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Issue 39 - The Kingdom of Fife

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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The Kingdom of Fife

John Hannavy explores historic churches, abbeys and cathedrals between the Forth and the Tay.

If, in your clamour to see Scotland’s medieval churches, you can only spare the time to visit one area – visit the Kingdom of Fife. And if you can only spare the time to visit one town, then make that town St Andrews, for in one of Scotland’s smallest cities you will find not one but five wonderful sites to visit – and a castle as well!

St Andrews Cathedral was once the most important in the country. In medieval times, the Archbishop of St Andrews was the most powerful churchman in the land, and his magnificent cathedral – which actually doubled as the Church of the Augustinian Priory of St Andrews – broadcast that importance to anyone who came within sight of it. It was the longest church in Scotland by a mile – well not exactly by a mile, but at 109 metres from east to west, it dwarfed all of the others significantly. It was one of the most richly decorated, and certainly one of the wealthiest.

The first great cathedral on the site was completed in the early 13th century, rebuilt after a storm in 1273, and finally completed in 1318. A disastrous fire in the 1370s caused huge amounts of damage, and restoration work was not completed until 1440, by which time it was unrivalled in the land.

However, as the most important pre- Reformation church in the country, it suffered at the hands of the emerging Protestant Kirk, and was abandoned, slowly falling into disrepair, its stone being used as a quarry as early as 1577, and for many later buildings in the town.

By the east end of the cathedral, St Rule’s Church, with its tall square tower, dates from the 11th century, and was probably built to house the relics of St Andrew, and as a place of pilgrimage. Today, it offers wonderful vantage point from which to look out over the city, its university and its castle. And from the top of the tower, the foundations of St Mary’s on the Rock, a medieval collegiate church just outside the cathedral priory precinct, can be seen.

Also visible from St Rule’s is the tall tower of the mid-15th century St Salvator’s College Church, old the oldest of the many secular colleges which were a part of Scotland’s oldest university. St Leonard’s College followed in 1512, and its much smaller and simpler church is also worth a visit.

On South Street, one transept is all that survives of the early 16th century Blackfriars Church, completed in the late 1520s.

Afew miles from the centre of St Andrews, and near the Royal Air Force station at Leuchars, stands the beautiful Romanesque parish church dedicated to St Athernase – which, having been completed before the middle of the 12th century, predates all of the St Andrews churches with the exception of St Rule’s. This stunning little church, its exterior a riot of Romanesque blind arcading, is a ‘must see’.

Head around the Fife coast, and we eventually come to the delightful village of Craill, a popular holiday resort in the past but now overlooked in the holidaymakers’ quest for warmer climes.

Crail has a beautiful parish church which, in pre-Reformation days, was once collegiate.

At one time, archery practice was required of all local men, and this usually took place after Mass. As the men stood talking by the church door, they sharpened their arrows on the church wall, and the deep incisions of this medieval requirement survive to this day.

Continuing round the coast, there are scant remains – and a fine gatehouse – to remind us that Pittenweem once had an Augustinian Priory, and, a few miles further west, St Monans Church, with its imposing view over the sea, was once the centrepiece of a Dominican Friary founded in second half of the 14th century.

At Inverkeithing, the town museum is housed in the guesthouse of the 14th century Franciscan friary, and at Culross, one of the National Trust for Scotland’s treasures – a small town or village little changed since the 17th century – the remains of the 13th century Cistercian abbey have an elevated position above the town. As at Crail and St Monans, the medieval Culross Abbey church still serves the local community today as its parish church.

Other abbeys are worth mentioning: Balmerino, on the north coast of Fife, overlooking the River Tay, was once a powerful Cistercian monastery, and what remains today is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland; Lindores Abbey, near Newport, survives as little more than a few foundations with the bases of several of the columns of the church still visible. It is situated on private land, but if you ask politely, the owners will let you view what little there is to see.

The best preserved group of medieval buildings in the Kingdom of Fife is undoubtedly to be found in the abbey precinct in Dunfermline. Not only is there the beautiful abbey church itself – the nave of which dates from the early 12th century, but adjacent to it are the ruins of the fine 14th and 15th century refectory and dormitories, and just across the street, the 14th century palace built out of the former Abbey guesthouse.

The choir of the church is Victorian, its only claim to fame – and no mean claim at that – is that it houses the remains of Robert the Bruce, King Robert I of Scotland, rediscovered when the Victorian church was being built.

Fife offers some fantastic medieval churches, abbeys and priories, and a wonderful landscape within which to view them. The drive around the coast is beautiful, from the Firth of Forth to the North Sea, so even between churches, there is a lot to experience.