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Dunfermline Abbey

A brief history of Dunfermline

A visitor cannot spend ten minutes in Dunfermline without gravitating to the history soaked walls of the old Abbey Church and becoming chastened and subdued by the contact. With its rich background teaching the lessons of history, its own thrust and energy creating a prosperity more marked than that of its neighbours, in surroundings of great natural beauty providing further evidence of an especially favoured community, Dunfermline, ancient seat of the kings of Scotland, might very easily have remained so.

Instead, the very reverse happened. To understand the present it is often necessary to survey the past it would appear that Dunfermline had its rise in the beginning or towards the middle of the 11th century, originating with Malcolm Canmore, who returned from 17 years of exile to win the throne of his father from the usurper Macbeth. Its genesis was as a small fort built on a peninsular mount in Pittencrief Glen and called, as its name would indicate, the fort of the crooked rivulet. Two stimulating events influenced Dunfermline's growth and development. One was the erection of a religious house near the village which had already sprung up around Malcolm's castle. The other, and perhaps the more significant, was the marriage in 1070 of Malcolm with Margaret, the sister of Edgar Atheling, the unfortunate Anglo-Saxon prince who was dethroned and had his kingdom seized by William the Conqueror.

This union linking the royal lines of Scotland, England and Hungary took place at a time when, far to the south, Westminster Abbey was raising itself in strength, beauty and elegance. Queen Margaret, accepting her shipwreck in the Firth of Forth as an act of Providence, set her hand and mind to the shaping of a nation which would emerge from a semi- savage state and have for its heart the Church. She bore to her grim and rough-hewn husband six sons and two daughters, and in a tiny room high on Edinburgh Rock she died only four days after her spouse and Edward, her eldest son, heir to the throne, were killed in a battle at Alnwick. The building of the Abbey Church, which was designed to be ' the largest and fairest in the land,' was commenced in l072.

The people of Dunfermline have no cause to be grateful to the memory of Edward I of England. ' The Hammer of the Scots ' was more than once in residence at the Palace which stood adjacent to the Abbey and which, according to one recorder, Matthew of Westminster, could have accommodated three kings and their retinues. He rested there on his way south with the Stone of Destiny from Scone, and the Last occasion of his unwelcome royal patronage was in 1303. Scotland could well have done without it. After wintering in the north the Court moved out the following spring, and the last of the invaders had not embarked on the Forth before flames were roaring to the heavens, engulfing the labour of centuries. Edward himself gave the order for this final, cruel vandalism of Dunfermline. Yet the task of reconstruction was not long delayed, and the Scottish royal household were installed within its walls again by 1323, in which year David, the son of Robert the Bruce, was born.

Dunfermline and Scotland's patriot warrior king will be forever bound together. After Bannockburn, the Bruce lived in the Palace while he took the healing waters at Scotlandwell. He was a victim of the dreaded scourge of leprosy, and died from the disease at Cardross, Dumbarton. His tomb of marble, made in Paris, was placed in the royal sepulchre, and, nearly five centuries later, on a February day in 1808, it was rediscovered under dramatic circumstances by a labourer. It bore the inscription;

"Here lies the invincible Robert, Blessed King. Let him who reads his exploits repeat how many wars he carried on. He led the Kingdom of the Scots to Freedom by his Uprightness. Now let him live in the Citadel of the Heavens."

By the marriage settlement of James VI and Anne of Denmark the Palace of Dunfermline was presented to the new Queen as a morrowing gift on the day after the wedding at Upslo in Norway. Her feu-duty was the payment of one silver penny at the feast of Whitsuntide every year. By the gift Her Majesty became Lady of Dunfermline and possessor of all the ' principal mansions, biggings, castles, towers, fortalices and manor places within Her Ladyship.' The Abbey Church was attacked by the reformers in March 1560, but they spared the nave, which served Dunfermline as the Parish Church until the 19th century. It now forms the vestibule of the perpendicular style church which was built in 1821. The most recent addition is the beautiful memorial chapel dedicated in May 1952 to those who died in the Second World War. One visible link with James and his Danish Queen may be observed in the new Abbey Church. This is the front of the royal pew recovered from the older church and bearing the initials of James and Anne. The pew is on the site of the pre-Reformation choir of the church.

Elizabeth, who became Queen of Bohemia and the direct ancestor of the present royal line, was born in the Palace in 1596, and three years later Charles I was born there. Charles II was the last sovereign to reside in the Palace, and his signing of the National Covenant was the finale to the notable events within its walls. This followed the bloody battle of Pitreavie. In that clash between the forces of Charles and Cromwell on a disastrous Sunday in July 1651 nearly 2,000 Royalists were killed, many wounded and 500 prisoners taken. For three days the Pinkerton Burn ran red with blood and wailing women scoured the field seeking their dead or dying menfolk This was the last Covenanting struggle on Scottish soil, and the end of 600 years of residence by Scottish kings in Dunfermline Palace.

The industry which took the place of royal Courts as the basis of community life, had early origins. First to wrench the ' black diamonds ' from Scottish coal fields were almost certainly the monks of Dunfermline and first mention of linen weaving in the burgh was made in 1491. But cloth had been fashioned four centuries before that date. Queen Margaret instituted the embroidery circle, and it may well have been that Abbey priests constructed the first crude hand-weaving loom after seeing the cloth brought to the Court by French and Flemish merchants. By 1828, 1,700 looms were whirring and clacking in the burgh, and in 1845 there were 3,000 hand-looms.

Great personalities have been thrown up at almost every stage of Dunfermline's development. The Rev. Ralph Erskine, the famous Secessionist minister of the early 18th century, at 27 years of age assumed the task, with a senior colleague, of revivifying the ecclesiastic life of the Abbey. Church matters had suffered five years of neglect. Within two years communions were being attended by 4,000 to 5,000 church members, Christian fellowships nourished, and Dunfermline was even subscribing to the sending of missions to the Highlands and America. Erskine's published sermons, poems and essays were among the best-sellers of his time.
Then there was Robert Henryson, the ' poet-schulemaister ' of Dunfermline, who midway through the 15th century wrote Aesop's Fables. Robert Gilfillan was also born and employed in Dunfermline. He died at Leith in 1850.

Andrew Carnegie is to Dunfermline what Burns is to Ayr or Shakespeare to Stratford-on-Avon. His legacy to his beloved birthplace is in music and parks, books and building community welfare and baths, Rowers and art. He was born in the living-room attic of the cottage at the corner of Moodie Street and Priory Lane on 25th November 1835, son of a handloom weaver, and he died in America in 1919. He expounded a new philosophy of wealth, and he was tremendously sincere when he wrote: ' Fortunate in my ancestors, I was supremely so in my birthplace.'

If you would like to visit this area as part of a highly personalized small group tour of my native Scotland please e-mail me:

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