Friday, December 8, 2017

Culross - The Burgh That Time Forgot

by Annie Whitehead

Culross, on the Fife Coast in Scotland, is familiar to some as one of the locations for the hugely popular series, Outlander. This is because, oddly, it looks as if it has never aged and does, indeed, look more like a film set than a working town. It's a complicated story...

Culross (pronounced koo-ross) sits nestled on the banks of the Firth of Forth, on the east coast of Scotland, in the ancient kingdom of Fife. It's been used as a location for Kidnapped (1971), starring Michael Caine, The Little Vampire (2000) starring Richard E Grant, The 39 Steps (2008), starring Rupert Penry-Jones and Captain America (2011) starring Chris Evans, as well as the above-mentioned Outlander, starring Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan and based on the books by Diana Gabaldon. The painted cottages, and the immaculate cobbled streets, present a picture of a town seemingly unchanged, as if fixed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

But its roots go back to the sixth century, when it was a religious centre, founded by St Serf.  The story goes that St Serf came across a young woman on the seashore with her newly-born son. She and her baby had been cast out in a boat by her father in the hope that mother and child would drown. The child was Kentigern, who in time became Serf's pupil. Kentigern travelled and eventually settled in what became Glasgow, where the cathedral is dedicated to him, using his more familiar name of Mungo. There are the remains of a chapel dedicated to St Mungo in Culross, too, founded in 1503.

It was the monks who first began mining the area, and it was mining which was to become the key to the prosperity of Culross. With plenty of coal, and the Firth of Forth acting as a watery highway, trade was easy and profitable. Such was the reputation of Culross and its mining industry that the Culross Chalder (a chalder being an old Scottish measure) became the standard Scottish measure for weighing coal.

Coal mining was not the only industry, though, and salt panning gave rise to stories of Culross being a smoky town, due to the sea water being run into large, shallow pans, and then evaporated by fires made from the burning of inferior coal. With up to 50 salt pans in the area, its reputation for being a smoky place seems justified.

There was also a healthy iron industry, by which the legend grew up, that the ironsmiths of Culross invented the iron 'girdle' for Robert I (the Bruce), who is reported to have ordered soldiers camped near the town to be supplied with iron plates for toasting their oatcakes.

In 1575, Sir George Bruce, a descendant of Robert the Bruce, was granted the lease of the abbey's collieries. He was more than simply a rich man; he was responsible for many innovations, including the 'Egyptian Wheel', turned by horses and operating thirty-six buckets on a chain to drain the mine. Sir George made it possible for men to work at a depth of 240 ft, compared with the 30 ft managed by the monks. It was recorded that while the miners were digging the coal, hundreds of ships were sailing over their heads.

James VI visited the mine, and was a guest at Sir George's fine new house, which he called 'the Palace'. James was so impressed*, he granted the burgh royal status. As a Royal Burgh, Culross could take part in lucrative import and export trade. The town was made.

The 'Palace'

But in 1625, a great storm damaged the under-sea mine workings, and shortly afterwards, Sir George died. Over the next two hundred years, the town's industries slowly died, too. After the flooding and the collapse of the mining industry, the focus shifted to the manufacture of boots and shoes, and there is still a building in the town called the Tanhouse. The boots and shoes were exported to the American colonies, but after the revolution/war of independence in 1776, this industry also had its fate sealed. A new foundry in Falkirk, producing cheap cast-iron, removed the market for Culross's more labour-intensive and more expensive wrought-iron. The town began to fade and fail.

But in the 1930s, the Palace was bought by the National Trust for Scotland, which went on, in association with its Little Houses Improvement Scheme, to purchase and renovate many of the town's buildings, so that although the place looks a little like a museum, it remains a fully functioning, working town.

The remains of the abbey, founded in 1217, can still be seen in the grounds of the current abbey, and the Mercat Cross, dating from 1588, is still on show, although only the base is original.

The Townhouse has had a number of uses. It was a tollbooth for many years, witches - or rather, women accused of being witches - were kept imprisoned here, and the building was also used as a meeting place for the town council. An exhibition inside the Townhouse shows photographs of the houses when they were dilapidated and in danger of collapse.

The National Trust for Scotland's renovation project has rebuilt the town and in so doing, has captured a snapshot of the seventeenth century, one which can be enjoyed by those interested in history, and which would otherwise have been destroyed if the town, like so many others in Britain, had simply been rebuilt and the houses replaced with newer buildings.

*Initially, James' visit did not auger well for the town. Taken on a tour of the mine, he emerged at the seaward end and, finding himself surrounded by water, began to panic. Shouting 'Treason!', he had to be hurriedly reassured that all was well, that this was a fact of this kind of mining, and that his life was not in danger, nor any harm meant to his royal person.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
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  1. Never knew it had been used as a film location, but then it has been a few years since we visited - lived in several places in Fife and visited Culross many times

    1. I knew only that it had been a location for Outlander, so I was interested to learn about the others. I spent five days in Fife and it wasn't nearly long enough - it has an abundance of my two favourite things: history, and magnificent coastline :-)

    2. Very interesting! This will go on my list of places I want to visit. Thank you for the fascinating post.

    3. Thanks Lauren - glad you enjoyed it!

  2. We visited this beautiful village last year and it was one of the highlights of our trip to England. Thanks so much for this informative post on its history.

    1. Marilyn, you may need to be prepared for shrieks of outrage from Scottish readers of your post! This isn't in England - it's in Scotland, another country altogether! If you'd said Britain, now...

    2. Thanks Marilyn - I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, and as you've visited Culross, you'll know exactly why I was so enchanted by it.

    3. Hi Abbeybufo, I'm sure it was an honest typing mistake and Marilyn is aware of the differences, especially after having visited Scotland.

  3. I visited Culross in 2014. It was part of a tour I took and I wasn't sure I would like it. Well, I was totally wrong. This place is stunning. It was like taking a walk back in time. I loved the Mercat Cross!

    1. I know what you mean Susan - a lot of people told us not to bother going, but I'm so glad we did. It was a real treat.