that the village acquired a tolbooth as early as 1511, but most of the building you see today was erected by David, 3rd Earl of Wemyss, in the early 1700s. This served as a meeting place, and also housed cells for miscreants.
The harbour was further developed from the middle of the 1600s, primarily to export salt produced by heating sea water over coal-fired pans along the shore. By 1795 over 6,000 tons of coal per year mined in local pits was exported from the harbour, and at around the same time ships were being built here. An inner dock was added to increase capacity in the late 1800s.
In 1900 West Wemyss harbour was linked to local pits by a railway that ran through a tunnel to reach the village, and it had a gasworks. By the 1960s, however, the railway and gasworks had gone, much of the harbour had been filled with colliery waste; and in the 1970s the village school was closed and demolished.
Recent years have seen the decline of the mid-1900s reversed. A huge amount of work has been put into development of effective coastal defences, and the Wemyss Estates have invested heavily, with help from Fife Council and some well spent lottery money, in turning the village into a truly attractive place to live and to visit. Many of the houses lining the main street have been extensively renovated, and in the 1990s the outer basin of the harbour was restored for fishing and pleasure craft. The old inner harbour is now invisible beneath an attractive grassy area.
Most strikingly, the first building you seen on descending into West Wemyss was until the 1970s the Miners' Welfare Institute. Wemyss Estates converted it into what is became the extremely attractive Belvedere Hotel, enjoying stunning views over the Firth of Forth. Sadly on our most recent visit this had closed and it is unclear what the future holds for it.
At the far end of the village you find the churchyard wall, complete with its imposing memorial dated 1703. Beyond the wall is Wemyss Parish Church, which was built in 1890. The church was bought from the Church of Scotland by the Wemyss Estates in 1972, who have since maintained the exterior of the building on condition it continues to be used as a church.
An uphill wynd in the centre of the village is home to the Auld Wemyss Ways Heritage Centre, and to a very nice community cafe. It is worth looking out for the memorial on the seafront to five West Wemyss residents who died while preventing a naval mine drifting ashore beside the village in 1941.
West Wemyss is a truly remarkable place. It has a very real and surprisingly significant history, and it has also had far more than its fair share of industrial dereliction and economic decline. But what makes the village remarkable is the way this decline has been reversed by the work of many partners and agencies in recent years: and especially by the work of the Wemyss Estates. It's all too easy to simply accept the sometimes rather negative image attaching to some Scottish landowners, and it is very nice to come across an example that helps redress the balance.