BY Willard Manus
the popular TV series Outlanders might recognize its red-tiled
stone houses, steep, tree-lined streets and cobbled squares. Culross,
the best-preserved example of a 16th century industrial town in Scotland,
serves not just as the backdrop for a sword & shield epic but as one
of the top tourist attractions in the country. Thanks to the influence
of The National Trust for Scotland, modern development has not been allowed
to change the look and feel of the town, which is now home to about 600
people, most of them retirees.
Culross sits on the edge of the Firth of Forth, a broad river which empties
into the North Sea. In 1217 the Earl of Fife founded a Cicerian abbey
whose monks worked the nearby coal fields and salt-pans. After the Protestant
reformation, the property passed to the Colville family, who helped to
further develop the two main industries. But prosperity didnt arrive
until the 25-year-old George Bruce came to Culross and created the Moat
Pit-a way to mine the vast coal deposits beneath the river. Culross
soon became the center of the Scottish coal industry, with upwards of
200 ships waiting offshore to carry its goods to Britain, Ireland and
The prosperity was enjoyed by some members of society, namely the industrialists,
traders and artisans, but for the workers it was a much grimmer and more
shocking story. Those who toiled in the salt-pans and mine-shafts were
little better than serfs: near-slaves who were legally bound to their
masters for life.
In order to work as a laborer and/or miner, one had to sign a certificate
which in effect made you a serf for life. Those who tried to work without
a certificate were considered criminals and could be imprisoned and beaten.
Wives and children (as young as six or seven) were also covered by the
certificate, which meant that whole families were obliged work together
from dawn to dusk, six and sometimes seven days a week.
Serfdom was made law in 1606, meaning masters could arrest anyone who
tried to escape from bondage. Joining the Royal Navy didnt help
either. Many arrests were made at sea resulting in the prisoner being
sent back to his original place of work. Those who resisted the bidding
of their masters were placed by the neck in iron collars called juggs
and chained to a wall.
The humanitarian reforms that freed the serfs in Scotland (and England)
did not become law until the mid-19th century.
Todays visitors will not see Culross dark side, of course.
Gone are the juggs, the miners hovels and the mines themselves.
Devoid of industry of any kind (except for tourism), the town of Culross
stands out in picturesque splendor. It is edifying to stroll up and down
its cobbled streets and to visit its magnificent abbey (now a parish church)
and its 3-story palace and adjoining garden, soaking up all that ambience
There are no hotels or inns in Culross, but there are some pubs, a gift
shop or two, and a handful of art and pottery galleries. There is even
a kids playground on the waterfront, not far from the statue of
a local hero, Lord Thomas Alexander Cochrane (1775-1860) which reads:
Naval Commander, International Statesman, Radical and Inventor.
In our Valhalla, Nae was Worthier lad.
Anyone visiting eastern Scotland would do well to visit the restored village
of Culross. It sits about an hour out of Glasgow, off the A 985, a Royal
burgh frozen in time.