THE coastal village of Elie is a seaside idyll: pretty cottages looking out to the Firth of Forth, and elegant back streets, washed by the salty air. One of a chain of picturesque harbours that make up the East Neuk of Fife – Anstruther, Pittenweem and Crail among them – Elie is the most desirable of them all.

Comprising two places in one – it was formally joined with Earlsferry almost a century ago – this is the second home-owner’s bolthole of choice. Yet in more senses than one, properties here come at a high price. This is where Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, escaped during lockdown to her weekend retreat, as a result of which she was obliged to resign.

Around a third of Elie’s properties are second homes, bought predominantly by those living in Edinburgh, Glasgow or London. For long stretches they are either shuttered, awaiting their owners’ return, or are rented out. In this part of the world, a mere 10 miles south of St Andrews, it’s not hard to find tenants for an ever-revolving door of holiday bookings.

All along this spectacular coast, well-heeled weekend-home hunters prowl, like great white sharks, smelling profit or the place of their dreams, but ideally both. This might not have been what James VI had in mind when he described the East Neuk as the county’s “fringe of gold”, but he was spot on nevertheless.

The thought of a community where a third of residents are absent in winter is not appealing. Nor are the prices of most properties that come on the market within reach of locals in need of affordable homes. In other parts of Britain, second-home-itis is recognised as a blight that destroys livelihoods and communities.

In places such as Devon and Cornwall, the Lake District and Pembrokeshire, residents have vocally protested over the influx of second-home owners. Some councils have introduced measures to restrict or even ban the purchase of newbuilds that are not a primary place of residence, or are hoping to do so in future, along with other policies to combat this problem.

No doubt there will be ways for the wily to squirm out of restrictive legislation, but the opprobrium they will face must surely act as a serious deterrent. Unless, of course, they have the hides of a rhino. I know of one family who bought a flat in Devon in a block where every address was a second (or third or fourth) home. The concierge’s disapproval was palpable, but that didn’t put them off.

In Elie, however, far from being upset by what could be called the tumble-weeders, some residents are grateful for these migratory neighbours. An estate agent who sells East Neuk properties, and cites Elie as the prime location, said: “Do they contribute to the local economy? Absolutely. If second home owners are there for the weekend they eat in the restaurants, drink in the pubs, buy in the shops. If they are renting it out, their guests do the same.”

A member of the community council admitted that some villagers complain, but she took a different stance: “There are small businesses here and along the coast that wouldn’t be here without them. They all provide employment.” Another resident was equally upbeat, despite the problems she personally faced finding a home within her budget: “Yes, it’s difficult for local people, or people who want to work here, to get housing, but you have to take the rough with the smooth. Second homeowners bring a lot of money and employment into the community.”

It's not the response you might have expected, given the pariah status of holiday buyers. Part of the glee with which Calderwood’s disgrace was greeted was schadenfreude at the spectacle of a high flier who could afford a bijou weekend home being cut down to size. That reaction was unedifying, but its roots lay in the suspicion – deserved or otherwise – that anyone with such a lifestyle probably believes there’s one set of rules for ordinary people, and a raft of exemptions for them.

So, in light of the warm welcome given to holiday-home owners in Elie, is the desire to have a foot in two camps less reprehensible than we thought? Is it possible to justify buying a pied-a-terre by the sea or in the depths of the countryside, without tying our consciences into pretzels? Because, let’s face it, for those who live surrounded by crowds and concrete, the prospect must be tempting. For others, who are watching their savings earn peanuts, investing in a property in a premier location is as close to a cast-iron guarantee of a decent return as it’s possible these days to get. (Assuming sea-levels don’t rise.)

This is all very well, but still it makes me uneasy. For every second home, bought at an inflated price, a would-be resident of a small community misses out. In the villages around where I live, some houses lie empty year-round, or are visited fleetingly at best, when the boiler is fired up and the radiators gurgle, injecting a blush of warmth to get the place through the freezing months. That seems to me regrettable, since if they are unloved or unused they’d do better as permanent homes for people who work in the area or would like to settle here. Other weekend cottages, however, are lived in for at least part of each week, and their owners are well-known in their communities.

There’s far more to this issue than money. Without a doubt those who can afford two abodes or who are renting a holiday-let are more likely to spend lavishly and frequently than someone paying off a steep mortgage, and with a family to raise. Yet ownership is about more than economics.

Seemingly, Elie functions perfectly well with the number of full-time residents it currently has. Many villages, however, would struggle to retain their identity if a third of properties were occupied by ever-changing vacationers, and sat in darkness for weeks at a time. These sought-after locations might spring into life in summer, like the East Neuk’s harbour towns. Before Halloween, however, they would sink back into slumber and, apart from a brief awakening around Christmas and New Year, remain comatose until Easter.

Is that really having the best of both worlds? Not for those on their doorstep it’s not.

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