These Caves are truly one of Fife’s hidden gems. Located on the coast of East Wemyss they are wonderfully preserved and the drawing inside are truly fascinating. The caves are looked after by the Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) who formed in 1986 to preserve and publicise the caves and the Pictish and Viking drawings inside. I was lucky enough to be shown around the caves by the lovely Sue who told us fantastic stories about the history of the caves and also about the charity and their valuable work.
The entrance to the caves is along a grassy path on the edge of the beach in East Wemyss, a beautiful walk. We began at the notice boards which give information about each of the caves and are shaped like one of the drawings with a bench in the centre dedicated to a founding member of the charity.
Sue informed us there were two sets of caves. One set formed around 6000-7000 BC and the second set formed 3000-4000 BC as a result of the water rising.
Unfortunately many of the caves are inaccessible though the ones that are accessible contain the largest amount of Pictish markings than all the caves in Britain put together. A good reason why these caves need to be protected.
The first cave we came to was the Court Cave. This is a huge cave that has been used for lots of different activities over the years. The name was given as it was used in the Middle Ages as a court. At this time the Landowners were responsible for law and order and most held court outside, the Wemyss family though had a massive cave that suited the purpose perfectly. The first entrance leads into a large space perhaps used to hold prisoners before the entered the main room, this space has lots of Pictish drawings as well as hoops made from stone which may have been used to shackle the prisoners. The drawings here include Cup marks, chiseled out the stone with a rock maybe, and these are thought to have been used as a calendar or a map, or even fertility symbols. One of the marks is thought to be Thor the Viking God with his hammer and sacred goat. There is also a fish and an elephant as well as lots more that have yet to be interpreted. There are also double disks in several places in this cave and others, which, because of other drawings here and in other caves and Pictish stones around the world are now thought to represent a kind of life line. A broken line perhaps means a death, lines coming out from the main shaft means a person of authority. This was a huge cave and really quite spooky especially after Sue told us some of the ghost stories, of the piper who entered and never came back out, and the story of the white lady, the daughter of the Laird of Balgonie Castle who was involved in a love triangle with a gypsy who lived in the cave.
The next cave, called “The Doo Cave” was originally two caves, the east and the west. The West Doo Cave had a few drawings inside but collapsed during the First World War so now only the East cave is accessible. It was used to keep pigeons to provide the Lairds and their families with a fresh supply of fresh meat during the winter. All the holes are still there inside the caves and pigeons still fly in and out.
The original coastal path at this point has been washed away, so a new path has been made giving us the chance to visit Macduff Castle and this is included in the tours given by the SWACS. Macduff castle is now a ruin but is still impressive, with the bricks a wonderful colour of reddish-brown and parts of the spiral staircases and the windows still visible. It is thought while Macduff was away Macbeth rode up to the castle and killed his wife and children, and when macduff returned he was locked in his dungeon, but managed to escape through a tunnel to hide in the Well Caves below.
We then climbed down the steps to the Well Green, a semi circle of grass containing the entrances to the three Well Caves. You cant get inside these caves, the Fern cave has been filled with mud over the years and the third cave, the unnamed cave is too shallow to be able to get inside. The middle cave, the Well Cave, is a double cave and until very recently you were allowed inside, although there has been some falling of rocks and now there are iron bars over the entrance. The cave used to contain a well of clear water thought to have healing powers, hence the name, and has had a colourful past. The young people from East Wemyss used to light torches and have a procession into the well cave on the first Monday after New Year, singing hymns and having wine and cake. They then all took a drink of water from the well hoping it would prevent ill health in the coming year. They also seemed to have carved their initials in the walls, with dates and drawings, there is even a “William Wallace”, not the real one, just someone guy with a sense of humour.
The last cave we visited is another huge cave, over 20 metres in length, and has several, very clear drawings. In 1986 a group of teenagers drove a car into this cave and set it alight. The roof was black and many drawings were lost, this is one of the main reasons for the formation of the charity, to try and ensure things like this incident don’t happen again. Jonathan was a nail maker who lived in this cave with his wife and children in the 18th Century and at the back of the cave a long stretch of rock is said to be where Jonathan slept. This cave has the most drawings, most of which are on the left hand wall, meaning they can be seen very clearly when the sun shines in. There are a few bird or goose shapes, some more double disks, a fish thought to symbolise Jesus Christ, a horse, a dog or wolf and also some Christian crosses dated 800AD. One drawing on the right hand wall is of a ship, the earliest drawing of a ship in Scotland. It is of a Viking or Pictish ship and is remarkable.
Tours of the caves are held regularly and can be booked through their brand new website http://www.wemysscaves.org. They don’t advise going into the caves without an official guide, so if you want to visit outwith the organised tours in the summer they are happy for you to contact them so a tour can be arranged. They also hold open Sundays from April to September which allow you the chance to explore the SWACS museum in the Wemyss Environmental Education Centre as well as the caves themselves.
In November 2013 a group of specialists from the York Archaeological Trust visited Jonathan’s cave and, using several different techniques, produced fantastic 3D images of the drawings inside which can be seen on their website, www.4dwemysscave.org. Because of it’s success SWACS applied to for a grant from Awards for all Scotland to purchase equipment so they can take images from the other caves. I have volunteered to help and they are looking for others, if you would be interested have a look on their website for contact details.