I’m a proud Scot, a travel writer who writes mostly about his own country and I live in South Queensferry, but I’ve never been to Dunfermline Abbey and Palace just across the Forth. There I’ve said it! It’s quite a relief to admit it publicly to be honest. Quite how Dunfermline’s grand abbey and historic palace and I have not crossed paths before I’m not entirely sure. It must be my fault. I recently resolved, though, to fill in this glaring gap on my historic map of Scotland and finally make it across the Forth.
Dunfermline Abbey – Fit for a King and Queen
Dunfermline Abbey and Palace together form quite simply one of the most important heritage sites in the land. It is here after all that the country’s most feted king, Robert the Bruce, lies. It is also the last resting place of other illustrious monarchs such as Queen Margaret and King David I. It was David I who raised the status of the modest church to an abbey in tribute to his late saintly mother Margaret, who founded it. I was intrigued to learn that Dunfermline was also the birthplace of the ill-fated Charles I, who was born in the adjacent palace in 1600 at the tail end of its Stuart golden age.
Robert the Bruce, though, is the monarch most people conjure up when Dunfermline is mentioned. I’ve visited his heart in Melrose Abbey and sung about his exploits at more than one rugby match, but this was the first time I’d made a pilgrimage to his last resting place. He resides in the east end of the abbey directly beneath a pulpit that is still in use today almost as if to stress his continuing relevance. My eldest daughter was intrigued about the tomb of this famous Scottish king, whose name she had heard crop up at various historic sites throughout the country.
My youngest was more interested in a palace where queens and princesses once lived, but before popping over there I spent time soaking up the vastness of the 11th century Romanesque nave of the striking abbey. Its tale ties into my hometown as the historic burgh of Queensferry takes its name from the ferry Queen Margaret first commissioned in the 11th century to bring pilgrims from the south banks of the Firth of Forth across to what at the time was just a small priory church.
Down into Dunfermline Palace
Leaving the abbey we crossed the stone walkway above the monk’s refectory and entered the ticket office at the palace – the palace and the abbey are both Historic Scotland sites, while the front section of the abbey is still a functioning parish church. The palace is a ruin steeped in romance where you can easily conjure up images of the people whose stories live on through the old stone. We were ushered by the lady in the ticket office towards a tiny wooden door, which my daughters were convinced would bring them into a fairy palace. It sort of does.
We descended a dark spiral staircase, which had the girls caught between feeling like they were in an episode of Scooby Doo or about to meet a princess. We came out into the light again and although there were no signs of cartoon dogs and princesses there was more than enough to fire their young imaginations. We eked around and then down into the old palace visiting its once mighty rooms and old kitchens.
Historians reckon that there was always some form of royal accommodation in the abbey, but this lavish palace was built on a totally different scale with interpretation boards illustrating to visitors the superb skills employed by the stonemasons. It was a favourite amongst the Scottish monarchs for centuries. Indeed James IV gave it as a present to his wife, Anne of Denmark. As well as Charles I she also gave birth to another son and a daughter within its walls.
Visiting Dunfermline Abbey and Palace
After finishing off our visit with a tour of the monk’s vast refectory I decided I didn’t much fancy the simplicity of many aspects of their lives. The information boards explained that their meals consisted solely of simple vegetarian dishes with meat reserved only for the very ill. My daughters were not impressed with this either, though they remained fascinated by Robert the Bruce and Queen Margaret. We picked up a couple of picture books in the shop as we left to take back to continue their learning on the other side of the Forth.
After spending half a day wrapped in the charms of this voluminous abbey, wandering the surrounding graveyard and immersed in the charms of the palace I wondered why I had never got around to visiting before. Maybe it is because Dunfermline Abbey and Palace always seemed so close and it was somewhere that I would get around to visiting one day. If you feel the same then don’t delay, like me until very recently, you don’t know what you are missing!