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Travel: Dunfermline, a new but also ancient city

27 January 2023

Robin McKelvie explores Scotland’s historic capital

Robin McKelvie

The New Abbey Church of Dunfermline Abbey and the buttresses of the old half of Dunfermline Abbey (two halves of one ecclesiastical building), with the ruins of Dunfermline Palace on the left

The New Abbey Church of Dunfermline Abbey and the buttresses of the old half of Dunfermline Abbey (two halves of one ecclesiastical building), with th...

WHEN King Charles III rolled into Dunfermline last autumn, to proclaim it Scotland’s newest city, it was the royal icing on a richly layered historic cake.

But standing in Dunfermline Abbey’s New Abbey Church, by the elaborate tomb of Robert the Bruce — who seized the Scottish crown in 1306 — with the church custodian Willie Donaldson, I find that he feels that King Charles was a touch tardy in his proclamations. “Dunfermline may have not been a city officially, but this is Scotland’s ancient capital: the Bruce, Queen Margaret, and Charles I were all born here,” he says.

Dunfermline’s new status comes to a location that has never really been on the mainstream tourist map, but is certainly no newcomer. People have eked out a living in settlements around Dunfermline, on a bluff overlooking the banks of the Firth of Forth, since Neolithic times. And, under Malcolm III (also known as Malcolm Canmore), King of Scotland 1058-93, Dunfermline became the burial place of Scottish monarchs, and the seat of royal power. It is thought that no fewer than 21 royals are buried in the old part of Dunfermline Abbey.

But the city award is timely. Proud locals are keen to tell me that Dunfermline has been burgeoning as Scotland’s fastest growing town.

Next door to Dunfermline Abbey’s New Abbey Church, I spend another hour wrapped up in the oldest half of the Abbey (the buildings are separate but joined; there is an internal door between the two). It is 12th-century riot of Gothic glory that echoes Durham Cathedral (some of the same stonemasons were employed here),and I walk by a panoply of entombed Scottish monarchs, dwarfed beneath a spectacular swath of stained-glass windows in the cavernous nave.

While Dunfermline Abbey is truly one of the most dramatic churches in Scotland, it was one figure who cemented Dunfermline’s religious importance: Malcolm Canmore’s second wife, Queen Margaret, Scotland’s only female saint. The Abbey lies on the site of the priory that St Margaret nourished here. She also instigated the “Queensferry”, across the Forth, for pilgrims to St Andrews.

istock The Robert the Bruce burial site inside Dunfermline Abbey’s New Abbey Church

I leave the Abbey for the imposing ruins of Dunfermline Palace — now cared for by Historic Environment Scotland. The palace was an oasis of vast riches until Charles’s father, James VI of Scotland, shipped the court off to London, in 1603, when he became James I of England.

Just below the palace lies the 65-mile-long Fife Pilgrim Way, opened in 2019, which runs from Culross through to Dunfermline, and as far as St Andrews.

Scotland’s newest long-distance walk was one of medieval Europe’s most traversed pilgrimage routes, as pilgrims paid their tributes to St Andrew the disciple. St Margaret’s shrine (outside the New Abbey Church) was also said to be the site of many miracles, and several Scottish queens are said to have worn her shirt for protection in labour. The Fife Pilgrim Way weaves together a slew of other churches and chapels on its way north-east.

Instead, though, I follow the trail of the other central influence forging how Dunfermline came to look how it does today. It is not a religious one, just one inspiring man: Andrew Carnegie, the ultimate local boy made good. I visit the simple weaver’s cottage where he was born, in 1835, which now houses a museum dedicated to the industrialist, who emigrated across the Atlantic to make his fortune in railroads and steel. By 1901, he was the world’s richest man.

Rather than continue to amass money, or fritter it away, Carnegie gave his life over to philanthropy, declaring: “The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.” The museum manager, Mark McLeod, tells me: “He led a remarkable life that left his imprint deep across the world in many Carnegie foundations and trusts. And perhaps nowhere has that imprint been more pronounced than in Dunfermline.”

Carnegie gave Dunfermline swimming baths; organs for various local churches; and a stained-glass window for the New Abbey Church (among others), commissioned from Tiffany & Co. in New York (which was installed only in 2019), among a string of other projects. But the most striking legacy is perhaps the city’s Carnegie Library, the first of more than 2500 worldwide. In 2016, it was given a brilliant modern makeover, and an extension with floor-to-ceiling windows opening up museum and gallery space to the sights of Dunfermline Abbey, next door.

On the other side of the Abbey site is the 76-acre Pittencrieff Park, where Dunfermline’s many faces come together. Carnegie was kicked out of this private estate as a boy; so it must have been with immense satisfaction that he bought it as an adult. He then gave it to the city for everyone to enjoy in 1902. A massive statue of Carnegie soars in front of the massive metal gates, commissioned as a memorial to his wife, Louise.

Turning around on one of the park’s walking trails, I find Dunfermline Abbey claiming its place on the skyline here, too. A lady walking her dog points downhill, towards the well where William “Braveheart” Wallace is said have once hidden. In the park, too, I find the ruins of Malcolm Canmore’s Tower, from where the King of Scotland ruled in the 11th century alongside his saintly wife. In Dunfermline, history is everywhere, and — gloriously — it is not hidden behind Perspex.

I confess I’ve been as guilty of underrating Dunfermline as many Scots have. I’m writing an article, but it could be an entire guidebook.

With an eye to the contemporary, how about visiting the Fire Station Creative, an arts hub (housing artist studios, classroom, gallery, and café), or the Outwith Festival, Dunfermline’s festival of music and arts, every September? Or seeking out the other great open space, Dunfermline Public Park, or the city’s brace of award-winning Indian restaurants? And, of course, you must visit the elegant City Chambers (already in place before its new designation).

My last stop, on the fringes of the city centre, is the Alhambra Theatre, which entertains with a mix of ballet, music, and comedy. The theatre celebrated its centenary in 2022, for which its ceiling foyer was transformed with a stunning mural by the artist Celie Byrne, daughter of the Scottish playwright and artist John Byrne. I meet the Alhambra’s marketing manager, Claire Fletcher, and tell her how much I admire the mural. “Well, what do you expect, we’re a city now, and we’re celebrating,” she smiles.


Travel details

Dunfermline City Station (recently renamed from Dunfermline Town) lies a half-hour train trip away from Edinburgh with Scotrail (from £3.60 one way). Visit www.scotrail.co.uk. For tourist information visit www.visitscotland.com. More information on the Fife Pilgrims Way is at fifecoastandcountrysidetrust.co.uk/walks/fife-pilgrim-way/. The excellent hotel, restaurant, and bar complex 1703 is set in a historic building right in the city centre https://www.1703dunfermline.co.uk.

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