Dunfermline Abbey

I live in Dunfermline.

It’s a small town in Eastern Scotland with a long history, one which goes back over a thousand years to the very genesis of what we recognise as Scotland. It was the home, birth-place and burial-place of many of Scotland’s monarchs and and some ways echoes Scottish history in a microcosm.

Much of that history is represented in two buildings, the Abbey complex and Canmore’s Tower. Unfortunately, if the ravages of time have been unkind to the Abbey, they have nearly destroyed any remnents of the tower. It was built by Malcolm Canmore, who you may know from Shakespeare’s MacBeth and he was the ruler of a nascent Scottish kingdom in the 2nd half of the 11th century. The site is a natural fortress, being on a rocky peninsular overlooking a steep sided ravine on three sides. The only access would have been across the narrow ridge and at the other end of this ridge, the Celtic monastary grew up. The Culdee community – as it was known as – would have been a fairly spartan group of monks and prelates, coming under the control of a Bishop and would have been the only source of literacy in the area.

The tower foundations with the Abbey visible through the trees

It was closely allied to the nearby Culdees in Culross – just 5 miles westward – and the island of Inchcolm – 6 miles to the east.

Inchcolm Abbey on the tiny Island in the Forth Estuary

Inhcolm is a fascinating island; it means the Island of Colm – Colm being Columba the traditional founder of Scottish Christianity. Though there is no record of him ever visiting the island, there is evidence of some sort of religious community living there in the 6th century shortly after his death. Later, the Island monastery grew to its current size and it has survived much better than the vast majority of monastic buildings – mainly due to its island setting.

Canmore married an heiress of the English Royal family called Margaret. She had escaped England after the Norman invasion of 1066 and had been shipwrecked on the coast of Scotland. Brought before Malcolm, he instantly saw the value of marrying an English heiress and did so immediately. Though it may have been expediency, Margaret’s writings clearly show a fondness for the rough Scottish king who lived in a tower and who was just one step away from barbarity. She set about taming the man and his country. She called for Benedictine monks from Canterbury to live in the Culdee community in Dunfermline and they built a stone church for themselves and Margaret’s family. She introduced Roman rites and the English language to her husband’s court and in doing so dragged Scotland into modern medieval European life, away from the dark ages and its Celtic past.

Her sons continued this legacy, particularly David I who went in for Monastery building big-time. He founded several of them around Scotland and he commissioned the building of Dunfermline Abbey church. It is David’s building that forms the bulk of the knave today and the design owes much to Durham Cathedral in England. It is likely the architects and builders had worked on Durham before creating this smaller replica in Dunfermline.

The Abbey Church

the Abbey Church with the obvious differences in building periods

It was the Benedictines who built up the monastery and it became a place of pilgrimage across medieval Europe. After Margaret’s death she was cannonized by the Church to become St Margaret and pilgrims coming to pray at the shrine incorperated into the high altar. Pilgrimages were lucrative businesses at that time and along with the

royal connections, the gifts of land, the monopolies on crossing the River Forth at nearby Queensferry and the ownership of mines and saltpans, the Abbey grew very wealthy. It was able to construct fantastic buildings for its community and once the secular authorities decamped for the much better defended Edinburgh and Stirling, Dunfermline became a quiet backwater – albeit a prosperous and religious one.


2 thoughts on “Dunfermline Abbey

  1. Pingback: Dunfermline Abbey II | scotshistory

  2. Pingback: Dunfermline Abbey III | Scots History

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