Fife and St. Andrews

November 26, 2012 • 2:15 am

Yesterday I travelled from Edinburgh to St. Andrews to visit an old friend. I had expressed a desire to revisit Anstruther (a place we’d gone when I was doing a sabbatical in Edinburgh), home of what I thought was the best fish-and-chips shop I’d visited in the UK, The Anstruther Fish Bar. (It’s won many awards for its F&C; check out the Wikipedia entry). It’s located in the lovely seaside town of Anstruther, in Fife. There is also an excellent pub nearby, the Dreel Tavern, for one needs at least a pint to wash down a fish supper.

But my friend convinced me that there was a newer shop that was even better: The Wee Chippy (that’s about as twee a name as you can get), just a few doors down in Anstruther, in Fife. So to The Wee Chippy we went:

(Click all pictures to enlarge.)

There was some hubris there, as evinced by the sign in the window (my image is evident in the photo). “The best place in the world to eat fish & chips”, indeed! That’s a challenge!

To test the claim, I had the full “fish supper” (haddock and chips), with malt vinegar on the chips. It was delicious, at least the equal of the Anstruther Fish Bar’s product. And there were too many chips to finish (the way it should be):

Off to the Dreel Tavern, a small, dark, and atmospheric place with a real coal fire and real ales on tap:

We then returned to St. Andrews, home of Scotland’s oldest university, founded in 1413. In biology it’s famous for being home of the great biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. His Meisterwerk was the book On Growth and Form, which advanced the thesis that many aspects of animal development and evolution could be understood as mathematical transformations of growth parameters (no specific developmental mechanisms were adduced). It’s a well-written book, and influenced many subsequent biologists, including Steve Gould and those who maintain that things like stripes and other patterns can be the result of simple molecular diffusion, but its influenced has waned.

Any any rate, we visited the Museum of the University, and there was Thompson’s typewriter:

There was also a drawing of two cats by the famous Scottish artist Elizabeth Blackadder, described in Wikipedia as Dame “DBE, RA, RSA (born 1931, Falkirk) is a Scottish painter and printmaker. She is the first woman to be elected to both the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Academy. . . Her work can be seen at the Tate Gallery, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and has appeared on a series of Royal Mail stamps.

The Museum and University sit beside the frigid and turbulent North Sea. When I lived in Edinburgh I tried swimming there, but even in the “heat” of a Scottish summer it was simply too cold. But cormorants ply their trade in those icy waters; here’s one drying off after foraging:

Nearby is the world’s most famous golf course—the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which owns the famous “Old Course.” Tourists from all over the world pay huge sums of money to play this course, and at all times of year.

Running along its northern perimeter is a beach that you might recognize:

This is where the opening “running” scene of the movie Chariots of Fire was filmed. Toward the end of the clip you can see St. Andrews, and the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient:

If you are a fan of the Royal Family (a mindset I can’t fathom), you’ll know that St. Andrews is where both Prince William and Kate Middleton went to university, and where they met.  There’s a plaque in the museum commemorating their visit.

And, in town, this humorous (and somewhat deceptive) sign in a coffee shop:

“Where Kate met Wills” with “for coffee!” as a remark in parentheses and in smaller type!  Well, this is certainly not the spot where the two first encountered each other, and since there aren’t many coffee shops in St. Andrews, yes, I’m sure they had coffee there at least once. But it’s a bit misleading to imply that the Royal Love blossomed in this caf.

Finally, my friend has a lovely tuxedo cat named Amber, whose picture I’m including here. Amber is microchipped and has a “catflap” (what they call a “cat door” in the US), which is programmed to let in only the cat with the right chip. (You can program it to allow entry of up to 32 cats, which shows how crazy some folks are!).

Amber has the distressing habit of catching pigeons in the garden, carrying them through the catflap (they’re almost as big as she is), and nomming them in the house. She eats all of the bird save the feathers and feet. But she’s a lovely cat, and very affectionate for a formerly feral animal. Here she is demonstrating her penchant for feathered prey:

Today I’m in Glasgow to speak about evolution for the Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub (no drinking for me before a talk!). Info about the event is here.  Tomorrow I fly back to the U.S. for the end of a long series of journeys.

38 thoughts on “Fife and St. Andrews

  1. Scotland seems to have an industry in “best places for fish and chips”. I’ve tried a few of them, and pronounce them all “remarkably ordinary”. Come to Australia for something special on those lines.

    (Editorial credentials: my Swedish ancestors supposedly introduced fried fish and chips to Australia.)

    1. Yes, about 5 years ago anyway, the fish&chips along the Great Ocean Road and also in Western Australia (—I believe a lot of it there is shark, and hope that is not putting any negative pressure on any shark species—) definitely seemed better than what I’d got in recent years in Britain. But I’m not so sure about the “99 years ago” mentioned earlier here. But, nowhere near the Aussies then, and perhaps a young man’s sense of taste is what was better then!

  2. Sceptics in the Pub!
    This is again one of those things that makes an American fall in love with all things British. I attend such evenings in one of two London pubs, the Wheatsheaf and the Monarch as often as I can. Scientists like yourself, prominent philosophers, politicians etc discuss deep ideas and issues, then there follows a wide ranging open discussion while all listeners (and speakers usually) doff down pint after pint. In many such an evening we speakers and drinkers have come up with the solution to one of the worlds great intractable problems, but sadly in the morning we can’t exactly recall what it was.

    1. And the success of the night can be determined by which ‘it’ wasn’t remembered. If it’s the solution that can’t be remembered then it was a pretty good night. But if you’re having trouble remembering which problem was solved, then it was one of the better nights.

  3. “You can program it to allow entry of up to 32 cats, which shows how crazy some folks are!” And shows the influence of the binary system computers used. I guess the choice is
    1, 2, 4, 8, 16 or 32 cats. Someone got worried by just 16.

  4. You seem to be enamoured with Haddock Jerry. Have you not tried Cod? If done properly it’s a nicer fish; large white flakes of succulent flesh compared to haddock and usually cheaper as well. It’s also not as ‘earthy’ as Haddock.

    1. Haddock is the more traditional fish in Scotland. In most chippies you’d have to specifically ask for cod if that’s what you wanted but if you just ask for a “fish supper” then you’d get haddock & chips. A “single fish”, of course, is the same but without the chips.

      Ainster (as Anstruther is pronounced by locals) is a lovely little town and part of the East Neuk (*quiet corner) of Fife. On a map, you can see a line of ports – Crail, Antruther, Pittenweem, St Monans and Elie that make up the East Neuk villages. They are all fishing ports – sadly only Anstruther maintains any semblance of a fleet now – and are little changed for several hundred years. They were once wealthy and thriving ports that traded with the continent over the North Sea. James VI (of KJV Bible fame) called the county of Fife ‘A beggar’s mantle fringed with gold’.

      The towns are now the haunt of artists and wealthy holiday homes, but they still retain an authentic character.

  5. What irony. I was unable to attend the Edinburgh talk because of extreme back pain. I have recurrent back problems due to some rather bad design in the lumbar area.

  6. ‘since there aren’t many coffee shops in St. Andrews’
    You’re kidding, right? Costa, Starbucks, Taste, Jannettas, Bean Scene, Northpoint, Old Union Cafe, The Coffee House, Cafe in the Square, Bibi’s, Con Panna, Ladyhead, Swilcan Coffee House…For a population of around 16,000 including the students, and considering there are only 3 main streets, that’s quite a few!

    1. Well, since “Wills” started dating Middleton around 2002, his second year at St. Andrews, then let’s assume they had at least 2.5 years together. Yes, there are relatively few places for them to have coffee together over that period of time.

    2. I guess it depends on your standard of “many”. There are at least a dozen coffee shops within three blocks of my downtown Seattle apartment. Within a mile, I’m sure the number is in the hundreds.

  7. What an attractive Black Watch tartan double oven glove in the background of the last photo!

    And such a lovely drawing by Elizabeth Blackadder.

    Nice photo of a potted plant (Yucca?) in the 4th photo–the guy in royal blue is OK too. 🙂

  8. (Just about to go and get the bus towards Glasgow for the Skeptics meet.)
    If I’d known you were heading for the “Fife Riviera”, I’d have given you a grid ref for the diamond hunting site I mentioned in an email earlier.
    You seem to have heeded the warnings about the meaning of “fud” in Scotland. Perhaps it’s just as well that you didn’t refer to the cormorant by one of it’s alternative names, as seeing a shag on a Scottish beach on such a dreich day is likly to make people wince in sympathetic pain.
    Time to go and get my bus, I think.

    1. A young Scots biology teacher announced to his class that he would be getting married during the summer holidays, and he and his new wife (both keen birdspotters) intended to honeymoon on a remote Scottish island, there to “Study the cormorant and shag.” One of his class stood up and said “On behalf of the class, we hope you enjoy the latter more than the former”.

      See you on the bus, gravelinspector.

      1. Well, I didn’t see you on the 15:05 bus. I was the guy in the grey “Too stupid to understand science? Try religion!” tee shirt.
        Really good meeting. Very affirming to see so many anti-religionists in one place.

        1. Sorry, I misunderstood your final comment to mean “I’ll get my hat”, and was simply acknowledging my rather old joke. I couldn’t make it to Glasgow (wife in hospital, but fortunately back out now) but the Edinburgh gig was good.

          I saw PZ at the Glasgow Skeptics last year – that was a good gig too.

          PS sorry I didn’t see the cool T shirt :-).

  9. Thanks for the touching picture of D’Arcy Thompson’s typewriter.
    Thompson has long been one of my heroes. As Cosma Shalizi noted, On Growth and Form has had considerable and, I suspect, more lasting influence outside biology. As a commentator noted (I cannot find the reference right now, but the phrase is hard-wired in my circuits):
    “Every page in On Growth and Form cries out for a computer simulation.”

  10. Amber is a “Jellicle Cat” T:.S.E. : “The Jellicle cats, or simply the Jellicles, are a type of feline mentioned in T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

    Introduced in his poem The Song of the Jellicles, they were originally depicted by Eliot as common black-and-white cats whose daytime nature is peaceful, pleasant and restful — but who possess an active love of nightlife. Specifically, Eliot mentions that they like to gather at an event called the “Jellicle Ball”
    Of course, no cat is “common.” the person who wrote this Wikipedia entry obviously is NOT acquainted with cats!” ALL cats are unique and uncommon.

  11. Somehow, it seems weird to have a plaque on the wall commemorating a visit by a couple of people only a year ago. Doesn’t one normally wait until a couple decades after somebody has died to put up that kind of commemoration?


      1. Except that it’s rather left “creeping” quite far behind, hasn’t it? Indeed, I’d say it’s gone even past “full gallop” and straight into “free fall.”


  12. Since you’ve waxed eloquent over fried fresh haddock, how about finnan haddie for dinner and a report on that.

    I think if I was in Scotland I’d have it at every chance.

  13. That is amusing—about 99 years ago, when in England for a Ph.D., and after a few years there so I had a basis for comparison, I also was sure that the best fish&chips I ever had was up the east coast of Scotland, somewhere north of Edinburgh and south of Aberdeen, but I cannot remember exactly where that conference was.

  14. A substantial fraction of fish and chip shops in the UK are “award winning”. This says more about the number of “awards” than about the number of good shops.

    As you discovered, local knowledge is far more useful than any “official” rating.

  15. “If you are a fan of the Royal Family (a mindset I can’t fathom)”. It’s an absurd soap opera. Something royal occurred in the summer that resulted in thousands of street parties in England. There were very few up here despite the attraction of legitimised afternoon boozing.

  16. Best wishes for your talk this evening Jerry.
    And thanks also for the heads up on The Wee Chippy. Last time I was in St Andrews and Anstruther was early May this year to go out to the Isle of May at the time of the arrival of the puffins. Something we manage to do every 2/3 years. I was disappointed with the Anstruther Fish Bar and felt it had gone downhill somewhat since my last visit. I feel it’s rather a victim of its own success. Glad to see there’s competition.

  17. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The Magpie Cafe in Whitby, North Yorkshire. BEST FISH AND CHIPS IN THE WORLD EVUR.

    Also, I’m firmly of the belief that if you can’t hear seagulls, you’re nowhere you should be getting fish and chips.

  18. Wonderful photos. The Fish and Chips photo takes me back 2 years ago to our family trip to London, Edinburgh and St. Andrews. (My son is a golf fanatic and had to see the famous Old Course).

    We tried fish and chips around Britain and found them good, though not necessarily “better” than what we can find at home in Toronto. Except for the fish and chips at the Anstruther Fish Bar. Nothing fancy about it; simply the classic ideal of Fish ‘n Chips done to perfection. Loved the sliced bread and butter with it as well!

    Looks like we’ll have to try the Wee Chippy (I think I remember seeing it) next time my son insists we do St. Andrews again.


  19. I used to live near St Andrews and it’s great for birdwatching. The seaweed covered rocks are a good place to see purple sandpipers, Calidris maritima. I can’t see any in your cormorant photograph but if you look carefully there is a redshank, Tringa totanus, a common resident.

  20. (You can program it to allow entry of up to 32 cats, which shows how crazy some folks are!).


    It’s rather inconsiderate to force people to buy two flaps like that.

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