The time capsule of Culross

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:39 am

Culross, Mercat Cross, OutlanderIt’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.

Culross, Palace, Town House, Firth of ForthFilm locations, OutlanderIt’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.

Town House, Culross, FifeTradition 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

Abbey refectory, Culross

Bruce Memorial, CulrossSir George BruceCulross 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.  There are rumours of hauntings at the anyway.  And a legend of a tunnel beneath the abbey, where a man in a golden chair sits waiting to give valuable treasures to anyone who succeeds in finding him.

Culross Parish Church

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.

The Lockit WellCulross Palace, visit FifeSo, 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.

Culross PalaceCulross Palace, the withdrawing roomCulross Palace - the painted chamberCulross Palace - the painted chamberBruce’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.

Culross Palace and gardenVisiting 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.

Mungo's Chapel, CulrossA curious stone structure sits by the village car park.  Looking like a truncated upturned boat, I believe it’s an ice house.

Ice House, CulrossNow practice saying ‘Coo-ris’, because that’s apparently how you pronounce ‘Culross’.  But I’m happy to be corrected.


46 thoughts on “The time capsule of Culross”

  1. When we were in Scotland in2017 we did make a stop there. It was brief. I think everything was closed so we went on to … I don’t remember now. I do remember seeing the palace with its bright orange/gold color.

  2. Super post, Mike. Really enjoyed reading about this amazing place and it’s history, which I’d never heard of before. I’m doing Scottish Medieval and Early Modern History this year, so this would fit in beautifully with my studies. I’d love to go there one day and see if for myself, so Culross – however you pronounce it (!) – is going on my list of ‘must do’s’. 🙂

  3. You really make your subject(s) come alive – and make me want to visit this beautiful village quite badly! Beautiful photos and very engagingly written text. Brilliant work (which is not exactly the proper word – work – is it?)! It’s clear you love what you do.

  4. Thank you for this educational visit to a wonderful part of Scotland that I will likely never see in person. So much human history represented in this town and in your post — from early industrialization to recent entertainment phenomena.

  5. An old favourite of ours, though we haven’t visited post-Outlander. I hope it’s not too overwhelmed by it. You are correct about the pronunciation, I was wondering if you were going to mention it! I’ve no idea why it’s pronounced that way.

  6. Another splendid post Mike. The ‘palace’ looks fabulous and I laughed at your comment “I half-expected to see glimpses of coffin, or worse, sticking out of the grass”.

    Can you rememberthe Morecombe & Wise ‘East Fife four Forfar five’ sketch?

  7. What a super place to visit….and the palace is just splendid.
    Sir George Bruce was quite the entrepreneur!
    Relieved – if that is the word – to know that while a time capsule the town does not echo to cries of ‘Gardyloo’

      1. Makes you wonder if before the ‘mission civilisatrice’ of the French in Scotland they threw out the contents of the guzunders without any warning…no wonder there were so many feuds if so!

  8. This looks like a lovely and intriguing little place, I’d love to explore its cobbled streets. Your second sentence reminds me of the old football score – East Fife four, so far Forfar five 🙂

  9. Not an area that I know. Very interesting, and so good to see that the authorities have not tried to modernise too much, although I dare say many locals have rued the fact over the years!

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