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Culross: a Mine of Antiquity.


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Betwixt flood and wooded eminence, on the arc of a most exquisite bay in the Firth of Forth, straggles an ancient royal burgh which gives the delighted wayfarer the impression that it has been carefully preserved in the cupboard of time for his especial benefit. From the fifth to the eighteenth century Culross, at the western extremity of Fife, has written its name in the chronicle of Scotland in distinct and curious scrivenry, first as a legendary and ecclesiastical centre, later as a Scottish Carthage doing a mighty trade with France and the Low Countries. But now it is certainly the most echoless among the dead towns of Caledon, the most shipless of her ports. Compared with Culross, Bruges la morte is a clamorous metropolis.

Its very site is famous as a Shakespearian locality, the field where Macbeth triumphed over the Danish invaders - a fitting stage for the first act of the great Elizabethan's stormy tragedy. Here was one of the earliest settlements of the Christian faith in wild Alba, upward on the mount lie the mighty fragments of a princely abbey, cheek to cheek with a glorious manor by Inigo Jones, on the shore-line stands the quaintest of dead villages, fresh and undecayed, as though sprinkled by some magic elixir of preservation. A flick or so with a fairy duster, one feels, would restore it to its ancient bustling bravery when its ships carried coal across the North Sea, stone to Holland, cattle to London. Drury Lane Theatre was built from its freestone quarries. The town hall oi Amsterdam, in the aureate language of a great Dutch poet, rose from " the marble cliff in the West " which lies behind its now silent streets. And by royal warrant it had the exclu sive privilege of making the girdles on which the oat bannocks were toasted for all broad Scotland.

The whole parish bristles with the thorny burrs of tradition, with folklore and saintly legends, and the memorials of noble families confront the antiquary at every corner. Culross is, indeed, an illuminated leaf out of the Book of the Past. Its Columbus seems to have been S. Palladius, who came from Rome on a mission to Pictavia in a.d. 424. Even at that remote period the Italian found the lamp of enlightenment burning on its bay, for S. Serf, a native Christian, had already founded a chapel there.

It was perhaps a later Servanus who, at the dawn of the sixth century, rescued the hapless Pictish Princess Thenaw from the sea when her father, King Lot of Lothian, irate because of her familiarity with a Welsh chieftain, cast her adrift upon the waves at Aberlady in a crazy boat. Tossed on the grey waters of the Forth, she came to land at Culross, and here her famous son, S. Mungo or Kentigern, the patron saint of Glasgow, imbibed that religious enthusiasm which inspired him to found the great see and Cathedral of the West which has borne his name through the centuries.

Generations of almost impenetrable darkness pass, and Culross is suddenly revealed once more in all the hurly-burly of battle between Shakespeare's gloomy Thane, Macbeth, and his Scandinavian adversaries. Legend says that the Scots sent a supply of poisoned bread and ale into the Danish camp, and that this was devoured by the starving raiders, to their hurt. But Shakespeare rightly prefers the more noble excuse for a Caledonian triumph, and ail good romantics will agree with him.

The beautiful bay of Culross, which aroused the enthusiasm of Cobbett when he journeyed through. Scotland, and of Taylor, the "water poet, who here found a scene immensely to his liking, is backed by sloping braes crested with woods, the little town lying on a tongue of land by the water's edge in the form of a great Y. The prospect, indeed, vies with the most exquisite reaches of Seine or Rhine, The ground rise< abruptly from the rock-screened shore to a height of 250 feet, where the modern castle of Dunmmarle occupies the traditional site of the stronghold of Macduff, the legendary scene of the massacre of his wife and children by the hired assassins of Macbeth.

It was a descendant of Macduff who founded the now ruined abbey and monastery in 1217 and filled it with white-robed Cistercians from Kinross in Morayshire. A burgh speedily grew up around the sacred edifice, and this received its charter from James IV in 1490, being erected into a free burgh of barony, with power to buy and sell, to erect a cross, and to have a Sunday market and an annual fair every autumn. Later, in 1588, it was made a royal burgh because of its commercial importance.

To step into the old town is to enter an atmosphere of uncanny quiet. The ancient houses seem tenantless. But rarely is anyone to be seen of an afternoon either in the Leigh Causeway, the main thoroughfare, or in the Middle or Back Causeways, which lead thence to the open space of the Cross. The place, indeed, resembles one of those towns of fairy romance or occult tale of whose inhabitants the visitor receives only fugitive glimpses and who indeed may be reckoned more elfin than mortal. From the heights above the splash of red roofs among the green foliage gives one the impression of overlooking some port in ancient Brittany. Yet everything is point-device as in a hamlet in Holland. The venerable houses have all the neatness and primness of the Low Country, with which Culross once did such roaring business. But Culross is not a town so much as a. tidy little museum of antiquities.

The visitor in a hurry will probably breast the hill where the abbey with its glorious Norman tower and magnificent manor house await him. But the town itself is our chiefest enchantment, for here is a wedge of the veritable ancient Scotland especially preserved for the delight of lovers of the past as in a treasure-chest.

Within a court at the corner of the Sand Haven stand the two old "semi-detached" mansions which the natives insist on calling "the Palace," but whose proper title is "the Colonel's Close." The elder dates from 1597, and was the town house of the Bruces, progenitors of the Earls of Elgin. Its plain and typically Scottish exterior enshrines a wonderful waggon-roofed hall painted with allegorical designs, each adorned with its somewhat sententious motto. Here we see Fortune with her wheel, Ulysses and the Sirens, Victory and Truth Restored, as well as many another more obscure nymph or naiad, and here James VI, the "British Solomon," is said to have been entertained by Sir George Bruce, the commercial genius of Culross, who was also its Maecenas, in 1617.

The merchant prince guided the Stuart monarch through the intricacies of his new coal-mine beneath the sea, but when the craven king returned to the surface by way of a shaft perched on a small artificial islet and beheld the waves surging around the outlet, his scanty stock of courage forsook him, and he cried out, "Treason! Treason!" He was, however, duly reassured, and taken ashore in "an elegant pinnace."

Pity it is that "the Palace" is now deserted and the prey of internal damps and the outward buffetings of weather. But this is not the case with the sturdy Tolbooth or Town House, with its fine bell-tower, or "The Bishop's Study," which stands at the bottle-neck of the Back Causeway where it debouches into the open space about the Cross. This is a seventeenth century building of peculiarly snug appearance, wonderfully well preserved, and possessing a fine spiral staircase leading to a chamber provided with a series of arched recesses of hewn stone, once, perhaps, the bookshelves of Bishop Leighton, who, says tradition, made it his episcopal headquarters.

But where ancient dwellings confront one almost at every step, the history of the past prosperity which was responsible for them becomes the factor of chief interest. For Culross was the first and one of the most prosperous mining centres in Scotland. Early in the seventeenth century it rose into commercial prominence under the auspices of Sir George Bruce, who, with extraordinary enterprise and foresight, developed its considerable deposits of coal and salt. The system of quarrying coal had formerly prevailed, but about 1615 Sir George, finding that the shallow outcrops were exhausted, carried the old workings at least a mile beneath the Firth of Forth, introducing the Egyptian wheel, a chain of buckets, to dredge out the inflowing water.

The colliery, as reorganized by him, had two pits or shafts, in one of which, on the edge of the shore, was contained the engine which drew the water from the mine. The miners were serfs, the property of the mine-master, and, even at that comparatively late date, were not permitted to leave the district. Sir George provided half Britain with good sea-coal, and built up a princely estate.

But history in the larger and more romantic sense cleaves more indubitably to the ancient abbey. Although a portion of it is still in use as a parish church, the greater part has long fallen into ruin almost complete. Prior to the Reformation it must have consisted of a mass of solid masonry enclosing a cloistered court, the church forming the north side of the square, the other three being devoted to the secular needs of the monks.

Of the church proper, the choir and central tower alone remain, the nave having completely disappeared with the exception of a single wall. The tower is typically Norman, and has two fine doorways, one of which leads into the church. Beneath the noble groined arch of the porch stands an ancient piscina in a vaulted recess, and above this is a large vacant apartment, the former place of imprisonment of the local witches and spaewives. Above this is the clock-room and belfry, and a bartizaned roof, which reveals a marvellous view of the Firth of Forth.

The interior of the church itself is modern, conventional and perhaps a little depressing, but it has two fine Gothic arches with corresponding pillars, the only signs of antiquity. In a chapel adjoining are the tombs of the Bruces, one, that of Sir George, depicting in marble the entire family in the true Jacobean manner, modelled on that of his brother's in London. The sole remains of the monastery buildings consist of a grand vaulted chamber, vast and cavernous and extraordinarily impressive, with groined roof and arches, which was probably the entrance of the grand hall of the monastery. Behind it is a vaulted passage of a similar kind, leading through a Norman doorway into the cloister court. It has the appearance of a deep, yawning cavern terminating abruptly in front of a precipice. Beneath it is a series of vaults stretching to an unknown distance, choked with rubbish, impassable, mysterious. The style of architecture is that of the thirteenth century.

Culross, although bequeathing some fine illuminated manuscripts, left no chartulary to tell the roll of its abbots and friars, and it is only from brief notices in the national records that we can glean anything of its history. A certain Gilbert, Abbot of Culross, acknowledged the supremacy of Edward I of England in 1296, and it was here that Albany and Douglas met to contrive the horrid plot by which the miserable Duke of Rothesay, eldest son of Robert III, was starved to death at Falkland. In 1434 we find a Robert Wedale, who afterwards became Abbot of Culross, employed as master of works at the erection of the palace of Linlithgow by the ill-fated James I - and that is practically all we know of the actual history of the mighty fane the shadow of whose ruin and overthrow still broods over the ancient and almost deserted royal burgh.

It remains but to speak of the princely pavilion on the verge of the abbey, which all well-informed authorities attribute to the genius of Inigo Jones. It is a mansion of three stories, flanked by turrets at either extremity, and was built in 1608 by Edward Lord Bruce of Kinloss. Later it came into the possession of the Earls of Dundonald, from whose family it was acquired by the Prestons of Valley field, one of whom, about 1830, made considerable alterations in its exterior. It is now the property of the Earl of Elgin, the descendant of King Robert the Bruce.

The original intention had been to complete it in the form of a quadrangle, with a court and grand entrance, but this was never accomplished.

Even so, it is immensely imposing, if quite at odds with its surroundings, a Jacobean gem set in a mantle of hodden grey. The apartments and corridors are so spacious that even Sir Walter Scott, that seigneur of princely notions, felt that it "could never be much more serviceable than as a banqueting-house." It certainly gives one the impression of a palace where treaties might be signed or a background for pageant rather than a dwelling for the ordinary wear and tear of domestic existence. But its orchard, the plantation of the old monks, provides a touch of homeliness, and slopes down to the road in rich productiveness and shadowed beauty.

When all is said, Culross, as it now is, has perhaps more to give us as a lovely embalmed blossom of the past than it ever would have afforded as a more northerly Newcastle. Time wisely stores up hidden jewels for the world's seeking, and when this exquisite little secret of hers is at length revealed in its fullness to the painter and the poet, who knows what wonder it may afford to a world more desirous than ever before of wonder, avid of gracious and delicate atmosphere, quiet rest and that serenity of peace of which this hushed and tree-encircled parish seems the very source and fountain-head! Well may Culross be regarded as a "mine of antiquity."


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Pictures for Culross: a Mine of Antiquity.

PALACE OF THE BRUGES AND THE RUINS OF CULROSS ABBEY
PALACE OF THE BRUGES AND THE RUINS OF CULROSS ABBEY >>>>
THE BISHOP'S STUDY
THE BISHOP'S STUDY >>>>
THE STATELY STORIED MANSION OF THE ABBEY, AND THE LITTLE WEST CHURCH
THE STATELY STORIED MANSION OF THE ABBEY, AND THE LITTLE WEST CHURCH >>>>
THE HEART OF CULROSS TOWN AND THE ABBEY HOUSE AND GRAVEYARD
THE HEART OF CULROSS TOWN AND THE ABBEY HOUSE AND GRAVEYARD >>>>
CULROSS MARKET CROSS AND AN ANCIENT, TIDY STREET BELOW THE STUDY
CULROSS MARKET CROSS AND AN ANCIENT, TIDY STREET BELOW THE STUDY >>>>
THE TOLBOOTH AND BELL TOWER
THE TOLBOOTH AND BELL TOWER >>>>

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