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AN INTRUIGING PART OF SCOTLAND'S STORY
Some years ago, I went to live in Culross, a pretty village on the Forth estuary, a few miles from Kincardine. Its white-harled cottages with red pantiled roofs line the cobbled causeways leading uphill to an ancient abbey. It is a delightful place to live, with low rainfall, mild winters and a record of above-average sunshine. I soon learned that Culross had not always been a tranquil backwater. It has a long and turbulent history stretching back to the 6th century.
legend has it that in 507, a pregnant Pictish princess was cast up on Cuross beach. She had been cast adrift in a coracle by her furious father, King Loth of the Lothians, for the 'crime' of eloping to marry a Christian prince instead of accepting an arranged marriage.
Her baby, Mungo, was born soon after Princess Thenew's arrival and the child was raised by the local Culdee monks. When he reached manhood, Mungo travelled west to found Glasgow.
I discovered that the abbey at the top of the village was founded in 1217 by the Cistercian order. It was a centre of worship and also provided education, health care and hospitality for travellers right up till the Reformation in 1560.
The sea fron in Culross is quiet today and its promenade forms part of the Fife Coastal Path, but in the 16th century, it had a bustling harbour for up to 200 sailing ships trading with Europe. We exported salt, coal and wool and got back pantiles.
Most of this industry was down to one man - the entrepreneurial Sir George Bruce (1550 - 1625). At a time when other mine-owners were scratching the surface for coal, Sir George drove mine shafts down to a depth of 200 feet and even had galleries running out under the sea. He personally invented machinery to keep his mines dry and ventilated. Since Culross harbour was so tidal, Sir George built an air shaft-cum loading dock a mile out in the estuary.
What with his salt pans and coal mines, Sir George became rich and built his palace on the shore - a building with fine painted walls and ceilings, grand enough to entertain King James VI himself. The Palace and its gardens have been beautifully restored by the National Trust for Scotland and may be visited today. Sir Georges' white alabaster effigy can be seen up in the abbey, lying alongside that of his wife. Their eight children are kneeling in prayer at their feet.
Not all Culross history is sweetness and light. It was notorious for the persecution of 'witches'. The unfortunate women were housed in the abbey tower or the Town House attics before their trial and execution. Local inhabitants tell a gory story. One 'witch' squeezed herself out of a tint attic window in the Town House and fell to the cobbles below, no doubt hoping to kill herself and avoid the flames. Alas, she survived the fall with so many broken bones she had to be carried to the place of execution in a chair.
In 1622, the plague arrived in Culross. There is a gap of several months in the the parish records, then a shaky, unscholarly hand writes, 'The plague lies heavy on oor toon'.
Culross has had other notable inhabitants. A bust of Admiral Cochrane stands outside the Palace. He is notable as founder of the Chilean Navy. There is also Stewart McPherson, a soldier who was awarded the Victoria Cross at the Siege of
Lucknow in 1857. He has a memorial in the kirk yard.
For its size, this tiny Royal Burgh has a lot to contribute to Scotland's story.