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Latitude: 56.1622 / 56°9'43"N
Longitude: -3.0573 / 3°3'26"W
OS Eastings: 334430
OS Northings: 697114
OS Grid: NT344971
Mapcode National: GBR 2F.HP35
Mapcode Global: WH7SV.0CDV
Entry Name: Wemyss Caves, East Wemyss
Scheduled Date: 30 August 1937
Last Amended: 6 December 2022
Source: Historic Environment Scotland
Source ID: SM817
Schedule Class: Cultural
Category: Ecclesiastical: cave; Prehistoric domestic and defensive: cave; Secular: cave
Electoral Ward: Buckhaven, Methil and Wemyss Villages
Traditional County: Fife
The monument comprises nine caves and associated areas outside them, at East Wemyss on the Fife coast. The caves contain a nationally important collection of abstract and figurative rock art carvings, including Pictish symbols, dating from the Iron Age (800 BC – AD 400) to early medieval period (AD 400 – 1000). The monument is formed of six discrete areas which run along the coast in a southwest to northeast direction: Area 1, centred on NT 34281 6963, includes Court Cave and Court Cave Passage; Area 2, centred on NT 34337 97016, includes Doo Cave or Dovecote Cave; Area 3, centred on NT 34435 97120, includes Fern Cave, Well Cave - west and Well Cave - east and the area of ground which extends from their entrances; Area 4, centred on NT 34564 97236, includes the cave now known as Jonathan's Cave; Area 5, centred on NT 34598 97268, includes Sliding Cave also known as Sloping Cave and Area 6, centred on NT 34742 97359, includes Gasworks Cave. The monument is located on the Fife coast in a series of naturally formed sandstone caves with associated areas between the caves and the high-water mark.
The monument is in six parts, each contains at least one cave and an area of ground outside the cave in which archaeological deposits are likely to survive. These parts are:
• Area1: Court Cave contains at least 10 Pictish symbols and 15 other rock art carvings and eight holdfasts. Court Cave Passage contains at least 2 groups of rock art carvings, ten holdfasts and a rock cut niche (Canmore ID 53973).
• Area 2: Doo Cave or Dovecote Cave contains multiple niches believed to be for pigeon nests (Canmore ID 53977). This includes the unknown extent of the collapsed western chamber, not depicted in the scheduled area.
• Area 3: Well Cave – west contains multiple examples of historic graffiti and was the site of a natural spring (Canmore ID 53953). This is part of a cave complex which includes Well Cave – east and Fern Cave.
• Area 4: Jonathan's Cave, originally known as Cat's Cave, contains at least 13 Pictish symbols, 19 crosses and approximately 17 other rock art carvings and two holdfasts (Canmore ID 53979).
• Area 5: Sliding Cave - also known as Sloping Cave contains at least 3 Pictish symbols (Canmore ID 53978).
• Area 6: Gasworks Cave contains at least 19 holdfasts (Canmore ID 53956).
The scheduled area comprises six, irregular areas. The scheduled area includes the remains described above and an area around within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment is expected to survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. Specifically excluded from the schedule are the following:
• The metal grilles securing Court Cave (Area 1), Court Cave Passage (Area 1), Well Cave (Area 3) and Jonathan's Cave (Area 4).
• The ground surface above the cave roofs, excepting Area 3.
• The top 300mm of ground surface outside of the caves, beginning 1m outwith the cave entrances as defined by their rock overhang, are specifically excluded to allow for their maintenance.
• The above ground elements of all public furniture such as picnic tables and benches are specifically excluded.
Source: Historic Environment Scotland
The national importance of the monument is demonstrated in the following way(s) (see Designations Policy and Selection Guidance, Annex 1, para 17):
a. The monument is of national importance because it makes a significant contribution to our understanding or appreciation of the past as a series of caves with a collection of abstract and figurative rock art carvings, including Pictish symbols, and associated areas with high archaeological potential dating from the Iron Age (800 BC – AD 400) to early medieval period (AD 400 – 1000). The caves also have close associations with Macduff's Castle during the medieval period (AD1000 – 1500).
b. The monument retains structural, architectural, decorative and other physical attributes which make a significant contribution to our understanding or appreciation of the past. In particular, a collection of nationally important rock art, in the form of Iron Age carvings, Pictish symbols and Christian motifs, a 'Doo Cave' or 'Dovecote Cave' with multiple rock cut niches, stratified archaeological deposits and the high potential for the survival of external features and structures surviving below the ground surface.
c. The monument is a rare example of a complex of caves with Pictish symbols.
d. The monument is a particularly good example of a collection of Pictish symbols within a cave setting in association with areas of high archaeological potential. It is therefore an important representative of this monument type.
e. The monument has research potential which could significantly contribute to our understanding or appreciation of the past. In particular the Pictish symbols can be studied either individually or as part of the wider body of Pictish carvings. There is potential for further archaeological investigation of the holdfasts, the interior of the caves and associated external areas which could help us understand their use over time.
f. The monument makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the prehistoric, historic and contemporary landscape as a series of caves with visible carvings and modifications. The monument can help us to understand the development of ritual and religious practice in Pictland and wider Scotland. The monument can be studied alongside similar coastal caves to better understand their prehistoric and historic context.
g. The monument has significant associations with folk stories and practices. In particular Court Cave is traditionally linked with the lairds of Macduff's Castle and King James IV. Well Cave was the site of local Handsel Monday celebrations.
Assessment of Cultural Significance
This statement of national importance has been informed by the following assessment of cultural significance:
Intrinsic characteristics (how the remains of a site or place contribute to our knowledge of the past)
The monument is a series of nine caves, eight of which are accessible and one - Fern Cave - which is filled in. These caves, in particular Court Cave, Court Cave Passage, Jonathan's Cave and Sliding Cave contain a nationally important collection of abstract and figurative rock art including Pictish symbols dating from the Iron Age (800 BC – AD 400) to early medieval period (AD 400 – 1000) associated with areas of high archaeological potential.
The caves were in use for an extended period of time and were the focus of a variety of activities. Some of the earliest carvings are found in Court Cave Passage. These early carvings show a human-like figure, thought to represent a god or supernatural being, with a club or spear and what may be a stylized animal. They are associated with a rock cut niche and holdfasts and may have been a focus of Iron Age ritual activity. There are 26 known Pictish symbols surviving within Court Cave, Jonathan's Cave and Sliding Cave out of approximately 50 originally identified. These include carvings of geese/swans, a salmon, a horse or lion, a wolf/dog and Pictish 'beasts.' A Pictish boat with a human figure and a range of more abstract symbols are also present, with the double disc, crescent, mirror and arch symbols being the most common. 'Jonathan's Cave' has 19 Christian crosses in different styles ranging from two simple etched lines to Greek, pedestal and trident forms. A collapsed chamber in the western portion of Doo Cave contained numerous Pictish symbols some of which were said to have been painted. There is the potential that some of these symbols may have survived the collapse (Hambly, Abbott and Arrowsmith 2019, 223, 225, 227, 228).
Holdfasts are found in the walls of Court Cave Court Cave Passage; Jonathan's Cave and Gas Works Cave. They were created by pecking through two sides of rock to meet in the middle. They are most numerous in Gas Works Cave where at least 19 examples, now broken, exist. During excavation a holdfast was uncovered in Court Cave beneath a medieval context suggesting they were created prior to AD 1200. There exact use remains unknown but the holdfasts may have been used for securing items such as stock animals, equipment, fishing nets, offerings or lamps to the walls of the caves. There is the potential to research them further to help understand their purpose and chronology. Doo Cave is carved with numerous niches and has been interpreted as a doocot/dovecote for Macduff's Castle in use during the medieval period (scheduled monument SM13759).
Past investigations have shown that stratified archaeological deposits and artefacts from multiple periods are also likely to survive in the caves and in associated areas outside them. This is important because it can provide material for radiocarbon dating and tell us about how the use of the caves changed over time. Ard (hand plough) marks identified through excavation outside of Well Cave have been radiocarbon dated to the early Iron Age (between 800 – 170 BC) which suggests that some of the earliest activity at the caves is agricultural. Excavations inside Sliding Cave recovered organic material radiocarbon dated to AD 240 – 400. As these occupation layers were found directly beneath Pictish symbols they have helped to closely date the carvings (Hambly, Abbott and Arrowsmith 2019, 229-230).
The use of the caves continued into the medieval period. Two Christian burials were identified to the west of Jonathan's Cave; these were radiocarbon dated to AD 890 - 1200 and AD 1020 – 1190. Excavations at Court Cave found medieval pottery from Scotland and England dating from the 13th to 15th centuries. Outside the entrance of the cave, slag and a fragment of tuyère - a tube or nozzle for blowing air into a fire - were discovered alongside medieval pottery (Canmore ID 53973). An undated crucible fragment, a ditch, bank and metalled surfaces were identified during archaeological work outside of Sliding Cave. This accumulation of evidence suggests that the caves were a focus for metal working during the medieval period and may have had additional structures to support this activity or control access to it (Hambly, Abbott and Arrowsmith 2019, 229-230: Duffy 1989, 16).
The large collection of Pictish symbols at Wemyss Caves provide the opportunity to study the relationship between individual motifs, their development over time and contributes to our wider understanding of Pictish symbols as a whole. The introduction of Christian crosses to the caves at Wemyss may help tell us about the conversion of the Picts to Christianity and early medieval Christian practice in Pictland. Stratified archaeological deposits are known to survive at the monument and can provide material for radiocarbon dating and environmental analysis along with artefacts, human and animal remains as well as archaeological features and structures which have the potential to tell us about lifestyle, economy and ritual and religious practices of those who used the caves.
Contextual characteristics (how a site or place relates to its surroundings and/or to our existing knowledge of the past)
The monument is located on the Fife coast in a series of naturally formed sandstone caves with associated areas between the caves and the high-water mark. The motifs at Wemyss Caves are thought to be the largest and perhaps oldest single collection of Pictish symbols.
The first written record of the 'Picts' dates to a Roman text of AD 297/298. Their symbols have been found on standing stones, metal artefacts and organic material such as bone. They can include geometric shapes, stylized objects, animals, people as well as otherworldly figures and creatures. The exact meaning of these symbols remains unknown, although recent research has suggested that they can, in certain contexts and combinations, be interpreted as names or a form of writing. During the early medieval period the Picts developed kingdoms and eventually converted to Christianity. This conversion can be seen with the introduction of Christian narrative and iconography on Pictish symbols stones, for example Largo Parish Church, cross slab, Fife (scheduled monument SM820). Around AD 850 the symbols appear to have stopped being created. By AD 1000 the Picts were incorporated into the Kingdom of Alba, a precursor to modern Scotland, and their distinctive language declined and disappeared. (Carver 2005, 7-9, 18-21, 46: Noble and Evans 2019, 10-11).
Wemyss Caves are located on the edge of Pictland – a territory which stretched from Fife to the north of Scotland and included the Outer Hebrides and Orkney. Pictish symbols can be found in association with a variety of contexts; on stones standing in isolation to settlements, sites of ceremony and churches. Caves are a rare context in which to find Pictish symbols. The National Record of the Historic Environment records only two other sites with such symbols. These are Sculptor's Cave, Covesea in Moray (scheduled monument SM4220) and Caiplie, Caves, Early Christian And Medieval Carvings, Fife (scheduled monument SM8121). The Picts were a seafaring people and the caves are part of a wider network of coastal sites which included contemporary settlements such as Dunnicaer, Aberdeenshire (Canmore ID 37001) which is also associated with Pictish symbols.
The monument is part of a wider pattern of caves used for religious and ritual practice at various times in the past. Constantine's Cave, Fife Ness (scheduled monument SM6393) which was in use from at least the Iron Age, has stylized animal symbols similar to those found in Court Cave Passage, at least one holdfast and numerous incised crosses. A cup marked cross in Court Cave Passage also has similarities to early Christian crosses at St Columba's Cave, Knapdale, Argyll and Bute which includes cup marks (scheduled monument SM13367) on the west coast suggesting Wemyss Caves may have been part of wider Christian practices across Scotland. The crosses carved in Jonathan's Cave could indicate that it was used as a shrine or hermitage in the eremitic monastic tradition. If the caves had held ritual significance during the Pictish period, this could represent the appropriation of a pre-Christian sacred site.
In Scotland sites of fresh water have been associated with ritual and religious activity from at least the Bronze Age (2500 – 800 BC) and this continued through the early medieval and medieval periods where holy wells were a common feature of the landscape. The Picts also used sites of fresh water as a focus for their ritual and religious practices (Gordon and Evans 2019, 136-138) and Well Cave, with its natural spring and earlier prehistoric activity could have been a contributing factor to the choice of this area of coastline for symbol carving. A Bronze Age cup and ring mark was identified at the now filled in Michael Cave (Canmore ID 53954) approximately 1km to the southwest of the monument. Combined with flint and worked stone uncovered outside of Sliding Cave this suggests there is high potential for evidence of Bronze Age activity to survive at the monument.
Well Cave was the focus of a local folk practice until the 19th century. On Handsel Monday (the first Monday after the 12th January) people would visit the spring in the cave, known as St Margaret's Well, to drink the water, give gifts and in many cases carve their name into the wall leading to a substantial collection of historic graffiti (Hambly Abbott and Arrowsmith 2019, 246: Wemyss Caves 4D). This may be a continuation or evolution of earlier religious practice and belief.
The monument is an important component of the prehistoric, historic and contemporary landscape which helps us to understand the exploitation of Scotland's coastline and the development of ritual and religious practice over a significant period of time. There is the potential to study the monument in comparison to other monuments, in particular, other caves along the east coast and to Macduff's Castle to better understand their relationship.
Associative characteristics (how a site or place relates to people, events, and/or historic and social movements)
The monument is associated with local folk stories, traditions and historic families. For example, Court Cave is said to have been used as a court by the lairds of Macduff's Castle during the medieval period. There is another story that the name originates from King James IV revealing his identify to a group of gypsies with whom he was revelling in the cave. Wemyss comes from the Scots Gaelic 'uamh' meaning cave. It is from this origin that the parish, burgh and family of Wemyss derive their name.
Source: Historic Environment Scotland
Historic Environment Scotland http://www.canmore.org.uk reference number
CANMORE ID 53973 (accessed on 27/07/2022)
CANMORE ID 53977 (accessed on 27/07/2022)
CANMORE ID 53953 (accessed on 27/07/2022)
CANMORE ID 53979 (accessed on 27/07/2022)
CANMORE ID 53978 (accessed on 27/07/2022)
CANMORE ID 53956 (accessed on 27/07/2022)
Carver, M. (2005) Surviving in Symbols – a Visit to the Pictish Nation. Edinburgh: Birlinn with Historic Scotland.
Hambly, J., Abbott, M., Arrowsmith, M. (2019). How a Community Digital Heritage Project Has Helped to Imagine the Circumstances of Pictish Symbols in the Wemyss Caves, Scotland. In: Büster, L., Warmenbol, E., Mlekuž, D. (eds) Between Worlds Understanding Ritual Cave Use in Later Prehistory. Springer, Cham.
Noble, G. and Evans, N. (2019). The King in the North, The Pictish Realms of Fortriu and Ce. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Duffy, A. (1989) 'East Wemyss, foreshore (Wemyss parish), middens' in Discovery Excavation in Scotland. p16 (available at https://www.archaeologyscotland.org.uk/) (accessed on 12/08/2022).
Northlight Heritage, The Wemyss Caves, Fife - Conservation Management Plan (https://wemysscaves.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Wemyss-Caves-CMP-FINAL.pdf) (Accessed 14/10/2022)
Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society website (available at https://wemysscaves.org/) (accessed on 28/07/2022).
Wemyss Caves 4D website (available at http://4dwemysscaves.org/) (accessed on 28/07/2022).
Source: Historic Environment Scotland
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