Skip to content
  • Audio
  • 30 mins

A walk around... Dunfermline

Updated Friday, 14th November 2008

Join Neil Oliver and a team of experts as they tour Dunfermline in Fife, one of the best surviving medieval landscapes in Scotland

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Uncover the story of one of Scotland’s most famous historical couples, the war horse, Malcolm III, and his saintly wife, Margaret, whose shrine became a magnet for pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages.


Copyright The Open University


Neil Oliver: Welcome to walk around medieval Dunfermline and the story of one of Scotland’s most famous historical couples, the war horse, Malcolm III, and his saintly wife, Margaret, whose shrine became a magnet for pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. As we'll be hearing, this is one of the best surviving medieval landscapes in Scotland, and although much has changed the buildings that remain can still tell us stories that are almost a thousand years old. As tour guides, we'll be joined by three people who know this period and this area inside out: Richard Oram of Stirling University, Robert Bartlett of St Andrews and writer and historian Fiona Watson.

Before you set off, make sure you’ve got a copy of the map to hand which shows all the locations. If you forgot to bring one, ask at the Abbot House in Maygate nearby, they should have copies.

Our walk starts here, at point 1 on the map.

Point 1: Gates of Pittencrieff Park

Richard Oram: We’re standing just in front of the west end of the Dunfermline Abbey, and behind us we've got the great towers of the Abbey, you've got the gatehouse of the cloister and we’re now looking out across to the gates of Pittencrieff Park and we’re going to go walking down through the park to the site of what is traditionally known as Malcolm Canmore’s Tower.

Now the world of the 11th Century is quite radically different. It's not built up and laid out as a park like this. We've probably really got to think about a settlement of scattered small wooden and thatched houses. There’d be a lot of smell in the air as well, there’s possibly an area where they’re tanning leather down by the burn in Pittencrieff Glen here. There’d be fields of barley and oats and things like that round about, cattle, a few sheep, not that many people, not this great built-up land landscape that we've got here in Dunfermline today.

Neil: All the same, this was an important royal centre, capable of hosting grand gatherings and catering for the recreational needs of the King and his guests.

Begin walking into the park following the map to point 2. As you do that, we have to make a quick digression to the 19th Century because that’s when Dunfermline’s wealthiest son, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, made it possible for the likes of you and me to actually set foot in here. Fiona Watson.

Fiona Watson: Pittencrieff Park, like “The Glen” as it's known to the locals, can be enjoyed by everyone now but of course it was a private estate for most of its history, and eventually it was Andrew Carnegie who gifted it to the town. He became the Laird of Pittencrieff because as a small boy he had to stand outside the Glen with his nose pressed up against the wall because his family being radicals were not allowed, they were banned by the Laird of Pittencrieff from coming in. So one of the first things he did when he earned his millions was to go and buy it back for the town, which means we can all enjoy it today.

Point 2: Malcolm Canmore’s Tower

Neil: You should now be at point 2 on your map.

Richard: Right, well here we are in what traditionally is known as Malcolm Canmore’s Tower. Who, you may well ask, is Malcolm Canmore? He’s the King that we number Malcolm III, the King of Scots at the end of the 11th Century, and the label Canmore has been applied to him by later generations. Historians now actually think that the Canmore should apply to a later King, King Malcolm IV, not to our man King Malcolm III. He is the man probably best known in history as the probable killer of Macbeth, the man who begins to enlarge Scottish royal territory, he’s pushing to the north, down to the south, out towards the west, and beginning to weld together a powerful monarchy in the kingdom.

Neil: Malcolm was on the throne at a pivotal time in British history and this location here is traditionally said to be the remains of his residence. But was it? Well, first a bit of background to the situation.

Malcolm took to the throne at a pivotal time in British history. In 1066 England was plunged into war when its Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor died childless. There were several competing claims on the throne and the issue was brutally resolved later that year when the kingdom was taken over by William the Conqueror. For Malcolm up here in Scotland, this was an ideal opportunity to extend his own territory further into England while William was busy in the south, so he led several raids into Northumberland to try and take it over. Dunfermline was undoubtedly his base for this but whether it was right here where we’re standing, that’s not so sure.

Richard: When you come into the enclosure, right in front of you some higher sections of wall, these are parts of the surviving medieval tower. Now when the excavations were carried out here a few years ago it was hoped that these would prove to be part of the 11th Century complex that Malcolm lived in as King. Unfortunately, as excavations have a tendency to do, it was revealed however that they’re actually a lot younger than Malcolm’s time. They belonged to the late 13th or early 14th Century and are probably part of the Abbey precinct, perhaps part of the defences built around the time of the wars of independence, may be serving as a watchtower over the routeways leading to Stirling out to the west or up from the river to the south.

Neil: If you come in winter when the trees are bare, you’ll get much more of a sense of why this spot would have made a good lookout point. Whatever the origins of the building were, we know for sure that this area of parkland was where Malcolm and his men used to hunt, but it would have looked rather different then.

Pittencrief Park Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team Fiona: Being a forest, a royal forest in the Middle Ages was about deer and hunting and, as you could imagine, it's very difficult to get a horse to ride through something like this. But there would be some trees but we’re talking about a space where you could go hunting deer, and I think we can imagine Malcolm doing that. He didn’t have so much business of government to attend to that he couldn’t get out and go on the hunt, and he could of course then socialise with his own nobility, meet important people from elsewhere and conduct some business while having quite a lot of pleasure.

Richard: Yeah, exactly. You can imagine the King out here with his mates, getting to know them, these are the people that you depend on to hold your kingdom together for you.

Neil: The walk now takes us through the park and you’ll need your map for directions here. You’re heading for point 3 and the park gates round at St Margaret Street. So take a hard left as you come out of the enclosure and walk down into the Glen.

Meanwhile, let’s introduce Margaret. She’s the woman Malcolm marries in 1070, and most of what we know about him comes from accounts of her life. Margaret was a member of the former Anglo-Saxon royal dynasty which had fled from England when King Canute the Dane took the throne of England earlier in the century. Robert Bartlett.

Robert Bartlett: She was actually born and grew up in Hungary, surprisingly. When she was a little girl her family were brought back to England. Her father was probably expected to be heir to the English throne but he died quite soon after their return and Margaret and her brother, Edgar, and her sister were brought up in the Court of Edward the Confessor.

So for about something like thirteen years she was an English princess, and her brother could have been expected to be King. But then, of course, we had 1066 and the great catastrophe of Anglo-Saxon England and a few years after that, when William the Conqueror of course conquered England, her brother, Margaret and her sister escaped. They were probably seeking something like political asylum.

Neil: How Malcolm and Margaret met and fell in love has become of the great romantic stories of history. But, as Richard Oram explains, like the supposed origins of Malcolm’s Tower it's a fantasy that’s been created by much later generations.

Richard: The legend of how Margaret arrives in Scotland is a very, very powerful piece of imagery but it's actually quite a lot later in its development, and what that tells us is this wonderful picture of Margaret and her family taking ship, finally despairing of ever recovering the throne of England for the family, going to go back into exile on the continent but a mighty storm blowing up and driving the ship north and around into the mouth of the River Forth into the Firth. And Malcolm sitting in Dunfermline, probably like his later ancestors drinking his blood red wine, we’re told news is brought to him that this boat with strangers on it has arrived and he goes hot foot down. And there, lo and behold, is this vision of beauty that he instantly falls in love with, and the rest is history. But it is all really unfortunately just a lot of imagery. It's traditional symbolism, if you like, of the reluctant messenger of God being trying to escape from what is their duty, being driven by the forces of God or nature, whichever way you want to look on it, to meet that obligation.

Neil: The marriage of Malcolm and Margaret was almost certainly a political union, bringing Malcolm into the old Anglo-Saxon dynasty in a move that could only really be seen as a straightforward slap in the face for William the Conqueror. In time Margaret proved to be quite her own woman, but the records suggest that the pair got on better than you might expect from an arranged marriage of two very different people.

Robert: The contemporary account of Margaret’s life contains some stories which suggest that there was affection between Margaret and Malcolm. For instance, she was highly literate, she had her books, particularly religious books. He was not literate but he saw how much respect she gave to them and, in an attempt to share that or show sympathy with her interests, he used to fondle and kiss those books and even had them covered with gold and silver. The fact that they produced eight children at least also suggests that they weren't fundamentally incompatible although it was the duty of a Queen to produce heirs, and Margaret actually produced six boys, three of whom became Kings of Scots after her death.

Neil: Margaret had a massive influence on Scotland as we'll hear. But for now, keep walking until you reach point 3 on the map, outside the park on what’s now known as St Margaret Street.

Point 3: St Margaret Street

Neil: We’re now at point 3 on the map on St Margaret Street.

Richard: I’ve just come out of the east gate of Pittencrieff Park and I'm now standing in St Margaret’s Street. And if you just look immediately down to your right, what you’ve got here is the surviving portion of what was the great south gate of the Abbey, and the street stretching out from you down towards the south, you can actually see both the Forth Road Bridge and the Forth Bridge itself, the cantilevers of the railway bridge, and this was one of the main routeways to the ferry crossing of the Forth to and from the Abbey.

Neil: Dunfermline’s location near the Forth is one of the reasons it was such a good location for the King, because it was simply far easier to get around by boat than by rutted muddy road. Also the political heart of Scotland was shifting south as the Scottish Kings tried to take more territory in the north of England. And we can’t go on a walk around Dunfermline without pointing out that diagonally across the road from us here is the birth place of Andrew Carnegie. Now we’re going to turn up to the left and climb the hill to Monastery Street, point 4 on the map. Press pause and press play again when you get there.

Point 4: Dunfermline Abbey


Neil: You should now be at point 4 on the map. Directly in front of us is the southern exterior wall of Dunfermline’s 14th Century monastery. This wasn’t built in Margaret and Malcolm’s time but it's very much part of the legacy because it was Margaret who first brought Benedictine monks to Scotland. Before we talk about the building itself, it's worth knowing a bit about the changes she introduced. Robert Bartlett.

Robert: She revolutionised court life, court etiquette, making the court much more formal, presumably much more like what she was used to when she’d been a princess back in England. And she also had an important impact on the Scottish church. The way that it's presented in the contemporary account is that she brought the Scottish church into line with the rest of Europe. Now that might be because the contemporary account is written by an Englishman who saw her perhaps as a civiliser of the Scots but nevertheless, there’s no doubt that she did introduce innovations. One of them is right in front of us, the first Benedictine Abbey founded in Scotland.

Neil: Of course, there had been monasteries in Scotland before this. Iona, for example, but not Benedictine ones with their much stricter rules. The remaining building here tells us a lot about how they lived.

Richard: On the top floor, which has now gone, would have been the dormitory of the monks, and what remains down at the south end of it here is part of the basement of what is basically a glorified toilet block. Just to the right of that you can see what looks like a gate, that’s actually a grill closing off the end of the torrent, the culvert that carried the water that both flushed the latrines but also powered the mill lower down the hillside. Then extending on up towards the left from that, you’ve got what looks like a great screen wall on three stories. Two lower levels of storage space and on the top level, the great refectory hall of the Abbey where all the monks gathered together to eat their meals in common. And at the right hand end of that you can see an archway slung between two of the buttresses that support the wall with two tall slender windows with traceried heads rising up above that. That marks the site of the pulpit from which one of the monks would have read inspiring pieces of literature from saints’ lives, or from biblical stories or from the rule of the monastery during the monks’ meals. And then right round at the extreme left of what you can see, there is the arched gateway beneath the tower of the gatehouse which connected the outer court, the public, the world outside with the inner court which was the private core of the community.

Neil: When you’re ready, walk through the gateway Richard just mentioned to point 5 on the map where we'll see the remains of Dunfermline Palace.

Point 5: Dunfermline Palace

Neil: We’re now at point 5 on the map.

Richard: Coming through the archway of the gatehouse, we’re actually passing from inside, if you like, out to the outside world beyond the precinct wall. Up to your right you’ve got the west front of the Abbey with its great towers rising up. There would have been a block of buildings across here but that’s now completely disappeared. Behind you and to your right hand side you’ve got the gatehouse tower and you’ve got the great western window still with its magnificent 14th Century tracery surviving in the window.

To your left though, you’ve got all that is left of the great late medieval royal palace. It's still hugely impressive. It's a great slab of masonry that sits right on the edge of the ravine, and you can see the way that they’ve built oriel windows, that’s those projecting windows that are built out from the wall. They really were making the most of the view from this place. And also in this wall you can see the way that successive generations have wanted to make use of that view. If you look on to what your perspective is the first floor level, in the stonework you can see the ghosts surviving on either side of the window of archways that were originally pointed openings, one right at the extreme left hand end of the wall still survives as an opening and this is part of the 14th Century palace, and the big windows are part of the 16th and 17th Century refurbishment when it's converted into a luxurious state-of-the-art international quality palace for Queen Anne, James VI’s Danish wife. Now all of this is developed out of what started out as the guest hall of the Abbey, and it's adopted by the Kings of Scots as the core for their residence when they are in Dunfermline.

Neil: The palace here of course post-dates Malcolm and Margaret, but our next few stops take us much further back in time. So when you’ve finished here at the palace, make your way to point 6 on the map.

Point 6: Abbey refectory

Neil: We’re now in the Abbey complex at point 6 on your map.

Richard: We come up now up past the front of the Abbey and we turn right up the stairs that lead up to the great west door, and at the top of these stairs again follow the path around to the right towards the entry into the Abbey complex proper. And, if you wish to, you can go on into the paying part of the site which is controlled by Historic Scotland. But from standing just by the railings here you can actually see pretty well all of the main refectory block. If you look across at the wall directly in front of us, you can see a line slightly higher than the walkway that leads down to the entrance to the visitor centre that runs the whole length of the wall, and that is the level of the floor of the refectory. And just try and imagine what this would have been like.

Remains of Dunfermline Abbey refectory Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team It's a great hall, something like the Hogwarts dining hall in Harry Potter with a great open timber ceiling, very, very elaborate with long tables laid out extending down it, and at the far end away from us is the dais end, that’s the top end, that’s where the Abbot’s table would have been placed. And the lower levels, you can see running down the centre of the floor right down at basement level is a series of stones, these mark the bases of pillars that supported a stone built vault, a roof of stone that carried a lot of weight because it's also carrying a second level of stone vault on the floor above that. And these would have been long cavernous cellars in which most of the produce of the Abbey would have been stored. Some of them, particularly the ones that have got big windows, would also have been things like workshops, possibly even places where they were producing manuscripts and things of that kind.

Now if you turn around again, away from looking at the refectory, and face up towards the church we’re looking across the area that was the cloister, the Cloister Garth, and this is the garden area, the open ground in the middle of a quadrangle. And around it originally would have been a covered walkway, the cloister walk, and that has now entirely disappeared.

Neil: What we do have surviving though, and which gives us an indication of how huge this complex would have been is the nave of the original 12th Century church. This is one of the largest medieval churches of its kind in Scotland, and it was built on the site of the original church that Margaret founded and worshipped in. You can see that the eastern end looks very different and that’s because, as we'll hear, it was rebuilt in the 19th Century. That end of the church is famous, amongst other things, for containing the tomb of Robert the Bruce.

But back to Margaret. As we've heard, she was a deeply pious woman. And that’s not all. It's said she had miraculous powers.

Robert: There was a gospel book of which she was very fond, and one day when she was crossing a bridge with her entourage the servant who was carrying this gospel book let it slip into the river. But, miraculously, the gospel book was recovered with no damage whatsoever. What’s especially remarkable about this story is that the book actually survives. It’s in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and it has written on the back, “This is Queen Margaret’s gospel book that fell into the river”. The fact that there’s a miracle of this kind is the first hint that Margaret after her death was not merely being regarded as a famous and dutiful Queen and a powerful woman, but that she would be regarded as a saint. That is someone who could perform supernatural acts, particularly supernatural healing and aid if you prayed to her.

Neil: If the church is open when you’re here you might want to have a look around. If not, take a walk around the graveyard here as our historians describe the interior of the church with its remnants of Margaret’s original church still to be glimpsed underneath.

Point 7: The Abbey Church

Robert: We’re standing in the nave of the church that was built under David I and consecrated in 1150, and that’s what the columns and the pillars and the vaults that we can see are. He built it around an earlier church that Margaret herself had founded and in which Margaret was buried. And, fortunately, the foundations of that earlier church were excavated and they’re marked on the nave floor. They’re shown by thin bands of metal enclosing paving stones of a slightly different colour with grills through which you can look and see that earlier church. There seem to be three segments. Nearest to the information boards is a square which was probably a tower, beyond that a small rectangular building and beyond that a larger rectangular building, and that distant rectangular building is the one in which Margaret and Malcolm were buried. That’s where their tombs were.

Neil: Margaret died in 1093, reputedly within days of hearing of the death of her beloved Malcolm in battle. Soon after her death, it's recorded that miracles of healing began to happen at her tomb.

Robert: When Margaret’s tomb began to get a reputation as a healing shrine it began to attract people from all over Scotland and beyond, all over England. They’d enter the church presumably from the north side which was open to lay folk, and they would often ask for permission from the custodians of the church to spend the night in the church praying at the shrine. Sometimes they were so sick they had to be carried by friends or relatives. Sometimes they hobbled here on sticks. We have accounts of people being cured from all sorts of crippling ailments and paralysis, people who seem to have had the modern day equivalent of strokes. We have plenty of accounts of people coming here with what as the time called demonic possession, which would probably be categorised as forms of mental illness now. And they would spend the night in front of the tomb, praying, maybe several nights, very often three nights seemed to have been a symbolic number.

And perhaps during the course of that night Margaret would appear to them in a vision. A beautiful Queen, she would speak to them, she would very often identify herself, she would say, “I am Margaret, Queen of Scots”, and she might touch them and she’d grant their request for healing. They’d wake up if they’d fallen asleep, or they’d come to their senses if they’d gone off in a visionary trance, and they’d call out that they were cured. Give thanks, usually make an offering of some kind and the monks would sing Te Deum, the hymn of praise, that another example of miraculous healing had brought prestige and fame to their monastery and their saint.

Neil: It's perhaps not hard to see how the story of Margaret and everything associated with her began to get bigger, better, more romantic and more colourful in the retelling.

If you’re inside the church, look for a circular paving stone in the floor, another site of reported miracles.

Richard: What this circular slab in the floor of the south west corner of the church indicates is the site of St Margaret’s Well, and it appears that originally there was a well just outside the church that Margaret herself built. When her son, David I, extended that church in the 12th Century the well was incorporated inside the church, it was actually available inside the building itself, and it too acquired a reputation for supernatural healing. So people came here not only to visit Margaret’s tomb which was inside the church, but also this well, which was called St Margaret’s Well. People spent the night here, they might bathe their eyes with water from the well. There’s one sad case of a woman who was just recovering from paralysis when the devil, who was envious of St Margaret’s power, actually pushed her into the well. She emerged okay. So it was another focus of that miraculous healing power which Margaret was attributed with in the period.

Neil: In 1249 the monks lobbied Rome to have Margaret canonised, and eventually they succeeded. This was a huge achievement. She was the only Scottish saint to be canonised throughout the Middle Ages and was part of the Scottish Crown’s attempts to boost its credentials in the face of continuing English claims of overlordship of Scotland. To mark her new, even higher status the monks decided her remains should be moved to a shrine in a specially built extension at the east end of the Abbey. This would have been a wondrous place of homage in its time, and we’re about to visit what remains of it. But as you will see, the events of history have left the shrine literally out in the cold.

Start walking around the church to the shrine now. It's point 9 on your map, but on your way look out for point 8, the unmissable pink building called the Abbot House.

Point 8: Abbot House and Heritage Centre

The Abbot House and heritage centre Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team Richard: Across the graveyard, you can see the pink building through the trees, that’s the Abbot House. And for many, many years it was thought this was just a name, it couldn’t possibly be the Abbot’s house, but when work started to be done on the building to restore it as a heritage centre, an interpretation centre, it was found that actually yes, this is the original probably the 14th and 15th Century Abbot’s Hall, and this is the house that the Abbot, the head of the community who’s also the Lord of the Borough, could live in where he could be in a position where he is in communication with his monks in the precinct but he’s also got the contact with the world outside. Because he’s not just a churchman, he’s a lord of land, he’s a great temporal power and the borough is his. And then the building is greatly expanded and most of what you can see there now belongs to the 16th and on into the 17th Centuries, but within the building you’ve got a substantial amount of the medieval fabric surviving.

Neil: You might want to visit the Heritage Centre when you’ve finished the walk, but first find your way to the small enclosure with low railings at the far end of the church, point 9 on the map.

Point 9: St Margaret's Shrine

Neil: You should now be at the remains of Margaret’s shrine. When it was first placed here it was inside the building.

Robert: A story very much later on says that when her bones were being moved from their old shrine, as they were passing the tomb of her husband, Malcolm, suddenly it became impossible to carry them any further, and this was a sign that Margaret was unwilling to be moved except in company with her husband. And so the story goes, they decided that they would move Malcolm as well whereupon, miraculously, Margaret’s shrine became easy to move, and both were put here together where they could continue their conjugal bliss.

Neil: This end of the church originally held the monks’ choir. After the reformation it wasn’t needed and fell into disrepair. Margaret’s bones were taken abroad for safekeeping, and when it was decided to build a new parish church for the town in the 19th Century it was built with Margaret’s shrine, obviously a Catholic monument, lying outside its walls. It's a shadow of what it used to be but it's still a very important landmark.

Richard: In the middle of it, you’ve actually got a very, very rare survival for Scotland from the Middle Ages. We've actually got the base upon which the shrine was mounted, wonderful imported stone, and on top of that you would have had a great case which contained the relics, itself housed inside a wooden box which is going to be lifted off so that you could see all this wonderful gold and silver and jewels. And you can see in the stonework around about it that the low walling of the chapel, you’ve got a bench on which pilgrims could sit, it's got little piscinas, these are the little basins where altar vessels could be washed, set into the top of it. And this is where people would be sitting to keep watch on what is going on at the tomb, this is where people could be sitting to rest, the pilgrims who cannot walk any further and they are here hoping for a cure, who can think of this place as a blaze of light. It had windows on three sides. It must have been a truly remarkable building in its heyday, and even the few fragments that survive just give us a hint of the richness, architectural wealth that this building must once have had.

Neil: On a grey windy day, Margaret’s shrine can seem rather forlorn and today’s historians discount much of the legend that surrounds her, but she and her husband had a profound effect on Scotland’s history for other reasons.

Robert: You have to start the story of a country somewhere, don’t you, and it became quite common to start it with Malcolm and Margaret. And that’s actually a tradition that doesn’t just begin in the modern period, because as early as the late 12th Century people are writing lists of Scottish Kings that begin with Malcolm and Margaret, even though of course he wasn’t the first of his dynasty. So there’s a sense of a new start there.

Fiona: I would agree with that. It is the dynasty thing. It's all retrospective, of course, it's not intended, I mean they were very fortunate in having all these sons but we know that it went on, that eventually you can trace back to the father and mother of the dynasty, Malcolm and Margaret, but they wouldn’t have known that. But there is no doubt that by creating this dynasty and having their own saint, that that brings Scotland, and of course with the reformed religious houses that brings Scotland much more into step with what England’s doing and what they’re doing in the continent.

Neil: Malcolm and Margaret may not be the romantic couple of legend, but the real story is even more dramatic and fascinating. During the reign, Scotland’s Gaelic society was influenced to some degree by modern continental practices in everything from art to agriculture, and their descendants continued on the throne of Scotland for over 200 years.

You might like to print out directions for the walk before you get started.

These tours are available to be enjoyed via your smartphone by using the Geotourist app.
Geotourist is available to download for free at all appstores.

If you liked this, why not try the rest of the series? Get the podcast.






Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?