Arriving in Culross is something of a surprise. The village looks across the River Forth to the petrochemical works at Grangemouth, and sits between the huge Longannet power station to the west and the derelict Low Valleyfield colliery and the disused salt pans of Preston Island to the east. In this industrial landscape the visitor following the brown tourist signs to Culross Palace and Abbey is probably not expecting anything very special from the village itself. Which is why what you find such a shock. Because in Culross you find the nearest thing to a 16th century time capsule anywhere in Scotland. It's as if much of the core of the village was simply frozen in time. This effect is no accident, and what you see today is in large measure the result of the work of the National Trust for Scotland over a period of more than seventy years.
Highlights include the 1597 Palace, restored to its original mustard yellow render and wooden shuttered condition. It was actually more the local landowner's hall and dwelling, and still has a range of accompanying outbuildings and a "hanging garden" with wicker fences leading up the slope behind. And on the hillside above the village are the remains of Culross Abbey. The 1626 Town House with its 1783 tower is also a showpiece. However, what really sets Culross apart as special is the way such a large part of the village is original, with narrow wynds (including the evocative and probably once descriptive "Stinking Wynd") and stunning buildings. Here you can begin to see what a 16th century village might really have looked like. The village had its origins in the twin forces of religion, at least until the Reformation, and coal mining. The abbey was founded in 1217 possibly because of the belief that this was the birth place of St Mungo and the site of an early church founded by St Serf. The monks later began to mine coal. After the Reformation much of the abbey fell into decay, though the abbey church still serves as the parish church.
In 1575 a unique new pit, the Moat Pit, was sunk by Sir George Bruce from an artificial island offshore in the River Forth, and kept drained by a continuous bucket system driven by water power from a dam on the hillside. The coal was exported directly and Culross was once a very busy port. The coal was also used to provide heat for the village's second main industry, its salt pans. In the 1590s Culross produced more salt than anywhere else in Scotland. The profits produced by this trade and by the mine were used by Sir George Bruce to finance the building of the Palace. By 1750 the boom had ended. The Moat pit was flooded and destroyed in a storm in 1625, and later the stone from the pier, crucial to the village's prosperity, was removed to help rebuild the port at Leith. The fortunes of the village subsided through the 1800s, leaving, by 1900, "a decayed royal burgh containing many old houses". By the 1930s the world started to realise how special Culross was, and the NTS has been working here ever since. In the centre of Culross is a memorial to one of it's most famous sons, Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, Scotland's most outstanding naval hero.
Sir George Bruce of Carnock (c. 1550 – 1625) was a Scottish merchant and engineer. He was born in Carnock, near Dunfermline. Bruce was an innovator in coal mining techniques, introducing undersea mining into the Upper Hirst seam with use of new drainage technology. These innovations attracted much interest, including a visit from King James VI in 1617. Sir George Bruce invited him to visit one of his mines which tunnelled down beneath the sea bed. James ventured into the tunnel which went far out into the Firth of Forth and found himself at a shaft point where the coal was loaded onto the ships. Alarmed to find himself surrounded by water at the top of the shaft, James accused Sir George of an attempt on his life and declared that the whole affair was an act of treason. It was only when George Bruce pointed out the rowing boat and explained that one could either use that or return by the tunnel from whence they came that James relaxed again - and took the option of the boat journey.
Bruce was a successful merchant who had a flourishing trade with other Forth ports, the Low Countries and Sweden. He had interests in coal mining and salt production. Many of the materials used in the construction of the palace were obtained during the course of Bruce's foreign trade. Baltic pine, red pantiles, and Dutch floor tiles and glass were all used. The exterior boasts the use of crow-stepped gables, including a statue of a veiled woman posing on the gable step. The palace features fine interiors, with decorative mural and ceiling painting, 17th and 18th century furniture and a fine collection of Staffordshire and Scottish pottery. Although never a royal residence, James VI visited the Palace in 1617. The palace is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland who have restored a model seventeenth-century garden, complete with raised beds, a covered walkway and crushed shell paths. The herbs, vegetables and fruit trees planted in the garden are types that were used in the early seventeenth century.
Culross offers a look into the past. You can wander the medieval streets and imagine the girdles being made, the coal mining, the salt panning and the hustle and bustle of a thriving 17th-century port on the River Forth. The palace garden is full of herbs, fruit and vegetables (available to buy in season), which visitors can roam round, hopefully also meeting their dumpy hens! By popular request, you will now find information cards in the garden. A photo will help to identify the plants, and, since all the plants in the garden were known and grown in the 17th century, some information is given on what they were used for during that period. The Town House was once the legal and commercial centre for the town - upstairs, the fine Georgian interior of the council chambers often houses exhibitions, whilst next door is the old courtroom. New for 2015, they have relocated their admissions and retail area to the ground floor of the Town House, along with a new rotating exhibition/tourist information space. The Study is where Bishop Leighton of Dunblane reputedly composed his sermons, and can offer a stunning view of the Forth. As you walk round the town, the ruins of St Mungo’s chapel can be seen, along with the abbey and the old monastery as well as the West Kirk. St Mungo was fostered in Culross and took a Pilgrimage across Scotland from East to West. Access to The Study and Town House first floor is by guided tour only. Tours last approx 45 minutes and are £2 per person (applies to members of the NTS also)
Parking is available in the West car park. There are drop-off points at the Palace and Town House. There are cobbled streets throughout the town. A disabled toilet is available. The Palace, Study and Town House are unsuitable for visitors with limited mobility due to uneven surfaces and spiral staircases. The garden is available with difficulty to wheelchair users. Braille and large-print guides of the Palace, Study and Town House are available. An audio tour is available. There is a subtitled video on the history of Culross. Explanatory text: Catalan, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Spanish. Guidebook: French, German. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Royal Burgh of Culross, Culross Palace, Culross, Fife KY12 8JH
Transport: Dunfermline (National Rail) then bus (8). Bus Routes : 8 stops in Culross
Opening Times Palace and Tours : 25th March to 31st October, click here for times
Tickets : Adults £10.50; Concessions £7.50
Tel. : 01383 880359