Saturday, October 31, 2009

Last Tour, Royal Burgh of Culross

Entry for 31 October 2009:

Many Historic Scotland or National Trust for Scotland properties close for the Winter, often on the 1st of November. Therefore, for the Samhain (or Halloween) edition of our Saturday Adventure, we looked for something that was both within driving distance and about to close for the season. The Royal Burgh of Culross (pronounced Coo’rus) , on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, past the Kincardine Bridge, a few miles into Fife, fit the bill.

We arrived about 1 in the afternoon. The day was mixed cloud and sun, but not as rainy as it has been lately. With the intervention of the National Trust for Scotland, much of the old town has been charmingly saved from destruction, restored and preserved. Amazingly, quite a bit remains from its heyday in the early 17th century, when it was a centre for industry and trade.

The central attraction is the “Palace”, a rambling set of yellow-coloured buildings constructed by George Bruce, a wealthy merchant and essentially the founder of the British coal mining industry. There was a deep seam of coal under Culross, extending out into the Firth of Forth, and Bruce create a coal mine (known in the UK as a colliery) under the water, using what was then new technology (tall coffer dam to keep the water out, and early conveyor belt system of buckets to drain the mine). This also enabled him to harvest sea salt from the water of the Firth of Forth using a large number of “salt pans”. He was friends with King James the first of Britain (who was King James the Sixth of Scotland), and so got Culross made into an international trading port. He was then able to trade coal and salt to England and the Netherlands, and became very wealthy as a result.

Culross also developed an iron industry of “hammermen”, famous for making the round iron “girdles” used for cooking the Scottish national staple: oatcakes. “Girdle” is the Scots word for “griddle”. “So that’s how they do that!”, we exclaimed.

We were amazed by the Palace, wandering through room after room, the original wooden, barrel-vaulted ceilings of many of the rooms, original painted decorations still visible in many places; other rooms refitted a century later in Georgian style; the quaint needlework examples throughout; the extensive organic herb garden out back; the knowledgeable guides.

After wandering through the house and garden for a couple of hours, we caught the 3pm tour of the other NTS properties in Culross, the last tour of the day, and therefore the last tour of the season. And old gentleman, with the air of a former school teacher, entertained us with stories and information about the history of Culross and especially two of its most famous citizens: George Bruce, already mentioned, and Thomas Cochrane, naval hero and model for several fictional ship’s captains, including Horatio Hornblower.

Most entertainly, he took us up an old cobblestone lane, named Back Causeway (”Causey” in Scots). He carefully and vividly explained to us that we had the choice of walking along the side of the Causey, where the miners and other ordinary folk walked amid the waste and offal :“sleugh” (“gutter” in American English; but see my September 2009 entry on “Slough”); or alternatively we could walk on the higher middle part, where the wealthy people went: the “croon of the causey”. Actually, the footing was surer in the sleugh and it was easier to get out of the way of the occasional car trying squeeze its way through the narrow lane.

Afterwards, we had a very nice meal at the Red Lion Inn, before heading back to Glasgow. It was a lovely alternative way to spend the last day of Celtic summer (Samhain), and an excellent pick of a seasonal historic site.

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