• Culross

    Scotland’s Best Preserved 17th Century Town

CULROSS

SCOTLAND’S BEST PRESERVED 17th CENTURY TOWN

Culross, a former Royal Burgh, is like nowhere else in Scotland. The town’s charming and quiet cobbled streets, along with its collection of unique, well preserved buildings make it a fascinating place to spend a few hours, or even a day. Sat on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, Culross (pronounced Coo-riss) has an interesting history. On one hand it’s familiar, mirroring other parts of Scotland and the British Isles in many ways. On the other hand however, it has its own story to tell. It was once a thriving port city with all the influences that brings, but, it’s perhaps the particular trading relationships and effect of certain people in the town’s history that has left the most lasting mark.

These days, thanks to the tireless work of National Trust Scotland, Culross is attracting visitors like never before. Of course, it helps that the town has been used as a filming location for many years, stretching from the British classic Kidnapped in  1971 to Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011. What’s truly turbo boosted those tourist numbers though is the hit TV series Outlander. Culross has been used for filming several times since the show premiered in 2014.

On a personal level, Culross holds fond childhood memories for one half of Going The Whole Hogg. While I (Del) had never stepped foot in the place until our recent visit, Kim’s mum used to teach French once a week at Inchkeith School. The small independent primary school was housed in the large 18th/19th century Balgownie House, but due to financial troubles, it closed in 2003. Kim however, still remembers going along with her mum on school holidays. To her, Culross seemed like a magical place.

HISTORY OF CULROSS

The Early Days

Tradition holds that Culross was founded in the 6th century by Saint Serf. Many legends swirl around this figure, including one in which he cared for an outcast princess, becoming foster father to her son, Saint Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow. Whatever the truth behind the legends are, they add a colourful touch to the town’s history.

Religion

Fast forward to the 13th century and we see the building of Culross Abbey, a Cistercian church founded by the Earl of Fife. Theories abound regarding the choice of Culross for the abbey, perhaps because it was the birthplace of Saint Mungo. The abbey was also built on the remains of an earlier Pictish church, thought to be founded by Saint Serf himself. After the reformation in the 16th century, much of the abbey fell into ruin. Today the ruins are cared for by Historic Environment Scotland, while the abbey church itself is still functioning as the parish church.

Culross Abbey Church stands behind the remains of the monastery, bathed in golden light from the afternoon sun.

A position at the far end of the grounds affords you a great view of the undamaged and still functioning abbey church


Industrial Development

As Culross moved forward through the 16th and 17th centuries, the town became a hive of industrial activity. Indeed, it was the centre of the Scottish coal mining industry at this time, and one man was at the heart of it all – Sir George Bruce of Carnock. He established a coal mine at Culross in 1575 and in 1595, built a revolutionary shaft known as the ‘Moat Pit’. It was the first coal mine in the world to  reach out under the sea. With clever mechanisms to drain leaking sea water from above, it was considered a modern wonder until destroyed by a storm in 1625.

In addition to coal, salt panning was also a thriving industry along the banks of the River Forth. At one point, powered by heat from coal, Culross produced more salt than anywhere else in Scotland. It was the profits from these industries that Sir George Bruce put into the construction of his mansion – the building that became known as the Culross Palace.

The distinctive mustard yellow Culross Palace seen from the main square

The unmistakeable mustard yellow walls of the Culross Palace


As a busy port at this time, the export trade by sea had a knock-on effect on how the look of Culross developed. Much of the trade in coal and salt was with the Low Countries – modern day Belgium and the Netherlands. Ships would often return to Culross using Dutch roof tiles as ballast, and it was those red tiles that helped give the town its distinctive appearance.

The Decline

The town’s good fortune didn’t last. Its role as a port declined in the 18th century, with stone from the pier being removed to help rebuild the port at Leith. In the 1800s, the harbour was filled in and the town cut off from the sea by the railway line. Regarded as a place of decay with nothing but old buildings, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the unique heritage of Culross was recognised for what it was. Since then, the National Trust for Scotland has been working to restore the town to its former glory.

What remains of the old pier at Culross. People are encouraged to add stones themselves to help with the eventual reconstruction.

All that remains today of the old stone pier


CULROSS TODAY

While Culross has some iconic buildings that serve as landmarks around the town, they don’t exist in isolation. What makes it such a special place are the streets, lanes and houses that link the more notable buildings together. With its whitewashed walls, red tiled roofs and crow-stepped gables, Culross is a real pleasure to walk through. Revived and now well cared for, it’s easy to picture the town 400 years ago.

A single figure walks in the distance up the curving lane that is Tanhouse Brae in Culross.

Mercat Cross in Culross, where people came to buy and sell goods. The tall coulmn and statue occupies the centre of the cobbled square with traditional whitewashed houses all around

Culross Palace

That said, certain buildings do catch the eye and draw special attention. The aforementioned Culross Palace, with its mustard walls and wooden shutters, is chief among them. The National Trust for Scotland has done an amazing job restoring the grand house to its original condition. It’s possible to enter from April to September. Inside you can wander the narrow hallways, looking on decorative murals, ceiling paintings, period furniture and a collection of pottery. Climbing the hill behind is the restored 17th century garden, where even the herbs, fruits and vegetables growing are faithful to the period. Outlander fans may recognise it as Claire’s herb garden at Castle Leoch.

The view from behind Culross Palace, from the path behind the hanging gardens at dusk. The Firth of Forth and the south bank can be seen over the rooftops.

The view over the Firth of Forth, Culross Palace and the hanging garden

Around The Town

Across the main square is the Culross Town House, easily identified by its distinctive clock tower. Formerly both courthouse and prison, today it often features photography and art exhibitions. 

Culross Town House with its prominent clock and bell tower

Back Causeway, leading from the main square to the Mercat Cross. The old street sign is shining in the late sun.

Wandering up the Back Causeway, you find yourself at the Mercat Cross. Above rises The Study, a restored 17th century house, named after the room at the top of the corbelled projecting tower. It’s from here that Claire and Gellis Duncan looked out on the fictional village of Cranesmuir in the first series of Outlander.

The Study, a restored 17th century townhouse rises to the right as the sun descends behind.

The tower of The Study rises to the right


Leaving Mercat Cross behind the path takes you up Tanhouse Brae, a steep and curving road lined with houses a tad more colourful. Indeed, it’s easy to see where the street gets its name.

The colourful houses of Tanhouse Brae bathed in golden light from the late afternoon sun, seen from the Mercat Cross

A tan coloured house front with a pale green door and white crossed window frames on Tanhouse Brae

Culross Abbey Church

After winding your way round the steep streets, past rows of charming houses and attractive doors, you eventually come to Culross Abbey. The ruins are a fascinating place to wander, with many original 13th century features to inspect.

Inspecting the remains of Culross Abbey. A figure in mustard coat and orange hat climbs a metal staircase into the ruins of the abbey.

Looking out from the ruins of Culross Abbey

Looking up at the medieval fluted ceiling of Culross Abbey

Backtrack to the street and continue round to enter the church and experience the impressive architecture and quiet atmosphere inside. Particularly impressive is the monumental tomb of Sir George Bruce of Carnock in the north transept.

Carvings of Sir George Bruce and his wife are a prominent feature of the huge tomb in Culross Abbey Church

Detailed stained glass window in the centre of Culross Abbey Church

The kneeling statues of Sir George Bruce of Carnock's eight children in the north transept of Culross Abbey Church

Still More To See

After visiting the abbey church, you could follow the path to the west, dropping down behind the hanging gardens of Culross Palace. Or if you fancy a longer walk instead, continue past the palace and out to the ruined West Kirk. Not in the mood for a long walk? There’s no end of doors, windows and walls to hold your attention.

A distinctive house frontage in Culross, whitewashed walls, red roof tiles and a pale blue door

A typical example of a Culross house: whitewashed walls, wooden door, stone window frames and red roof tiles.

Window detail on a traditional Culross house

REFRESHMENTS

After all the walking you’ll be in need of coffee and cake, or maybe even something stronger. Down on the main square next to Culross Palace, Bessie’s Cafe is a good option. This cozy place is run by the National Trust for Scotland and their scones come highly recommended. At the Mercat Cross, the charming Admiral Cafe is the perfect place to stop if you fancy something more substantial. They have plenty of vegetarian and vegan friendly options too. If you’re in the mood for a proper hearty meal instead, and maybe even a pint or glass of wine, head on into the Red Lion Inn on the Low Causeway.

ACCOMMODATION

There are plenty of options in nearby towns such as Dunfermline and Kincardine. Otherwise, if you are staying in Edinburgh, Culross is an easy day trip from the capital. It’s not too far from Glasgow either.

SEARCH ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS BELOW

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GETTING THERE

Culross is in Fife,  22 miles north-west of Edinburgh and 31 miles east of Glasgow.

Car

From Edinburgh: Take the M90 north over the Queensferry Crossing and leave at junction 1. Take the A985 towards Kincardine and follow the brown signs for Historic Culross.

From Glasgow: Take the M80 north. Merge onto the M876 and cross the Kincardine Bridge. Turn right on to the A985.

Bus and Train

A combination of buses will get you to Culross from anywhere in Scotland but the nearest train station is Dunfermline, 10 miles away. For up to date bus and train information check Traveline Scotland.

Walking

Culross is on the Fife Coastal Path, which stretches all the way from Kincardine to Newburgh. Passing St. Andrews and many other towns and villages on the way, the walking trail follows beautiful coastline with numerous points of historical interest. If you start at the entrance to the Fife Coastal Path, next to the Kincardine Bridge, the journey to Culross is about 4 miles (6.5km). Or if you’re coming from the other direction, it’s around 7.5 miles (12km) from Limekilns (another Outlander hotspot).

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A Short Guide to Culross, Scotland

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We hope you enjoyed our little tour around Culross. Hopefully it’s inspired you to visit some time soon. Maybe you’ve already been? If so, let us know your Culross favourites in the comments below.

2 replies
  1. Zachary Stafford
    Zachary Stafford says:

    I was worried that this would be far from us in Dunblane where we are house sitting until May, but it’s not! Quite close in fact. Looks totally worth a day trip. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Going the Whole Hogg
      Going the Whole Hogg says:

      Oh fantastic! Yeah, it’s a gorgeous wee town and worth the trip for sure. Dunblane is a pretty great base to be honest, close to loads of outdoor activities and the big cities. Can also recommend checking out the old fishing villages along the Fife Coastal Path in the East Neuk – the section between Elie, St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther and Crail is stunning. Will get round to writing a blog post soon!

      Reply

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A photography tour and brief history of Culross, highlighting the whitewashed walls, red-tiled roofs and crow-stepped gables that give the town its unmistakeable look. Culross is Scotland\'s best preserved 17th century town and has been used extensively as a filming location for hit TV series Outlander. #Scotland #VisitScotland #Outlander
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