Fife offers walkers a new hill to climb

Blair House Hill, Oakley, Fife

It is not very often that you get the chance to climb a new hill, a hill so new it does not yet even have a name. But, on a recent trip through the valley of the River Forth in south Fife, I managed to do just that.

Lying to the west of Dunfermline, this anonymous upstart is not particularly lofty but, flanked by the higher peaks of Craigluscar Hill, to the east, and Knock Hill, to the north, her gently rounded slopes remain sufficiently prominent to raise her from the rolling landscape of farmland and forestry.

Setting out on foot from a small Forestry Commission car park (GR: NT 037906) bordering Carnock Moor, the 149-metre high peak in view across rough pasture, I decided to christen her Blair House Hill. The inspiration for this will quickly become apparent.

From the hamlet of Cowstrandburn, a right of way (signed Kinneddar) strikes west, leading across the moor to Kinneddar. Passing to the north of Blair House Hill, it offered me the perfect approach.

Emerging from a band of trees wedged between fields, I found myself standing on the edge of what is, at present, a bleak and desolate patch of ground – and a sizeable one at that.

Across carefully contoured swathes of still-tacky mud, the sculpted slopes of Blair House Hill rose before me, her northern flank sweeping down to the shoreline of a deep, murky pool bounded by ripped rock. And therein lies the reason for this wee hill’s existence.

Blair House Hill is a bing, the mounded waste from an abandoned open cast coal mine.

Fife has a long history of coal mining dating back to the mid-19th century. Over the years some 50 collieries have come and gone, the last deep mine closing in 1988. In the shadow of Blair House Hill, the village of Oakley grew up around the industry.

The opening of a colliery at Kinneddar in the late 19th century brought new jobs to the area. Located on the north edge of Black Wood, the pit prospered until the 1930s when miners moved on to nearby Comrie Colliery and then Blair House.

However, the collapse of the Scottish Coal Company in 2013 closed the mine and the site was abandoned. Efforts to restore the derelict eyesore were delayed after insurance company Royal and Sun Alliance Insurance refused to pay out a £3 million bond set aside for the clean-up. Fife Council took them to court and got the cash, allowing restoration plans to go ahead and, judging by the progress to date, there will come a time in the not too distant future when this maimed ground does recover.

The initial earthworks are nearly at an end and the site will then pass to the Forestry Commission who plan to plant thousands of trees, creating a new woodland complete with tracks, paths and viewpoints. A memorial to nine men who died when fire engulfed them in Kinneddar pit in 1895 is also planned.

Diggers at work, a quick chat with one of the friendly drivers cleared the way for me to enter the site – still officially closed to the public – and set a course for the summit of Blair House Hill. Crossing the eastern edge of the former mine, I passed above the pool, a flock of gulls enjoying exclusive rights to otherwise vacant water.

There is a wee patch of woodland at the base of the hill but the slopes are otherwise bare so I had no difficulty selecting a route to the top – a straight ascent was the order of the day. Thanks to the bulldozers that have reshaped the bing, it is a relatively easy gradient, at intervals crossing tracks and drainage channels that spiral round the mound.

The summit is surprisingly grassy, and an excellent viewpoint with a cracking outlook north to the Ochils, bathed in the late afternoon sunshine. To the south, the vista is more industrial, the chimney of the old Longannet coal-fired power station a prominent landmark. Its closure was one of the final nails in the Blair House coffin.

And, from my elevated vantage point, I could see that at least now scarred slopes were on the mend.

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