The name 'Wemyss' derived from 'uamh' ('weem') refers to the caves in the sea-cliffs along the shore. These have long had various uses. In 1929, rock carvings, including cup-and-ring markings ascribed to the Bronze Age, and medieval pottery, were uncovered in Michael Cave when new boilers for the Michael Colliery were installed over the cave. The Glass Cave, also containing rock carvings, was used in the 17th century as a place of glass production. Coastal activity within the Wemyss policies is reflected in the discovery (in 1932) of a medieval cross-slab overlying a rocky cavity in the shore, some 100 yards below high-water mark near the Castle. Left in situ, the cross slab thereafter was covered by spoil from nearby colliery workings (RCAHMS).
The history and development of West Wemyss village and the Wemyss estate have been directed by the Wemyss family since the 12th century when they were first mentioned to 'claim descent from the Celtic kings and Thanes of Fife' (Geddie 1923, p.55-6). By 1423, Sir John Wemyss of Reres had a castle at Wester Wemyss, separate from the manor of Easter Wemyss (as agreements between him and Livingstone of Easter Wemyss indicate). Exploitation of the productive coal measures commenced by at least 1428 (Cameron and Johnstone 1995).
Sir David Wemyss (killed at Flodden, 1513) succeeded to the estate in 1508. He acquired a charter of barony from James IV in 1511, with the Castle 'assigned as the principal messuage of the barony…and the power to erect a new Haven' at the town of Wemyss. This refers to the Castle, also noted in various documentary references as 'The Wemyss', 'Wester Wemyss' or 'The Hall of Wemyss'. Early 16th century work on the Castle may date to his activities, when it was extended (Gifford 1992, p.424). It was a prestigious residence by 1564-5 when Queen Mary stayed and first met Henry Lord Darnley (Bingham 1995, p. 85-6).
Both the coal and salt industries, foundations of the Wemyss' wealth, started by the 15th century and increased considerably during the 17th and 18th centuries. Several salt pans were worked in 1790, reached their peak of production in 1818 and then rapidly declined after c 1836. Coal extraction however, rose consistently throughout this period (Kirkcaldy District Council 1985).
Sir John, 1st Earl of Wemyss (1622-1649), created Lord Wemyss of Elcho in 1628, inherited the estate in 1622 adding to it by acquiring East Wemyss castle in 1615, the lands of Lochhead, near Lochgelly and Little Raith. He increased the salt pan industry and appointed a mining engineer to explore and assess the value of the Wemyss coalfields. This led to the discovery of the Bowhouse coal at Lochhead, in addition to twelve different rich coal seams on the western boundaries of the estate between Glass Cove and along the Blair Burn.
David, 2nd Earl of Wemyss, Lord Elcho (1610-79), Colonel of an infantry regiment raised in Fife in 1640, was active in further extending the estate, adding to its economic basis and the family wealth. He recorded many of these activities in a diary. Married in 1627 to Anna Balfour, he lived until 1639 with his family, in the tower-house at West Wemyss Chapel; returning to live in the Castle on his mother's death. He entirely renovated the gardens of the tower-house during this period (Cameron and Johnstone 1995).
In 1651, the three Burgh Baronies of West Wemyss, East Wemyss and Methil were united, with West Wemyss as the centre 'of the Barony of Wemysschire' (quoted in Cameron & Johnstone 1995) and the Castle as the principal residence which was substantially enlarged and remodelled. A picture of Wemyss Castle, painted by an unknown artist in 1653, commemorates the 2nd Earl's return to Wemyss after his second marriage (1650), to the Dowager Countess of Buccleuch (Cunningham 1909). He exploited minerals extensively as he:
'sank pits, won coal, worked ironstone, erected saltpans and constructed the harbours of Methil and Wemyss, from which he exported his salt and his coal…He had in contemplation a scheme to divert the River Ore from the vicinity of Thornton to West Wemyss, to drive his engine pits on route which at this time were either manual or horse.' (quoted in Cameron and Johnstone 1995).
The harbour construction at Methil (1660-70) cost some £40,000 Scots, while sinking 'The Happy Mine' was an investment of £100,000 Scots (Cunningham 1909).
In December 1669, the 2nd Earl contracted Robert Mylne, Master Mason to the King, to build an L plan addition to the south of the Castle's east range. This scheme incorporated the 15th century tower within the main entrance front, a seaward facade including a new tower, and a garden was laid out on the mansion's east and south fronts. The principal interiors are situated in these wings. An overmantel painting of 1718 by John van Sypen, in the State Drawing Room, shows the coastal panorama from West Wemyss Chapel tower-house to Macduffs Castle. This painting celebrates the Dutch Fleet, under Admiral Gentt, and the Scottish fleet at battle in Wemyss Bay in 1677. The landscape panorama includes Wemyss Castle and thereby is said to display the 2nd Earl's building and landscape works (Gifford 1992, p.424; Cameron and Johnstone 1995, p.3).
With no son to inherit, the estate and titles were settled on his daughter (by Margaret Leslie, his third wife and daughter of John Leslie, Earl of Rothes, see Leslie House). Margaret, Lady Burntisland, Countess of Wemyss (1678-1705) married Sir George Mackenzie, Viscount Tarbat, Earl of Cromartie in 1700 (q.v. An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes: Supplementary Volume 2: Highlands & Islands 2002, pp. 15, 21, 41-3). On her death in 1705, the estate passed to David 3rd Earl (1678-1720), one of the Commissioners for the Treaty of Union, Lord High Admiral of Scotland and the Isles, who further aggrandised the policies. He added a bowling green mounted with several cannons to the west of the Castle (Defoe 1724-7, pp.786-7). Descriptions of the Castle and policies in the 1720s relate it as:
'built upon an Eminence, and with awful Look hath a commanding Prospect over the Firth, into East Louthian, to the South to the Bass, to the east; and to Edinburgh, West Louthian, and the Bottom of the Firth to the West; Its Gardens and spacious Park run to the North.' By this date the residence was likened to a 'Palace..aboe 200 Foot Front to the South, with a Terrace on the top of the Rock, as at Windsor' (Macky 1724, p.82-3).
This description was condemned as 'Romantick' by Defoe who pointed out that the spacious park was 'Nothing like it. There is a Piece of Wast Ground planted with Firr-Trees, at the east End of the House, but they do not thrive…'. He noted the public road from East to West Wemyss dividing the castle from its 'large, well-planted Orchard' (Defoe 1724-7, pp.786-7).
The 3rd Earl obtained an Act of Parliament (1698) securing him a monopoly in the production of certain types of glass in the Glass Cave, also called the Kelp Cave from the extraction process of soda and potash used in glass production.
Having supported the Jacobite cause at Culloden, David Wemyss, Lord Elcho (1721-87), eldest son of James 4th Earl, lost his title and the estates were forfeited. It may have been during this period that the public road (from East to West Wemyss) was moved northwards to its current position (Ainslie 1775). In exile in Paris for thirty-two years, on his death the estate went to his younger brother, James (1726-86). It was James' second son, William (1760-1822), married to his cousin Lady Elizabeth Sutherland, who added to the amenities of the estate, developing the gardens and parkland landscape. In c 1789 he employed John Nicol, the gardener at Raith (see Raith) to lay out the walled garden and flower gardens (Neil 1813, p.167; Loudon 1822, p.1255). In c 1800 he commissioned Thomas White Jnr. to prepare a landscape scheme and planted some of White's proposed woodlands, particularly those between the Castle policies and East Wemyss. White's work was complemented by Walter Nicol (who also worked at Raith) who carried out further work in extending his fathers gardens of the 1790s. Nicol's experience at Wemyss and Raith formed the basis of his practical gardening handbooks, among them The Gardener's Kalendar (1812; see Henrey 1975, pp.406-7), and his claim to provide 'designs for gardens and Hot Houses, the laying out of Villa Grounds, Parks, Lawns, Approaches in the newest style' from his practice in Leith Walk, Edinburgh (Tait 1980, p.139-40). He may have been responsible for the design and construction of the Orangery (see below).
William Wemyss also commissioned Lewis Wyatt (1777-1853) to prepare designs for a Gothic gate. These were displayed at the 1808 Royal Arts Exhibition, however the gate was never built. Wyatt's interests in model estate buildings (he published A Collection of Architectural Designs Rural and Ornamental in 1800) may be the source, or have influenced, many of the new estate buildings built during the early 1800s (Headley and Meulenkampf 1986, p.474).
In the late 1800s the Wemyss estate increased its coal production and built a new dock at Methil in 1887. In 1889 the dock and railway servicing it, was sold to the North British Rail Company for £225,000. With the establishment of the Wemyss Coal Company in the 1890s, and the concentration of coal production at East Wemyss served by the docks and railway, there was a demand for workers housing. This led to the establishment of Coaltown of Wemyss as a picturesque estate village with miners' housing, and a primary school designed by Alexander Tod. Further housing in East Wemyss, West Wemyss, Buckhaven, the entire village of Denbeath and tram transport were laid out from 1904 onwards. These all took place under the direction of Randolph Erskine Wemyss (1858-1908). Modern alterations were made to the interior of the Castle by Peddie and Kinnear (1874-6) who added bay windows above an arcaded terrace on the east and laid out new gardens.
During the mid 1950s considerable reconstruction works were carried out at the Castle. Captain Michael and Victoria Wemyss lived nearby in the Red House prior to its completion. The property remains in family ownership.