Culross, Scotland
FEATURE BY Willard Manus

Fans of 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 didn’t 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 Holland.

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 didn’t 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.

Today’s 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 and beauty.

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 kid’s 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, Na’e 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.