Exploring Dunfermline, Burntisland, and MacDuff's Castle in Augmented Reality
by David C. Weinczok
Heading for the Fife coast, I was aware that I was recreating the journey made by Alexander III on that fateful, stormy night in 1286, when somewhere between Burntisland and Kinghorn the King of Scots fell and kicked off the crisis that led to the Wars of Independence.
Luckily, things have come along a little since then. My steel steed, a bicycle strapped inside a train chugging over the Forth Bridge, was a little more stable than the ferry that Alexander crossed the Firth of Forth, then known as the Scottish Sea, in. It was also a sunny day, with temperatures nearly reaching twenty degrees - hardly the deluge that ill-fated Alexander faced. With my armour (face mask and hand gel) fitted, I landed on firm ground in Dunfermline to walk in the footsteps of kings.
My kingly mission was to visit three Fife locations with royal connections - Dunfermline Abbey and Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries, MacDuff's Castle, and Burntisland Waterfront - to explore their histories and test out the new additions to the In the Footsteps of Kings augmented reality (AR) app. This was round two for me, as one year ago I visited Aberdour Castle, Ravenscraig Castle, Lochore Castle, and Falkland Palace, a journey you can read about here.
Once the capital of Scotland, Dunfermline boasts an extraordinary array of historic attractions. I felt it apt to start in Pittencreiff Park, an area long used as a natural preserve where Scotland's kings, queens, saints, and soldiers could find take a break from the perils of their day. Beams of sun shone through high canopies, countless squirrels and birds filled the air with their squeaks and chirps, and little wonders appeared around every bend. It feels a place apart, and it is easy to imagine Queen Margaret finding some solace alongside the gentle burn that flows through it nearly a thousand years ago.
This is my favourite way to approach Dunfermline Abbey, a place of singular importance in Scotland's story. Here lay the remains of King David I, who invited Norman lords to Scotland with names like Fraser, Murray, and Bruce; Queen Margaret, later canonised as Saint Margaret, who brought Continental styles and faith to Scotland; and the skeleton of Robert Bruce, the hero-king, himself (his heart is at Melrose Abbey in the Borders).
The AR panel for Dunfermline Abbey is found within another treasure, the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries. A beautiful blend of traditional and modern styles, the award-winning design for the gallery is worth the visit to see in itself. Its museum sheds light on Fife life, with familiar faces adorning the walls and Dunfermline's history, ancient through modern, explored through impeccably presented exhibitions.
The museum gives perhaps the best view point for the Abbey in the whole town, and it's here that the AR app tasks you with digging up artefacts from Robert Bruce's life. Due to COVID-related delays they were just finishing prepping the panel when I visited, however you can use the app from home, too, so I got to digging once back in Edinburgh. Bruce may never have stopped at my flat, but it was fun to unearth his armour in my sitting room and quite terrifying to release a giant spider in the corridor!
A quick train journey and several miles of cycling brought me to MacDuff's Castle, a red sandstone tower perched eagle-like upon cliffs overlooking the Firth of Forth. For most people the mention of 'MacDuff' either evokes The Simpsons or Shakespeare, and there's definitely a solid connection to the latter.
MacDuff, of course, was the bane of the murderous King of Scots in Shakespeare's MacBeth. While the finer points of the historical inaccuracies of MacBeth could, and have, filled several books, there's no denying the central role of the MacDuffs in the political machinery of the Kingdom of Scotland. The MacDuffs were Thanes (equivalent to Earls) of Fife in the early days of the kingdom, and by tradition a MacDuff would place the crown on the head of any new king.
Using the AR app while standing in front of MacDuff's Castle, your task is to get Isabella MacDuff safely to Scone to place the crown on the head of Robert the Bruce. No pressure! I fared about as well as Bruce at the Battle of Methven (that is, pretty horribly) but younger gamers with quicker thumbs will surely do better by Isabella.
While at MacDuff's Castle, don't miss the Wemyss Caves. They are an extraordinary series of small caves adorned with the highest concentration of Pictish rock art anywhere in Scotland, with boats, birds, fish, crosses, and a proud bull gracing their walls. They have been rendered in 4D for you to digitally explore any time and anywhere you have data here.
Cycling straight from MacDuff's Castle, I descended into Burntisland as the sun dipped in the west. To be honest, I had assumed that the most exciting part of the day was behind me. This seemed the least 'tangible' of the three locations - a waterfront is no castle, after all. How wrong I was!
Turns out there was, in fact a castle, Rossend Castle just a few minutes' walk from the town centre and shore. Its eccentric gateway spans the narrow road leading to it, and with its bright white harling Rossend is incredibly distinct. Meanwhile at the waterfront, many people - individuals, families, all sorts - braved the evening chill and winds to play at the water's edge along a beautiful stretch of beach. A skate park was packed with kids trying out tricks, and it felt every bit the quintessential Scottish seaside town. I was chuffed.
The earliest records for Burntisland identify it as 'Wester Kinghorn', where a harbour owned by the monks of Dunfermline Abbey provided food for the laird of Rossend Castle. The town got its unusual name from a cluster of huts on a small island now linked to the mainland as part of the harbour. They fell prey to fire at some point before the 16th century, by which point a town called 'Brint-land' was recorded next to the harbour.
Given its maritime origins, it's only natural that the AR app takes to the seas. This was, for me, the most fun of all three virtual activities. Your job is to guard a chest of sunken treasure from the various beasties inhabiting the harbour's waters. It's a rapid-fire game that has you swirling about in all directions to identify the next tentacle coming your way. I fared much better this time around, and with mission accomplished I packed away the phone with a smile and caught the train back home to Edinburgh. A much more successful outing to Fife than Alexander III's, that's for sure!