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Step back in time on a visit to Culross

Walking through a time warp in Fife

02 February 22

History & heritage

Blog by The Fife Explorer

The old cobbled street, whitewashed houses obviously of an earlier time randomly set at varying angles and heights directly on the street-side edge, small paned single glazed windows and red pan-tiled roofs. A unique Scottish village of an acute 17th century sense of place. Encountering a wealthy merchant dressed in his three-cornered hat, waistcoat and breaches with highly polished buckled shoes would almost be expected.  An intriguing village of astute historic heritage rose to the heights of wealth during an early era of coal mining and salt production that placed it firmly on the map as a prominent and important trading port of royal recognition. A living village recently prized by modern discerning film makers as the favoured location to create the backdrop to their stories – not least the TV series, “Outlander”.

Mercat Cross

The streets throughout Culross ooze an air of nostalgic presence. Painstakingly restored by the National Trust for Scotland during the 1930s following a time of decline, many of the old houses are rendered in white and ochre where originally they would have had rather drab sandstone facades. A new vibrancy resonates throughout the village – visitors experiencing the historic buildings, walking the streets, stopping at the local cafes and inn to perhaps reminisce about the film location spotted in the village, it is a popular tourist attraction.

Located on the River Forth estuary a little west of the three iconic Forth Bridges, Culross (Pronounced “Coo-ross”), is entered from either east or west from the A985 or from the Fife Coastal Path. Car parks located at each end encourage a short walk into the village.

Cross the now little-used railway by the crossing gates out onto the old pier for views over the River Forth estuary towards the “Outlander” filming locations at Bo’ness and Blackness Castle. The wooden pier is not as it was; the original dismantled to allow it’s stone to be used in constructing the port of Leith at Edinburgh, while the former harbour was infilled to reclaim land for the railway construction after the demise of the coal and salt industries.

The wooden pier

Facing the opposite direction inland, the immediate “village-scape” is a view of past opulence. The prominent ochre-coloured “Palace” or Merchant’s House was the former residence of the founder and developer of the coal mine and salt production in the village. Sir George Bruce developed the first subterranean coal mine under the estuary just off the end of the pier known as the Moat Pit and cleverly used the lower quality coals from the pit to heat salt pans and extract salt from the seawater. These became very lucrative businesses and he made his fortune trading with Europe consequently expanding the harbour into an important trading port of the time. The “Palace” he constructed from his wealth in 1597. The red pantiles on the roofs of the “Palace” and other buildings in the village were transported from the Netherlands as ballast on the ships returning to Culross. Bruce was instrumental in gaining the former Royal Burgh status from King James VI. The “Palace” now a popular visitor attraction, displays its unique architecture and the former owner’s artefacts collected from his European travels, ornate painted ceiling murals and beautiful internal design and hillside gardens.

Ochre coloured Culross Palace

The former Town House with its clock and bell tower situated right of the “Palace” was the village council meeting place and the jail. The tower was built later than the lower structure; however this building has a more macabre history. Many people of the time, predominantly women, were imprisoned, tried and executed for practicing witchcraft. Culross is famed for the high number of “witches” imprisoned here and at one point the jail capacity was insufficient to accommodate their numbers. These individuals were largely outcasts of the local society and the “witch” accusations resulted from the unfortunate misguided imaginations and superstitions of the period. Some say they have experienced strange sensations and anxieties when visiting the loft areas of the building where witches were held. Visitor access to these areas is not permitted. On a lighter note however visitors are encouraged to visit the art gallery and gift shop within.

In the square that fronts the “Palace” and the Town House a monument to famed naval commander Sir Thomas Cochrane stands proud  - named “Seawolf” by Lord Nelson for his brave encounters during the Napoleonic wars. He was a man of great standing and had spent time on his family estate at Culross, but fell into disrepute due to controversial issues. Later he was an instrumental influencer during the wars of independence in South America. He was later pardoned and his naval command was reinstated as Rear Admiral of the Fleet.

The Town House

Leaving the square, walk up the steep cobbled street entitled “Mid Causeway”; the surrounding 17th century houses close in and the mind is infused with a true sense of being in the time. To the right is a house that was once the residence of the visiting Bishop Leighton (identified by a plaque on the wall), the street opens out to a small cobbled square in which the Mercat Cross is located (the local village trading area and one of the “Outlander” filming locations) surrounded by more quaint old houses. Opposite the “Study”, a tall 3-storey whitewashed house topped with a small pan-tiled cap-house where Bishop Leighton was said to compose his sermons.

Continue up the hill past more ochre coloured houses on Tanhouse Brae (once famous for shoemaking and the manufacture of iron griddles for cooking oatcakes) and onto Kirk Street that leads to the ancient ruins of Culross Abbey and adjacent church. The abbey founded in the 13th century by Malcolm, the 7th Earl of Fife, probably because St. Mungo is said to have been born here, is a place steeped in ancient history. The abbey was built on the ruins of St. Serf’s 6th century church. Although only a ruined relic of its former self, browsing the quiet grassy surrounds and ruins is worth climbing the steep roadway. The monks of the abbey were the first to mine the coal in the area and it was their mine that was later developed by Sir George Bruce after they had left. Within the church is the tomb of George Bruce and family and ancient relics from ancient and medieval times.

Picture perfect Culross - houses in Tanhouse Brae

For the more energetic, a path continues on from the abbey north and westwards to provide a circular route back to the village. The point of interest here is a ruined old Kirk (Church) called West Kirk with its old graveyard (another “Outlander” filming location). An eerie place however, surrounded by agricultural land it has been in ruins since before the 1600s and was the pre-reformation parish church for Culross. The ruins hold tombstones and references to past prominent people with some sinister engravings of the period. A quiet secluded place that presents its own air of uneasiness… Daly if you dare!

Continuation on the path past the West Kirk leads south again towards the village through woodland adjacent to the 18th century Dunimarle Castle. The castle is now under new ownership and is worth visiting to experience more of the local history and view the present castle / mansion house, the ruins of the previous medieval castle and the landscaped gardens with unenviable views over the River Forth.

Back in the village welcome local refreshments are available at local cafes’ Bessie’s within the “Palace” building or the Biscuit Café behind the Town House; and if preferred the historic Red Lion Inn on Low Causeway Side is a place to marvel at the interior décor of painted ceilings that illustrate some Scottish history replicating the ceilings seen in the “Palace”.

The Biscuit Cafe

Truly a village walking experience of intrigue and imaginative wonder.

Due to the current COVID-19 restrictions entry to the venues, The Palace, Town House, Danimarle Castle and The Study are either closed or restricted to visitors – Check directly with the attraction before you plan to visit.

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