What could be so curious about a small village on the southwest coast of Fife in Scotland? For a start, if you ask directions, you’ll need to know what to ask for…Kooriss, to be exact! Just a dozen or so miles west of the iconic Forth rail and road bridges, you’ll find this fascinating site. Its winding lanes have seen so much history that it is worth stepping back in time…
Cast your mind back to the 6th century and you might see an exhausted lass drift ashore in a coracle. Monks carry the heavily pregnant woman up to a hut where she later births a son. Where has she come from, this poor battered soul?
Legend tells she survived a sentence of death: her Pictish father, Loth, king of the Goddodins, had her flung from the ramparts of his fort on the towering mound of Traprain Law. Thwarted by her survival, but relentless in his anger over her choice of a lover, he had the Princess Thenew cast adrift, swirled by the currents of the fast-flowing waters away from her home (now East Lothian). A curious tale indeed – for the abbot (St Serf) of the Culdee monastery personally oversaw the upbringing of the lad: Kentigern, as he was then known, later became Mungo, Glasgow’s patron saint.
That Culross holds the remains of an abbey is no great surprise. When David I invited French monasteries and their monks to Scotland, the Cistercians put down strong roots – after the demise of the Celtic Culdees. Later in 1218, Malcolm VI, earl of Fife, provided the financial support for the abbey’s construction – as did many nobles seeking redemption, and priests who would pray for the souls of the departed. High on the slopes overlooking the village, the earl is thought to rest amongst the ruins but his exact location remains a mystery.
But this site was not all about prayers or redemption; in 1322, Robert the Bruce rested his army here, evading an English host. From his vantage point, King Robert would have seen the haze of fires created by his order – necessity demanded a ‘burnt earth’ policy to keep Scotland’s warlike neighbours at bay. On this occasion, Edward II’s army burnt the great abbeys of the south, and even Holyrood in Edinburgh. Naught but a skinny cow could be found, and the disease-ridden soldiers soon departed Scottish soil.
Our journey takes us into the 17th century and the peculiar tale of the Moat Pit. Another Bruce, another time…
Sir George Bruce, a noted merchant and engineer, obtained the lease of a disused colliery and brought it back into production by some inventive draining equipment. Inspired by an Egyptian method for draining deep wells which he had read about, our intrepid Scots inventor experimented successfully with a pulley system of 18 buckets. Additionally, a tunnel was dug out under the sea and the coal raised to the surface via an ingenious Moat Pit whereby the shaft was encased in a circular wall which rose above the water.
A favourite story of mine concerns a visit by King James VI of Scotland (aka James I of England). Intrigued by these miraculous goings-on, he was invited to visit this foremost technology. And remember we’re talking the early 1600s here… it was pretty spectacular stuff for the times.
Out the king strode into the tunnel. Until he came to a shaft which took him up through the Moat Pit. Terrified by the sight of the sea surrounding him, he declared the visit a treasonous act to kill him. George must have offered a most urgent reassurance whilst pointing out a rowing boat, by which the men returned to the safety of the shore. This was a time when witchcraft was very much in the news and treasonous actions brought death by execution. I’m not sure who might have been more relieved the king or the engineer!
Earlier, Sir George had convinced the king to grant Culross the rights of a Royal Burgh and the commercial interests of coal mining and the sale of salt from his forty four salt pans (across Scotland, England and Germany) meant this relatively small Fife town was awash with wealth. The streets were neatly cobbled, lined with pantiled houses constructed in a style reminiscent of the town’s trading partners from the Low Countries. The soft curving lines of the buildings, with walls – whitewashed or painted in oxblood pink or mustard yellow, make Culross a pleasure to visit. Indeed Sir George built himself a mansion which is now managed by the National Trust. The 17th century garden recreated on the slopes behind the ‘palace’, overflowing with flowers, herbs and vegetables, is a superb place from which to gaze over the village and beyond to the Forth.
In 1625, a catastrophic storm ended the fortunes of the colliery and the Moat Pit, and George died soon after in his sleep. However, it was not the end of coal mining attempts in the area: on nearby Preston Island, coal was mined until a fire exploded in the mine killing many workers.Great wealth was built on the backs of the local people and they often suffered from the poor working and safety conditions of the time.
If you wander up the hill, past another secluded walled garden – cheered on by the daffodils – you will find the remains of the abbey and a sturdy, post-Reformation Protestant church. Tucked out the back, in a separate aisle, your eyes will alight upon one of history’s ecclesiastical treasures. Before the Bruce family tomb where George and his beloved rest, their adult children – all eight of them – kneel, in miniature. I find it unnerving and moving and curious all at the same time.
I wonder if Sir George’s nephew, Edward Bruce, who died in a duel in 1613, might also be buried in the family tomb.
One snippet which piqued my interest relates to a local lad who advanced his way through the English navy fighting in the Napoleonic wars. He gained the nickname of ‘Sea Wolf” but his later career was damaged when he was convicted of stock market fraud in 1814. Undeterred he accepted an invitation to become the the head of Chile’s navy. That he introduced many reforms may add some support to the claim that he was innocent of the fraud charges. Reputedly, the characters, Hornblower in CS Forester’s books and Captain Jack Aubrey from the “Master and Commander” series are based on Admiral Cochrane’s adventures. Another curious tale from Culross!
Have I enticed you to wander the lanes of this secluded little village? On a sunny day with a fresh breeze blowing from the sea might be best….night time might get a little busy.
Oh and …Culross Pottery and the courtyard garden cafe… a heavenly place to take a break!