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