East Wemyss is a former coal-mining village on the south coast of Fife. It is famous for a group of sandstone caves along the shoreline, these having been delved in some far-off time when the waters of the Firth of Firth were higher than today. The cave walls are adorned with ancient carvings, many of which are now hard to discern. A number of these have been dated to the early medieval period and were carved by local Picts in the sixth to ninth centuries AD.
Damage to the caves by erosion, neglect and vandalism led to the formation of a group dedicated to preserving and conserving them. Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) was founded in 1986, after one of the sites – Jonathan’s Cave – was damaged by fire when a stolen car was driven inside and set alight. Since then, SWACS has been at the forefront of efforts to protect the caves and their unique carvings, co-operating with other organisations in projects aimed at increasing knowledge and raising awareness.
One of the latest projects is using high-tech scanning methods to produce 3D digital images and models of the caves. This began with Jonathan’s Cave and is now being extended to the others. One exciting result of the project is Wemyss Caves 4D, a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave with an interactive aspect giving detailed information. It allows the user to feel like an explorer, even giving an option to shine a torch for a better view of the carvings. This is great for those of us who have yet to experience an official tour with a guide from SWACS. See the link at the end of this blogpost if you want to try it for yourselves.
Although I’ve had a few holidays in Fife, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I visited the Wemyss caves for the first time. Even then, I only managed to get a brief look. In the fading light of early evening I followed the public path along the shoreline, passing the Court Cave and Doo Cave and having a quick peep inside. Unfortunately I was short of time so didn’t venture further along the shore to see the other caves, nor did I catch a glimpse of any ancient designs.
Back home, I consulted my copy of Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903) where the Pictish carvings in the Wemyss caves are described. Here’s an image from ECMS showing some of the Pictish symbols in Doo Cave, drawn by John Romilly Allen:
I’ve selected the above symbols from Allen’s original sketch because they’re familiar and recognisable – unlike others which are more abstract or esoteric. My selection shows the double-disc & Z-rod (attached to an animal’s head), the Pictish beast or ‘swimming elephant’, the arch, the rectangle, the bird and four double-discs. All of these can be seen in variant forms on Pictish symbol stones, usually in combinations of two or more, and often with other symbols not shown here. Sadly, the double-disc & Z-rod was on a section of wall that collapsed when a gun emplacement was placed on top of the cliff during World War One.
The cave I’m most keen to visit is Jonathan’s Cave, mainly because I’ve done a bit of research on it from afar. It popped onto my radar in the mid-1990s, when I was gathering information on early medieval naval warfare for a PhD thesis. I was looking for images of Pictish ships and came across an article describing an oared vessel carved on the east wall of Jonathan’s Cave. Back then, I made a note to see this important carving for myself, little knowing that the visit would still be sitting on my ‘to do’ list twenty years later. It’s something I really should tick off before another decade slips by. A brief stroll along the shoreline at East Wemyss on a March evening, with little more than a hasty peek at two of the caves, has merely whetted my appetite.
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Notes & links
The place-name Wemyss (pronounced ‘Weems’) comes from the Gaelic word uamh meaning ‘cave’.
Jonathan’s Cave is named from a poor man who lived inside with his family in the late 1700s.
Court Cave was the site of the local baronial court in the Middle Ages. The nearby Macduff’s Castle was the seat of the earls of Fife.
Doo Cave, originally Doocot (‘Dovecot’) Cave, was once a place where pigeons were kept.
The other caves at East Wemyss are Well Cave, Sloping Cave and Gas Works Cave. Several more have collapsed.
Notices at the cave entrances warn visitors of the danger of entering. SWACS recommends booking a tour with one of their guides (see website below).
SWACS website (Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society)
Wemyss caves 4D [use the Explore option for a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave]
A blogpost from SCHARP (Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project) on the scanning project: ‘Wemyss Caves 4D continues…’
Information on Jonathan’s Cave at the RCAHMS Canmore database
From the Courier newspaper, an article on the threat of erosion: ‘Do they want to see them lost forever? — council told it needs to do more to protect Wemyss Caves.’
Lastly, the article that first drew my attention to the Wemyss Caves: Elizabeth le Bon, ‘The Jonathan’s Cave boat carving: a question of authenticity?’ International Journal of Nautical Archaeology vol.21 (1992), 337-42
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