June 25, 2006

Crail, Scotland: Hands off the life preserver

A recent issue of Coastal Living magazine ran a piece about the collectibility of antique life preservers, which the article called "life rings." A perfect, crisp photo spread showed life rings hung on the walls of perfect, crisp coastal cottages.

Lifesavers as decorations. Antique life rings, with ship, port or other provenance-proving markings can fetch $300, and reproductions go for as much as $60.

Before you bring life rings home to hang on your wall, make sure the seamen they were crafted for don’t need them anymore.

Where there’s a market, there’ll be thieves, so the harbormaster of the village of Crail in Scotland’s Kingdom of Fife did what he could to shame anyone thinking the life ring hung on the walkway above his village’s fishing harbor would make a fine souvenir. On the stand holding the harbor’s life ring he wrote, in black paint, "To steal this Lifebelt shows your own value of human Life -- harbour master"

The kids and I had crossed the road bridge over the Firth of Forth in Edinburgh and were headed toward St. Andrews. I took the long route and hugged the coastal road that ran through the East Neuk, a corner of Fife filled with working North Sea fishing villages. We rode slowly through Crail, Elie, Pittenweem, Anstruther and other hardscrabbly beautiful places where sea, salt, history and fishing are what life’s about.

But, because it was Sunday, we didn’t see any fishermen. Scotland shuts up tight on the Sabbath. The fishermen in Crail – and Elie, Pittenweem, Anstruther and towns all the way to Kirkcaldy – were at rest. The fishing boats were in and tied up tight, and there were plenty of available parking spots at the villages' compact stone harbors.

Monday through Friday, harbor parking is reserved for fishermen. They’re on the sea, working in the wet and wind to bring in the daily catch. And hoping they won't need life rings like the ones that hang at the harbors.