Royal Dunfermline: History and Heritage

If you want to explore the dynamic unity of Church and State in the early history of Scotland, there is no better place to visit than Royal Dunfermline. Beginning life as a modest church in the 1070s, the site at Dunfermline grew to include a Benedictine Abbey, a royal palace, and a bevy of other functional buildings erected to support the monks and the many pilgrims who came to Dunfermline.

Today, the site is best approached alongside the wall of the refectory, following a route which mediaeval visitors would have taken through the precinct walls of the abbey.

The refectory, to the right of the photo, with the mediaeval entryway at left; Dunfermline, Scotland.

These ruins help to communicate the scale of one of Scotland’s most important royal and religious foundations. Royal marriages took place here, like that between King Malcolm III and Margret, a refugee Saxon princess, and several kings were buried here–the famous Robert the Bruce being the most significant. Such important visitors required fitting accommodations, the outer shell of which remains.

The exterior of the two-story guesthouse. The royal apartments are distinguished by the oriel window extending from the wall.

The guesthouse, however, had a range of accommodations, only a few of which were fitting for royal visitors. Traces of the windows, inner walls, and fireplaces help to conjure up a vision of the building during its height, when the bustle of many visitors filled its rooms.

The guesthouse, split into suites.

The refectory, where the monks gathered for meals, was joined to the guesthouse by the kitchens, which were situated above the entryway. Together, these buildings comprised the residential sections of royal Dunfermline, which were run by a combination of monks and lay servants.

An artist's reconstruction of life in the Abby's residential areas (Crown copyright, from Historic Scotland's souvenir guide, p.8)

The true centre of Abby life, however, was the church, where the monks conducted a range of services throughout the day and night. Despite the survival of a number of early mediaeval churches in Scotland, the one at Dunfermline is special. Only the nave survives, but it is a rare example of Romanesque architecture, a style usually phased out or built over in other churches.

The west end of Dunfermline Abbey, used for processions and formal events.

The processional west end of the church, for example, sports a large ceremonial entrance covered by a rounded arch, and it appears both solid and well-proportioned, bearing a marked resemblance to that of Kelso Abbey. Unlike Kelso, however, the interior of the nave has survived, giving visitors a unique glimpse into the church experience of the 12th century.

Large round columns and circular arches are characteristic of Romanesque. Note the distinctive columns at the end, decorated with zig-zag stonework.

Although treasured for its early features, the nave bears the hallmarks of successive generations,  including 16th century paintings and buttresses added to support its unstable structure.

A painted ceiling from the 16th century.

At its peak, Dunfermline had many other buildings than those which now stand, which would have connected the Abbey church with the monks quarters via cloisters.

Artist's aerial representation of the site, displaying both the cross-shape of the original church, the square cloister, and the living quarters.(Crown copyright, Historic Scotland Souvenir Guide p.26.)

While the site today is managed by Historic Scotland and has undergone a number of excavations, its life is far from over. Adjoined to the historic Roman nave is an active parish church, and the surroundings are a mixture of park and urban neighbourhoods. This vitality is what makes Dunfermline such an interesting site to visit, since its current state owes much to many ages. With luck, royal Dunfermline will remain a dynamic place, where heritage and modern life meet.

The tower of the active parish church, opened in 1821. It commemorates a mediaeval Scottish hero-king, Robert the Bruce, whose career still informs debate about Scottish nationalism and identity.


The artist’s representations were taken from Historic Scotland’s Dunfermline Abbey and Palace Official Souvenir Guide, Dr. Kirsty Owen, (2009).


2 thoughts on “Royal Dunfermline: History and Heritage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s