Fife Coast 2009 - by Sarah-Louise Davies

Blog from other years - 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

Saturday: Earlsferry to St Monans

A perfect start to the day; there is a haze but we can see that the sun will come shining through before long and we have a refreshing sea breeze as we walk across the sand towards Kincraig Point. Here Angus gave us an introduction to the geology that we were to have in the course of our four days walking through the beautiful seascapes along the Fife Coastal Path. As Angus was explaining that the rocks along Fife’s coast were all formed during the Carboniferous Period a grasshopper warbler was reeling in the background. It is some time since I had last heard this song and took it to be a good omen. The grasshopper warbler is one of our summer visitors and must have just arrived as its normal habitat is in lowland areas with dense ground cover, not as far as I know, marram grass!

Our first geology was to look at an exceptionally well exposed Carboniferous volcanic neck, Kincraig Neck. The view ahead of us certainly had the wow factor. We could see the well bedded tuff dipping towards the centre but at this stage we could not see the columnar-jointed basalt also within the neck. Due to time constraints we did not take the route round the foot of the cliff as it involved several climbs and descents by means of chains and footholds cut in the rock. Instead we took the cliff-top path, part of the Fife Coastal Path, passing a small basalt plug 15m across forming a prominent crag. The veins of calcite within the plug were very noticeable having large crystals.

Once we were on top of the cliff we had excellent views of the columnar-jointed basalt. Some of the columns are 20m long. Due to the columns inclination it is thought that the lava occupied a conical depression before cooling. Our viewpoint enabled us to appreciate the extent of the wave-cut platform beneath us with a small E-W dyke cutting the bedded tuff.

We then took time to enjoy the views over Shell Bay looking towards Largo Bay and to enjoy the wild flowers and butterflies. There were the usual spring flowers; cowslips, primroses, dog violets, bluebells and a single kidney vetch which were all a delight to see. There were plenty of green-veined white butterflies with a single peacock and a single tortoiseshell; we were to see more of these later.

After examining the agglomeritic tuff we decided it was lunch time and made ourselves comfortable close to a small bay in which we saw a large block of pink augen-gneiss measuring 1.2 x 1.0 x 1.0m and thought to be an erratic deposited by the Forth Glacier during the Devensian glaciation.

After lunch we retraced our steps back to the beach to study a small area with a block of distorted sandstone with mudstone and nearby, imbedded in tuff and surrounded by calcite veins a small group of coal blocks. These were lying in an area considered to be the possible Kincraig Neck margin.

Our path then took us towards Elie and on the way we studied an outcrop of basanite, an under saturated olivine basalt. It looked very attractive due to its unusual appearance. This was possibly caused by autobrecciation or exfoliation weathering.

Continuing towards Elie it was unanimously agreed that a visit to a tea room that some of us had been to before would be welcome. The excuse being that it would give us the energy to look for the pyrope garnets or ‘Elie Rubies’. I think that we all had scones; there were about ten varieties! I had my favourite; fruit scone with jam and cream with tea. Just perfect! Rejuvenated we headed towards the Lady’s Tower and a few of us got down to ground level to start our search for treasure! After only about 10 minutes searching one ruby was found. Who by; well moi of course! This search was made in amongst the bedded tuffs within the Elie Ness Neck. The tuff contained blocks of basalt and older tuff and we could see, sparkling in the sun, crystals of pyroxene and amphibole. Some of the latter crystals, jet black in colour, were also found in the sandy areas; a few of which I collected.

Continuing further east we came upon a handsome NW-SE basalt dyke which cuts the Ardross Neck and stands well above the level of tuff. We spent some time examining this dyke for various crystals which glinted in the sun. I cannot remember which of the crystals I was looking at even though Angus told us what they were likely to be, but they were really fascinating.

Before reaching the point at the end of the first day’s walk, just west of Newark Castle we saw fine examples of convoluted sandstones. This is thought to be the result of deformation of partially liquefied sediment soon after deposition by means of an external shock, such as an earthquake. Convolution is also thought to be due to fluidisation of the unconsolidated sand shortly after deposition. We also saw the ‘basalt-capped’, stack. The bulk of the stack comprised tuff and the top was basalt; striking in appearance.


A fantastic first day and we were all looking forward to the next section from St Monans to Crail.

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Sunday: St Monans to Crail

At our meeting point on a grassy knoll covered in a carpet of common scurvy grass, west of Newark Castle, Angus pointed out to us the line of the Ardross Fault and how the sediments on the south-east side of the fault are intensely folded and on the north-west side are not.

Just in front of us was a plunging anticline with the hinge i.e. the maximum bending along the folded surface seen very clearly. Once Angus had pointed this out to us it could not be mistaken, but amongst so many other rocks I doubt that I would have noticed what was now seen as a prominent feature. Angus also pointed out to us a creamy-buff rock that was ‘white trap’. The original dark coloured, basic igneous rock had undergone considerable chemical change owing to the incorporation of much CO2, produced from the carbon of the country rock.

Our next point of interest, just a short distance away beneath Newark Castle, was the synclinally folded, thick sandstone where cross bedding and convolute bedding were well displayed.

Not far along the coast, at HWM on the shore beneath the Newark dovecot looking particularly attractive with wallflowers having taken root in its crumbling façade was the Dovecot Neck. This contained a group of enormous blocks of sandstone one of which was 22m x 6.5m. After climbing onto the neck we found this block along with smaller pieces of sandstone, shale and ironstone nodules; all set within a matrix of green tuff. On the eastern side of the neck the margin was well defined with the country rock having been forced up to a vertical position.

Further east was the Davie’s Rock Neck and both these necks cut a NE-plunging anticline. We spent some time studying the Lower and Upper Ardross Limestones which were on both limbs of the anticline. Very clearly seen was the Upper Ardross Limestone in the cliff which had been crumpled and broken over the crest of the anticline. This limestone we found easy to distinguish as it has two distinct beds separated by 15cm of shale lying in a thick shale sequence. There were tight folds of mudstone within the anticline showing how easily distorted the mudstone can be.

We were now next to the ‘Long Shank’, a prominent sandstone ridge. Here there was a gap that we proceeded to clamber through. Angus told us that the gap was where a large basalt vent intrusion or dyke had once been and then was preferentially eroded by the sea because of its well developed columnar jointing. We could see some of its chilled margin still adhering to the sandstone as we passed through. I do not know why but it felt quiet eerie to think that this large gap contained such a huge amount of basalt and now hardly any of it remained. The amazing forces of nature!

Our tummies were beginning to rumble so we came up from the shore past the Auld Kirk of St Monans, through the town and decided to have lunch on the raised beach close to an old windmill in the glorious sunshine. St Monans Windmill formed part of the equipment that was used to evaporate sea water in iron pans along the shore in the 18 Century. The salt produced was transported along a wooden, horse-drawn wagon-way to Pittenween harbour for export and, due to cheap imports; production had to be abandoned by 1823. The windmill stands on top of a higher late-glacial raised beach which was formed about 12,000 years ago. The lower raised beach where we were having our lunch was formed about 6,500 years ago. A further drop in sea level led to the formation of the present wave cut platform, seen at low tide.

We had time to appreciate the wild flowers growing in the bank behind us except for the sight of Spanish Bluebells; these bluebells are invasive and hybridise with our native species. There is great concern about the future of our native species and it is thought that, where possible, eradication of the invader should be pursued.

We were then especially pleased to see a pair of small coppers. Variation in this species is common and one lovely variation has a row of blue spots inside the orange band on the hindwing. It was this variation that we saw!

We then took the Fife Coastal Path to the west end of the swimming pool where, near the steps we could see that the sandstone was intensely bioturbated with fossil worm burrows. The soft-bodied worms are not preserved but the burrows which they dug out are. These sandstones were deposited in shallow sea water, in a near-shore, estuarine or delta environment. Nearby we also looked at a coal seam overlain by sandstone; evidence of trees which grew about 350 million years ago in tropical swampy jungles. After they partially decayed to peat, they became buried and eventually were transformed by pressure and heat into coal.

Further along this amazing shore we came to the St Monans White Limestone which was very well exposed and is conspicuous due to its white colour and its brown dolomitic band running through the centre of the outcrop. This colouring is due to alteration to dolomite, a magnesium-rich limestone. We then looked in the white areas for colonies of corals which lived in a warm shallow sea; Syphonodendron.

We then rejoined the Fife Coastal Path through Pittenweem and onto Anstruther. Having spent so much time on the incredible geology of the St Monans area we all agreed that it was too late in the day to continue onto Crail; another 4 miles and decided to have a break in Anstruther. Once again I had a scone with jam and cream with a refreshing mug of tea. Great! Not so great as the geology but well earned.

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Monday: Crail to Kingsbarns

A change in the weather; grey with a light drizzle. Still this did not dampen our spirits for after scrambling over the rocks at Crail Harbour Angus had a big surprise for us. It was the sight of a fossil tree stump with what looked like another section of a trunk close by. It looked exactly like the trees in Fossil Grove, Victoria Park, Glasgow. So it was thought that what we were seeing was the preserved remains of a giant, extinct member of a group of primitive plants called clubmosses. It could be the stump of a Lepidodendron that grew to over 40 metres high, but many different kinds of giant clubmosses grew in the coal age forests.

Rejoining the Fife Coastal Path we went through Crail and the Kilminning Coast Wildlife Reserve where we saw our first wheatears. Stopping at Foreland Head we had our lunch beneath the lighthouse enjoying the scenery and sound of the waves. Here the rocks above the HWM were carpeted with lichen and I saw my first wild cabbage plant which is far more striking than you would think. It was the tall spike of yellow flowers with the red and green foliage that caught my eye.

Continuing with our walk we pasted Constantine’s Cave. It is here that King Constantine, according to local tradition, is reputed to have died after a battle with the Danes in 1874. However accounts of Constantine’s place and date of death do vary.

On the shore was a small outcrop of Old Red Sandstone with possible Calcite Concretions and then the really large impressive ‘Blue Stone’, an erratic was seen.

Whilst walking along the shore I could not help but notice the diamond shaped joints in the sandstone. They were so regular that you would have thought they had been man-made. Such joints are apparently produced by compressive forces acting into the sharp (acute) angles and tensile forces acting away from the wide (obtuse) angles.

The next opportunity to study the geology was between Randerston and Kingsbarns where we had the Randerston Limestones succession. This succession lies within an anticline on the shore and the beds were numbered individually by Kirkby (1901). So the beds started at number XI going down to number I at the fold of the anticline and then going up from number 1 to number V close to the Cambo Fault. We did not manage to identify all the limestones as the tide was coming in very fast but what we did see was very exciting. In Limestone IX we were able to see Algal Stromatolites and Oncolites. This was a very striking rock not just due to the latter but also to its hematite staining which helped to make it stand out from its surroundings. At Limestone VI we were extremely lucky to see the High Spired Gastropod, Donaldina. An extremely beautiful fossil in the compact grey limestone; it was being covered by the tide just as we observed it. A couple of us tried to take photographs but I only managed to get one with the water receding but still covering the fossil. Still I am very happy to have a record at all. The next limestone of note was Limestone III; thin bedded, very shelly with Naiadites and tiny ostracods. At the Lecks near Kingsbarns Harbour there is a shallow basin within which there is a Naiadites shell bank, or biostromal limestone, 1.4m thick and outcropping as an obvious flat bench.

Whilst studying the Randerston Limestones succession we came across a fabulous High Grade Metamorphic Erratic absolutely covered in crystals. The white crystals were Muscovite and the black crystals were possibly Amphiboles. It is feasible that this erratic came from Scandinavia.

The sun never came out but we had a very exciting day enjoyed by all. I had seen such a lot of geology that was completely new to me and I am sure that it was the same for the rest of the group.

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Tuesday: Kingsbarns to St Andrews

A cold morning but we were all eager to start knowing that the distance to be covered would be a little longer than the other days. We were on the Fife Coastal Path walking smartly along until suddenly Angus asked us to stop. I think it was at Babber Ness. We were told that it was here that we would see the trace fossils of giant millipedes and in a short while Angus was able to point out to us the first trackway. It was about 10cm wide and the tracks continued for about 0.5m. These centipedes may have been more than 0.5m in length. It was difficult to get your eye in at first especially as the lighting was poor, but soon I found my first trackway. It was very exciting; my first fossil trackway!

Once again we continued smartly along until the path changed direction inland. This was a delightful section as we were walking through a bluebell wood with the Kenly Water bubbling away to our right. Apart from the bluebells there were wood anemones; not only the usual white ones but a couple of groups with strongly pinkish petals that I have not seen before. Some of the other flowers seen were greater stitchwort, wood forget-me-not and woodruff. We also heard the songs of willow warblers and blackcaps as well as the resident wrens and robins.

Reaching the shore once more we soon came upon Buddo Rock, a great stack of red sandstone with marvellous weathering patterns, cross-bedding and an arch. It was strange to realise that the sea was once at this level and at one time would have completely surrounded the stack and reach the cliffs behind us. Here we had our lunch before setting off for our next target; the Craigduff Dome. We were able to get excellent views of this from the cliffs of the Kinkell Braes. Even though the tide was coming in, it could be seen that the Carboniferous sandstones were dipping outwards in all directions at 18°- 20° and looked remarkably symmetrical.

Then it seemed suddenly we were at the basalt mass of the geological icon, the Rock and Spindle and at that moment the sun decided to brighten the moment; albeit very weakly. The radiating spokes of the ‘spindle’ is the part that shows good columnar jointing whereas the tall thin ‘rock’ is richly xenolithic. After Angus had given us a general introduction we spent some time examining the cliffs and stacks all composed of bedded tuff within the Kinkell Ness Vent, sometimes known as the Rock and Spindle Vent. This volcano erupted in the sea over 300 million years ago and the Spindle formed as the last pulse of molten rock solidified inside the vent. The area around these formations is a wave-cut platform and we noticed that one of the stacks had vertical bedded tuff. The steep dip of the tuff is thought to be as a result of the collapse of the bedded tuff into the vent after eruption. Angus pointed out to us a fragment that had dropped into the soft tuff and disrupted the bedding thus showing us the direction of the top of the succession. I am sure that I had passed by this observation at least once, but had completely missed it! In the tuff we could see dark masses of lava, very pale grey limestones and the graded bedding with the finer beds repeated approximately every 15cm.

Onwards once again along the Fife Coastal Path and to our great pleasure, shortly before reaching an example of an anticline forming a magnificent arch above a cave, a few of us saw a small patch of early marsh orchids in damp grassland. These were the most exciting flowers for this trip a beautiful red-purple colour. Thank you Helen for pointing them out; I would have been most disappointed not to have seen them.

A sea stack, the Maiden Rock - a remnant of the old sea cliff, was now in view. This is a stack standing on the remnant of a postglacial raised beach. There were planes of weakness on all four sides if this stack and at the time when the sea level was 4m higher than today these sides were preferentially eroded away by the sea. We climbed up a steep path beside this stack and from an excellent viewpoint Angus pointed out to us the Saddleback Anticline and closer to us the Maiden Rock Syncline.

Following the coastal path along the top of the cliff we came to the Kinkell landslip where the original path has been displaced by a land slip. This part of the cliff slumped suddenly in the mid-1990’s, but has been moving slowly since about 1982. The reason for this instability is that much of the material is of soft shale and the toe of the slip extends below HWM where it is eroded by the sea thus promoting further slippage.

There was yet one more site to visit; the geological wall at St Andrews. This contains 22 rocks collected from all over Fife and we had fun trying to be the first to identify the stone that Angus named. My favourite was the vesicular andesite that had a geode lined with purple amethyst crystals.

Well I do not know how we managed to pack so much into each day, but we did and today was no exception, for would you believe we were in good time for high-tea. We ended up at the Waterfront Restaurant in Anstruther; the best high-tea ever. We had a choice of at least ten main courses as well at the tea, toast, scones, not forgetting the cream and cakes – all for £9.95. Excellent value!

A terrific four days with an excellent balance of geology and walking and a really pleasant group of people. We all appreciated Angus’s expertise not to mention his patience though on occasion the phrase ‘Time and tide wait for no man’ came to mind such as on the occasion of the high spired gastropod!

All along the route the delightful waft of coconut on the breeze would envelope us as we walked past the whin bushes. From now on, every time this perfume is on the air I will be reminded of the Geowalk in the East Nuek of Fife.

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