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French royal bride lands near Crail

In the summer of 1538, a small fleet of French galleys arrived at Fife Ness harbour near Crail bringing Mary of Guise for her marriage to James V. She spent her first night in Scotland at nearby Balcomie Castle. Following the death of his first wife, Madeleine of Valois, James sought another French bride in order to further the alliance with France and, having met Mary on the occasion of his previous wedding, arrangements were soon completed. The wedding ceremony took place at St Andrews Cathedral on 18 June that year. The new queen consort of Scotland came from a noble French family from the region of Loraine and had previously been married to the Duke of Longueville but was widowed at the age of 21 in 1537.

Mary of Guise

James and Mary had three children but only the youngest, also Mary, survived beyond childhood. Following the death of James in 1542, the child, then only 6 days old, became Queen of Scots. In order to further the ties between Scotland and Catholic France, Mary of Guise arranged for the young Mary, at the age of 5, to be betrothed to the Dauphin and to be brought up at the French court. Initially, the regency on behalf of the young queen in Scotland was held by the Earl of Arran, but Mary of Guise became regent herself in 1554 until her death in 1560. Although she is considered to have been a capable ruler, Mary of Guise ultimately failed in her efforts to prevent the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and to create a secure environment for her daughter’s reign.

House with crow-stepped gable in Crail

In Crail itself the crow-stepped gables and red pantiles on many older houses serve as a reminder of the influence of medieval Flemish architecture in the region resulting from extensive trading contacts with the Low Countries.

Disused buildings at Crail airfield

In the mid-20th century, Crail became associated with Cold War Eastern Europe. With international tension rising across the world, the Ministry of Defence decided that new linguistic capabilities were required and established the Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL) for this purpose. Young men with perceived linguistic talents, who were undergoing compulsory military service, were selected for intensive language training at a range of establishments across the country. In 1956, buildings at the Royal Navy Air Station near Crail became used to house a section of the JSSL. The unit specialised in teaching Russian, Czech, Polish and also Mandarin languages. It was noted that many of the men involved proved exceptionally assiduous students when the alternative was being sent back to their regiments for routine military training. The proximity of female students at nearby St Andrews University proved an additional attraction. The facility was closed in 1960 with the ending of conscription and the buildings used now stand empty.

The natural harbour at Fife Ness is located at grid reference 56°16’45”N 2°35’16”W.
The derelict buildings of the former Royal Navy Air Station are visible along the road from Crail to Fife Ness.


Portrait of Mary of Guise, attributed to Corneill de Lyon, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Crail house by S.moeller, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Crail airfield © Jim Bain, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Geograph