DATING back to 1450, this is one of the most charming harbours in Scotland, offering a unique insight into our past as an ambitious and prosperous seafaring nation. You can certainly understand why the makers of the hit TV show Outlander jumped at the chance to use this evocative Fife beauty spot as the ideal backdrop for Jacobite-era time travel capers.

Jump forward to 2017 on an overcast summer’s day, and fishing and pleasure boats bob gently in the harbour. Above, seagulls make their presence known, swooping over the beautiful stone cottages that have a Dutch feel about them, harking back to a time when Scotland did vast amounts of trade with the Low Countries. The magnificent Harbourmaster’s House, which has surveyed the scene for nearly 300 years, looks on stoically.

Following this description, non-Fifers will probably assume I am in one of the pretty East Neuk fishing villages – Crail, Cellardyke, Anstruther or St Monans – that adorn much of the kingdom’s tourist material and draw visitors from around the world. Fifers, however, will know I’m actually in Dysart, on the far less prosperous, far less well-known south Fife coast. Just along the seafront sits Kirkcaldy, and if I look north past the Wemyss villages I can see Buckhaven and Methil.

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These names once held a proud place in Scotland’s industrial story, but since the coal mines and associated trades that defined them were closed in the 1980s they have struggled to find a role in the post-industrial world, and are largely forgotten in the national consciousness. More of which later. For now, I’m discovering – rediscovering – a part of Scotland that seems to have all but dropped off the radar for many people, walking the Fife Coastal Path from Kirkcaldy to Buckhaven.

I know this part of Fife pretty well. I grew up a few miles away in Glenrothes, and during summer holidays more than 30 years ago my father would often take my brother and me to Dysart after a day spent trampolining and playing pitch and putt in nearby Ravenscraig Park. We’d walk down to the village for a “pokey hat” – we were originally from Glasgow – and watch the boats in the harbour as Dad smoked a roll-up, greeting the fishermen with his customary “aye, aye”.

Later, as a music-mad teenager in the early 1990s, I made friends with a group of folk from Methil and Buckhaven and we’d hang out at indie nights in Kirkcaldy, dancing the night away to the Smiths and REM. The miners' strike of 1984-85 was still important to our bright, mouthy group of working-class youngsters; some of our parents had lost their livelihoods in the aftermath and all the communities we lived in had been hit hard one way or another by the closure of the pits.

One of that group of old pals, Shuggy Hughes, is walking along the coast with me today. We’re now in our 40s and haven’t seen each other for a few years. But as we set out from Dysart, past the winding gear of the old Frances Colliery, the years roll away as we reminisce about the old days and discuss our grown-up lives.

Now married with eight-year-old twin boys, Hughes returned to his hometown of Buckhaven from Edinburgh to bring up his family. He now runs a community project in a deprived area of Kirkcaldy, Link Up Gallatown, and spends a considerable amount of both his professional life and leisure time doing up old bikes in the hope of introducing local folk to the joys of cycling. He knows this coastal path like the back of his hand; it’s not only his daily commute to work, but where he relaxes.

“I’m along here every weekend with my boys on bikes or on foot, having picnics, exploring the caves, doing some fishing,” he explains. “This is a great place to bring up a family and enjoy life as an adult. I often bring people from the community cycling along this path and they can’t believe how beautiful it is.

“This stretch of coastline is a bit forgotten. Everybody bangs on about the 'beggar’s mantle fringed with gold' of the East Neuk, but I think there is something rugged and beautiful about this part of Fife. I also like the fact it has been shaped by people in a more underground way, whether that’s the smugglers in the caves beneath MacDuff's Castle or the miners at the Wellesley and other pits.

“The views are incredible, too. From where I stay in Buckhaven – or Buckhyne, as we call it – you can see across to the Pentlands, the Lammermuirs, Arthur’s Seat and the Lomonds. And the wildlife is incredible. Recently I’ve seen dolphins chasing mackerel and humpback whales in the bay. At this time of year there are deer, swallows and sandmartins. I bumped into a badger last year, on my bike, which was quite unexpected. There’s just so much to offer in this part of Fife, and the people are great.”

I can certainly see the attraction as the coastal path unfolds. We’ve made our way through the conservation villages of West Wemyss, Coaltown of Wemyss and East Wemyss to MacDuff's Castle, the ancestral home of the Thanes of Fife, probably best known as the avenging heroes in Macbeth. For much of the last two centuries these three villages served the Michael Colliery – site of a devastating fire in 1967 that killed nine men – one of a number of coal and salt mines owned by the aristocratic Wemyss family, who still live in another castle just above where we are now. The villages have recently benefited from regeneration, and look just as pretty as some of their more famous counterparts in wealthy north-east Fife.

Below us, meanwhile, are the ancient caves that contain some of the oldest primitive carvings in the British Isles. Sadly, both MacDuff's Castle and the caves have fallen into serious disrepair after years of neglect, and although there are local campaigns to save the caves and rebuild the castle, this decay perhaps represents the wider issues that blight this stretch of coastline. The black shingle beaches below, which used to be golden sands, tell a sorry tale of environmental damage caused by coal waste being chucked straight into the sea, and there are problems with erosion.

According to Hughes the area we are walking through changed quickly and irreparably in the 1980s. “My parents bought a pub in Buckhaven in 1981,” he says. “It was initially a thriving business, there was plenty of money in the area. But that swiftly changed in three or four years when all the mines right along this coast closed. Very quickly mass unemployment set in and it has never really recovered.

“From Methil to Kirkcaldy and beyond we have an area facing mass deprivation as a direct result of the 1980s. I see the effects of this every day in my job – poverty, alcohol and substance abuse, poor housing. In some ways it’s even harder for people now than it was then. It’s not helped by the fact the central belt is a vacuum for much of the focus and funds, while areas like this lose out and become forgotten.”

But that’s not to say Hughes is pessimistic about the future – quite the opposite, in fact. A committed social activist, he tells me about countless initiatives being run by and for local people including community orchards and arts schemes, heritage, sports and music projects. He talks with pride of the enduring spirit, of people pulling together and trying to improve their community.

But he believes the government, at both local and national level, should be doing more to help the towns and villages of south Fife forge a positive future, especially since their East Neuk counterparts, and, of course, nearby tourist magnets such as St Andrews, enjoy such prosperity.

“The history of the area is amazing and could be far better exploited, as could the natural energy resources. As far as leisure opportunities go, Buckhaven has a lovely bay, just as nice as places like Elie, and could have fantastic watersports. The tourist potential is there – look at the places we've visited today – but just hasn’t been exploited.

“Also, any such progress needs real investment and unfortunately much of the focus is on community groups picking up this type of work – but people don’t always have the skills or time. It needs public money.

“Investment in apprenticeships, regeneration and infrastructure are all badly needed. We still don’t have a rail link and unemployment is incredibly high. The Community Empowerment Act of 2015 is great in that it gives land and buildings back to local people. But there’s too much emphasis on community groups and unpaid individuals doing all the work. If we want to make a large-scale difference there needs to be more public input in terms of funding and expertise.”

As we look across the Firth of Forth at the oil platforms sitting off shore, Hughes sighs. I can sense my friend, in trying to do the best for his community, probably spends far too much of his time battling officials and bureaucrats. It must be pretty tiring.

“I’m in love with this place – it’s a truly awesome part of Scotland,” he says. “There are plenty of opportunities but we are missing the boat on so many of them, and that is very frustrating.”

We leave MacDuff's Castle and walk the remaining couple of miles along the shore to Buckhaven, marvelling at the geology of the coastline before clambering up to the town, a place I haven’t been to for more than 20 years that evokes happy memories of youth, music and kinship. I still feel the last of these keenly and as we say our goodbyes, I sense I’ll be back soon.

Through the neat rows of council houses we glimpse something that didn’t exist the last time I was here – the giant wind turbine that forms part of Methil Energy Park, signalling a possible new and cleaner future for this brutalised but bonnie corner of the Kingdom of Fife. The people and places along this coastline deserve nothing less.