Dedicated first to St Ethernan, whose shrine forms part of the monastery site on the May Island, and then to St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, there has been a parish church on this holy site for at least ten centuries. Ethernan’s name was latinised to Adrian and according to legend, after being murdered by Vikings c870, his body floated across from the May Island in the stone coffin here in the graveyard.
The church was large, with a stout tower and pillared aisles: it stood in the centre of an extensive graveyard, reduced when the new road and bridge were built across the Dreel burn. Until 1636, a brazier blazed on the roof of the tower as a warning to ships and also to guide them into the harbour below the church. The first such light in Scotland, it was replaced by a replica tower on the May.
King James IV landed here in 1503 and paid for ‘ane trentale of messes to be said to Sanct Nicholas”. During the 16th century, the tower was made higher and subsequently a steeple was added – the weathervane is a salmon, the Burgh Arms being three salmon intertwined.
Damage followed a fiery sermon preached by John Knox in 1559 and English soldiers committed further vandalism in 1651. Following a massive storm in 1670, Fore Street was washed away and the harbour left silted-up and unusable. As the Burgh declined in importance, so did the Church. Often in disrepair, it was reduced in size three times: when the parishes of Anstruther Easter and Anstruther Wester were united in 1961 it was de-consecrated and named the Hew Scott Hall, in honour of its long-serving 19th century minister, author of the “Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae”.
Although reduced from its medieval area, the graveyard still contains much of interest – the aforementioned stone coffin of St Adrian, table-top tombs bearing carvings of a ship and Masonic symbols between the pillars of Solomon’s temple.
George Dishington lies buried here, one of a local family descended from a sister of King Robert the Bruce. The Fairfoul or Fairful family tombstone depicts the family arms, three parrots or “fair fowl”. Reverend Hew Scott lies behind the east gable, close to Matthew Forster Conolly, author, lawyer, town clerk, founder of the first bank in Anstruther, philanthropist and public benefactor.
Until the late 19th century graves were protected by iron cages, or “mortsafes” to foil body-snatchers. This graveyard was so favoured as a last resting-place that the sexton, while digging a grave, would often turn up as many as six skulls. The Holy Well was found in the 19th century, close by the south wall.
The Town Hall
Built in 1794, the upper floor Council Chamber contains a mural of the Burgh Arms. The lower floor was used as the Parish School from 1795-1827, replacing the original school in St Nicholas’ Tower.