MOST discussion of Fife’s prettiest coastal villages automatically jumps to talk of the East Neuk. For me, however, the ancient and historic string of Wemyss villages further down the Kingdom’s coastline always spring to mind.

Sitting just north of Kirkcaldy in Fife’s former mining heartland, West Wemyss, Coaltown of Wemyss and East Wemyss have been beautifully refurbished in recent years, showcasing their stunning location and architecture – fans of Culross will love them.

But despite their obvious attractions – not to mention being home to one of the most interesting cave complexes in Britain and a couple of castles – they remain hidden gems, rather neglected by visitors. You could easily drive by the turn-off for these neighbouring settlements on the road to somewhere else. But make the effort and, mark my words, you’ll return again and again, especially when you incorporate the wonderful Wemyss' into walks along the Fife Coastal Path.

Historical highlights

For reasons of space, we’re keeping this guide to West and East Wemyss, named (like Coaltown of Wemyss) after the prominent Wemyss family, which has had lands in the area since the 12th century and still resides in Wemyss Castle, which perches on the cliffs between the villages.

Coal was mined in the area for more than 500 years, starting in the 1430s. The harbours in the two villages were developed in the 1600s, when Scotland was an independent sea-faring nation, to export salt and coal, much of it to the Low Countries. Indeed, you can still see the Dutch influence in the pantiled roofs and stepped-gables of many of the buildings.

In 1900, West Wemyss harbour was linked to the pits via a railway line. By the late part of the century, however, the mines – and the villages – were in decline. In 1967, nine men were killed in a devastating fire at the Michael Colliery in East Wemyss, a site that once employed 2000. Three of the bodies were never recovered.

The pit closed, and the villages struggled to recover. By the 1980s, they were neglected and run down. But the ambitious renovation and development plan begun in the early 2000s has seen the area transform once again, with many cottages and public buildings restored to their former glory, and inviting civic spaces created.

Both East and West Wemyss are now two of the most picturesque villages in Fife, with small but committed populations of locals and incomers attracted to the excellent housing stock and tight-knit communities.

What to do

Starting in West Wemyss, both the Main Street and the seafront offer excellent views. No matter where you are in the village you can’t miss the Tolbooth, with its tower and clock, erected in the early 1700s as a meeting place and gaol.

Make your way up the nearby steep wynd to the beautifully restored Auld Wemyss Ways Heritage Centre, which commemorates the rich mining history of the area and provides exhibition space for local artists.

At the far end of the village is Wemyss Parish Church, built in 1890, surrounded by a much older wall, which contains a memorial dating back to 1703.

Back at the seafront, you can admire the cottages on one side while finding a bench and looking out over the Firth of Forth on the other. On a clear day you’ll see across to Edinburgh. There are usually a few boats bobbing in the pretty harbour, too. And look out for the memorial to the villagers who died preventing a live mine from drifting ashore in 1941, during the Second World War.

It’s only a five-minute drive to East Wemyss, but the 45-minute walk is a pleasant one, especially as you get Coaltown of Wemyss into the bargain, too.

East Wemyss is just as pretty as its neighbour, and also offers a plethora of history. At the east end of the village is the path that takes you to the aforementioned caves, used by people in one way or another for at least 4000 years. Although sadly vandalised and still at risk of coastal erosion, they contain around 50 Pictish carvings, the largest concentrated number anywhere in the UK. Pilgrims and hermits are also believed to have used the caves, which were given wider prominence following a Time Team excavation in 2004. You can take a cave tour with knowledgeable local volunteers during summer months – see for details – but you can visit independently just about anytime. Just be careful.

A steep five-minute walk above the caves sits the ruined Macduff Castle, thought to have been built in the time of King Macbeth in the 11th century. Edward I of England visited in 1304, though the Wemyss family, who were descendants of the Macduffs, later joined with Robert the Bruce. It is still owned by the Wemyss estate. Legend has it that “grey lady” Mary Sibbald haunts the castle after she was found guilty of theft and died there in the middle ages.

Again, you need to be careful if you decide to explore the site, but with plenty of nooks and crannies to sit in, it’s a smashing place to enjoy a picnic. Hugh Watson says: "I take my sons there and they love exploring the castle, just as I did when I was a kid. A proper hidden gem."

Right next door is Wemyss Castle, still the family home of the Wemyss family. Built in the 1420s, it is best-known as the place where Mary Queen of Scots was introduced to Lord Darnley. The house is not open to the public, but the restored walled and woodland gardens are, from April to July, by prior appointment.

Where to eat

In West Wemyss, the Walk Inn Café on the Main Street has delicious cakes, scones and traybakes, and serves tasty coffee. Kerry Inglis says: “Such lovely people! They couldn’t do enough to accommodate us when we arrived with a party of eight over lunchtime.” There’s also a lovely wee picnic area in the village with plenty of space for kids to run around.

For arguably the best ice cream in Fife, The Perfect Scoop in Main Street, East Wemyss is the place to go. With a dizzying array of flavours you’re spoilt for choice, though I can never see past the raspberry ripple and orange, almond and pistachio. No wonder people flock here in summer from all around.

Where to stay

Village life: Airbnb lists a number of holiday apartments in both East and West Wemyss. A tastefully decorated ground floor flat in West Wemyss, which sleeps three, will set you back around £60 a night during the low-season.

Country living: Just 15-minutes away by car in Lundin Links, the Old Manor Hotel is the ideal place to relax after a day’s exploring. Elegant décor, great food and a lovely location.

What to do nearby

Once you’ve completed your visit to Macduff’s Castle, keep on walking this stretch of the Fife Coastal Path until you reach Buckhaven. Choose the low road, where you can clamber along the rocks, seeing for yourself the – sometimes negative – effects of the mining industry on this part of the Fife coastline.

Beautiful Dysart – which recently starred in Outlander – is just a five-minute drive from West Wemyss. Explore the beautiful harbour, with its ancient wall. Pop into the Harbourmaster’s House for a bowl of stovies and some banter with the friendly locals.

Ravenscraig Park in Kirkcaldy is also nearby, with its pleasant woodland and coastal walks. Perfect for letting the dogs – and the kids – off the leash.