It’s become something of a cliché, to describe a place as ‘being frozen in time’, or similar. But in the case of Culross, a small village on the north bank of Firth of Forth in Fife (try saying that after too many sherbets), there’s an element of truth in the statement. Most of Culross manages to look like a small 17th century town – albeit, thank goodness, a sanitised version of one. The focal point is the ochre-coloured Culross Palace and its interesting terraced garden; but there is also a ruined medieval abbey alongside the parish church, a town house that was reputedly used as a witches’ prison and the pleasure of simply wandering round the old cobbled streets – or wheezing up and down its steep-stepped lanes, one of which rejoices in the name of Haggs Wynd. (It was previously known as ‘Stinking’ Wynd; well, I never.) Does anyone live in these cute houses with their crow-stepped gables and pretty, terracotta, roof tiles? They do; despite the fact that parked cars and wheelie bins look distinctly uncomfortable, this is a 21st century community. We know this for sure because one of the cottages disguises an electricity sub-station.
It’s not surprising that Culross, hunkered down in a fairly bland landscape a few miles east of Kincardine and just across the water from the twinkling lights of Grangemouth’s oil refinery, should find favour as a film location. It will be familiar to fans of the ‘Outlander’ series, in which it featured as the fictional village of Cranesmuir, where Geillis Duncan’s house was by the Mercat Cross and where she was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to burn. The Palace and its gardens also appeared in various episodes.
Tradition has it that Culross began life as a Christian community, founded by the obscure Saint Serf. The legendary St Kentigern (aka St Mungo, founder of Glasgow) is reputed to have been born here. ‘Tis said that Mungo’s mum was a princess, Teneu, (variations include Denw, Theneva, Thanea and Enoch, a derivative of St Teneu), daughter of King Lleuddun, (or Lot, or Loth, of Lothian). The pregnant Teneu was cast adrift in a coracle, having been seduced, or raped, by Owain mab Urien, King of Rheged. You can see how sure we are of this tale, can’t you? Anyway, the unfortunate girl came ashore at Culross, where she was befriended by the good St Serf and where Kentigern-Mungo arrived shortly afterwards. The ruins of a chapel can be found on the supposed site of his birth. More reliably, a Cistercian abbey was founded at Culross in the 13th century and the monks began mining coal. There was an iron industry too, and salt panning. Culross became a busy port. In 1575, Sir George Bruce, a descendant of Robert the Bruce, was granted the lease of the abbey’s collieries. Bruce was a trader, entrepreneur and something of an engineer. He built what is believed to be the first coal mine to extend under the sea, invented the means by which it could be kept drained and kept the salt panning profitable too. He was also the builder of Culross Palace, which is actually a first-rate period house rather than a palace. James VI visited and granted the burgh of Culross royal status – so as ‘the Royal Burgh of Culross’, it prospered. However, in 1625 a great storm destroyed the submarine coal mine. For a while, Culross maintained a thriving boot and shoe industry. But the industries declined and so did the town. The National Trust for Scotland acquired the palace in the 1930s and set about preserving and restoring it, as well as many of the town’s other buildings. It has done a fine job; the result is what we see today.
Culross Abbey was founded by Malcolm, earl of Fife in the early 13th century as a daughter house of the monastery at Kinloss. The abbey church was built soon after, with work continuing into the 1300s. The abbey had a reputation for producing fine books and manuscripts, but monastic life came to an end with the Reformation of 1560. The choir and presbytery of the abbey church were taken over as the parish church, but most of the abbey buildings fell into ruin and little is left now. It is fascinating, but not easy, to imagine the original layout. However, as a treat, you are offered the option to climb up a ladder to inspect a portion of the vaulted remains of the refectory. The church itself is cruciform and contains several items of particular interest. Probably the most impressive is the Bruce Vault, built in 1642, which houses the astonishing marble memorial to Sir George Bruce and his wife, Margaret together with their worryingly life-like effigies. The memorial includes eight kneeling statues, representing the couple’s children. They are miniature, but depicted as fully-grown adults, which is faintly unsettling. There are also the effigies of a knight in armour and a lady, John Stewart of Innermeath, Lord of Lorn, and his wife, dating from 1445 but badly defaced during the Reformation. Outside, the churchyard is one of the most undulating, or possibly disturbed, I have seen in a long time; I half-expected to see glimpses of coffin, or worse, sticking out of the grass.
Not far from the abbey, on a wall, is the unusual Lockit Well. I understand there’s a cistern behind the wall, fed by a stream further up the hill. You sticks your bucket under the pipe, pulls your lever and fills your bucket. When you’ve finished, the flow is ‘lockit’ by the leaver being in the closed position. The well was allegedly frequented by Serf & Co all those years ago, but I seriously doubt it was mechanised at the time.
So, Culross Palace is unlike any palace you’ve ever seen. It’s essentially a rich merchant’s house, one of the finest period domestic buildings in Scotland. George Bruce constructed it in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, often using materials, including timber and tiles, obtained through his trade with the Low Countries, Sweden and other ports along the Forth. The village’s pretty roof tiles are actually reputed to have been ballast salvaged from colliers returning from Holland. The palace is intriguing inside; it contains some outstanding original painted woodwork, including ceilings, as well as contemporary furnishings. The National Trust for Scotland has done a first-class preservation job and has also restored the unusual, possibly unique, terraced and sloping garden, which grows the kind of fruit, vegetables and herbs used in the early seventeenth century.
Bruce’s mines and salt works were the most technically advanced such enterprises in Scotland, if not the whole of Britain. He cleverly overcame the underwater mining problem by constructing an artificial island in the Forth and sinking a new mine shaft from that into the coal seam below the river bed, and used an Egyptian wheel to keep the mine drained. His salt works burned coal to evaporate sea water. James VI paid a visit in 1617 and was invited to inspect the submarine coal mine. The story goes that the King emerged at the top of the island shaft, found himself surrounded by water and, feeling a little alarmed, accused his host of attempted murder and treason. Sir George calmed His Majesty down and they took a boat back to shore.
Visiting the ruins of St Mungo’s Chapel is something that will only appeal to the real enthusiast. There is very little to see and, although on a main road, the place is easily missed. The chapel was built in 1503, in all likelihood on the foundations of an earlier church. It may well be the birth site of Kentigern-Mungo – we’ll never know. It is a simple, roofless, rectangle on an east-west orientation, with a partially stone-slabbed floor and a reconstructed stone altar. The eagle-eyed will spot the remains of a doorway, and stone rood screen (I didn’t). The chapel was excavated in 1926, when the remains of additional altars were found.
A curious stone structure sits by the village car park. Looking like a truncated upturned boat, I believe it’s an ice house.
Now practice saying ‘Coo-ris’, because that’s apparently how you pronounce ‘Culross’. But I’m happy to be corrected.