Seven Abbeys of Fife

Back in the habit, an introduction to my next adventure, hopefully in the next few days,

I have been planning a wee trip, more or less around the coast of Fife. The idea is to take the X24 (Glasgow bus, bike in the boot) over to Kincardine then cycle all the way along the north shore of the Forth and up to the south shore of the Tay, along the south shore as far as Newburgh, returning home via Cupar. There is so much to see and talk about on the trip that it will be broken down into three days. I though Kincardine to Leven, then catch the X60 home and return to that point for the start of a second stage, into St. Andrews. The final leg out to Newburgh – Cupar – St Andrews on the third day. And since it will be the Seven Abbey Tour, I intend to take trips out to the Isle of May and Inchcolm to visit what remains of these two outlying abbeys. These will be done as two separate trips and will be dependent on bookings and weather.

Already there is a change in the seasons and the days are starting to shorten, so time is running out. The good news is that the ferries are once more running to the May and Inchcolm. The long distance weather forecast is a bit of a mixed bag, but the 22 and 23 July seems like a good time to start. If the forecast is to believed it will be overcast, (I do not cycle well in hot sun) and a good stiff breeze from the south west, (I will need all the help I can get). I will try to keep up with my posts reporting progress, or lack off.

Fife was home to the earliest site of Benedictine monastic life in Scotland, Dunfermline Abbey, which also became the principal royal burial place in the kingdom, along with the Isle of May, were the two main Benedictine priories. From the late 11th century the Tironensians monks established an abbey at Lindores. It was founded in 1190 by David earl of Huntingdon, a grandson of David 1. The Tironensians had long been favoured by David 1. The Cistercian monks at the abbeys of Balmerino and Culross, with a cell at Gavan. The Augustinian canons were most importantly present in Fife as the cathedral chapter of St Andrews and there was an abbey of the order of Inchcolm a well as a priory at Pittenweem. The friars were eventually well represented with Dominicans at Cupar, St Andrews, and St Monans and Franciscans at Inverkeithing and St Andrews. The only nunnery in Fife was that of a small community of Franciscan Poor Clares at Aberdour.

Religious life found many ways in which to express itself, offering prayers on behalf of the world, bringing into being the phrase “So much in heaven that they were no earthly use”. Most of the monastic communities had charitable functions, stemming from the teachings of Christ. Hospitals were founded to serve the needs of the poor and almshouses at Ardross, Dunfermline, Kinghorn, and St Andrews A lepers hospital was also established at St Andrews. To serve the needs of pilgrims in particular there were hospitals at Inverkeithing, North Queensferry, and Uthrogle.

All required buildings, some were planned on a magnificent scale, many now lost, some abolished at the Reformation, others as a result of changes in requirements, or simply fell victim to fair wear and tear. Surprisingly many still survive today as parish churches still in use for worship and still incorporates substantial parts of the old Medieval buildings. Aberdour, Crail, Cupar, Inverkeithing, Kilrenny, Kirkcaldy, Leuchars, Markinch, and St Andrews. Many other Medieval churches and monastic buildings survive in varying states of ruin and tell us much about the ecclesiastical architecture of medieval Fife.

The first nationwide pattern of parished and the re-establishment of the bishop’s dioceses came under the reign of Alexander 1 (1107-24) and continued under David 1 (1124-53). by the end of the 13th century, the country was divided up into 43 parishes, most of these were under the direct control of the archdeacon of St Andrews and the deans of Fife and Fothrif. There were a few exceptions, outlying diocese, Dunkeld, and Dunblane. Each of these parishes had their own church, and a number of chapels, which served as outlying parts of their territory or which were attached to the residences of the great landholders.

This large scale of building from around 1112 onward needed patrons to fund them and masons to build them, so had to look beyond Scotland. David 1 had spent much of his young adulthood in England so through him that Lowland Scotland had close links with England, and from where many of the leading lights of the church came. Bishop Robert of St Andrews came from Nostell in Yorkshire. Abbot Geoffrey of Dunfermline came from Canterbury, they look to England for people to design and build the new churches, and masons to train the new masons here in Scotland. We know that the masons who designed Dunfermline Abbey and the Leuchars Church came form Durham Cathedral, with which the Scottish Royal family had connections. The extensions to St Rule’s at St Andrews would have been carried out by masons who had earlier worked on some of the Yorkshire churches for witch the prior of Nostell had responsibility.

All this would change in the 14th century when the nations of Scotland and England regarded each other as enemies. The tomb of Robert 1 was made in Paris and shipped over. Masons from Paris and Paris-born masons worked on the building of St Andrews Cathedral. Records show that a century later that the founder of St Salvator’s College bought his mace from the goldsmith of the heir to the French throne, so close links were well established between Scotland and France at that time. The Low Countries were also close trading partners with Scotland and Archbishop Scheves arranged to have his tomb made in Burges, for example. And the tiles for the Archdeacons chamber floor came from Flanders. So there would have been a great deal of crossover of ideas between Scotland and Europe. It is interesting that the pantiles we think of as traditional in many of the old homes in Fife were, in fact, the corrugated iron of there day, brought here as ballast on ships returning from Europe.

By the late 11th century the church was in the doldrums and the renewal was starting to take place across Europe, lead by the monastic orders. Most followed the rules compiled by St Benedict of Nursia, as long ago as the 6th century. St Margaret in 1070 introduced a small group of Benedictine monks from Canterbury to a church that she built at the place where she had married King Malcolm 111 shortly before. One surviving building that may help us to understand that first church at Dunfermline is St Rules in St Andrews. The church had an enormously tall western tower, a rectangular nave, and probably a choir to the east of that. It was Bishop Robert that extended St Rule’s and the masons he used came from the Yorkshire estates of Nostell Priory, where Robert himself had originally been canon. The most striking feature of both phases of the building of St Rule’s Church is the superb quality of the masonry, which is of large blocks of finely cut stone. This is a feature that is replicated in many of the churches across Fife built at a similar period in history, amongst those is the small island priories for the Augustinian order of canons at Inchcolm and Loch Leven and the tower of the parish church at Markinch.

Without a doubt the most important building to be started in the early 12th century by David 1 in 1128 to re-establish his mother’s small Benedictine priory as a full abbey, later to become her burial place and the mausoleum of the Scottish royal house. A pause in the building works at Durham Cathedral helped in the recruitment of masons and Benedictine monks from Canterbury were engaged to design and build the great abbey, although only half the size of Durham, Dunfermline’s proportions manages to give the impression of a much larger and grander cathedral than it really is, good architecture will always do that.

I have been below under the modern abbey at Dunfermline and seen for myself what remains of the pillars of the old abbey. And if you look closely at the wall and roofline of the abbey, about halfway along, you will see clearly where the newest part of the abbey joins an earlier one.

By the second half of the 12th century, a new architectural fashion began to spread across Europe. Massive round-arched with much elaborate embellishment of the surface stone and it can be seen on the doorway at the later addition to the building at Dunfermline.

By the 13th century, architecture changed again, this time influenced by the Cistercian order. This order, which placed stress on a particularly austere way of life, had originated at Cireaux in eastern France and spread rapidly across Europe. The architecture they exported included pointed arches, delicate moldings, and an altogether more simple approach to design. In Fife, we have the remains of two Cistercian abbeys of the early 13th century. The one at Culross was founded by the earl of Fife in 1217 and one at Balmerino founded by Queen Ermengarde and her son Ding Alexander 11.

In all these buildings we get a glimpse of monastic life, however, there is one monastic building in Scotland that is mostly intact from this period and that is at Inchcolm where all three ranges are complete and still roofed.

Most of Dunfermline’s monastic buildings were destroyed in 1303 on the orders of King Edward 1 of England. Perhaps the most significant works at Dunfermline in the 13th century were those aimed at providing a more suitable chapel for the remains of St Margaret. An abbey or cathedral which possessed the remains of an important saint was indeed fortunate, not only because of the added aura of sanctity that they gave to the church, but also because the pilgrims who came to seek the saint’s assistance would leave generous offerings, (the tourist industry of its day). The chapel at Dunfermline was completed in 1250, and the base on which the shrine was set is still to be seen today.

By the time we entered the 14th century the long Wars of Independence in the 1290s greatly limited the building of churches. Nevertheless, ecclesiastical buildings were built in Fife at this time. Amongst them was the refectory range at Dunfermline Abbey, which was rebuilt with the help of Robert the Bruce shortly before his death and burial there in 1329.

Following his return from captivity in England, King David 11 built the church on the Fife coast at St Monans. The king had received near fatally injured by an arrow at the battle of Neville’s Cross, and he believed that it was due to the intervention of St Monan that he was able to recover. The church at St Monan is a splendid building, built by King David 11 in thanksgiving between 1362 and 1370.

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