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The forgotten ancient capital of Scotland

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Many people were surprised when the county of Fife’s largest town was granted city status. But Dunfermline has always been central to the story of Scotland.

Many people were surprised when Dunfermline was named Scotland’s newest city in May 2022 as part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. But not Michelle McWilliams, a passionate candidate for city status. “We’ve long been a city in waiting,” she said as we toured a new exhibition at Fire Station Creative, an old Art Deco fire station that has been reinvented as an arts hub.

We were Europe’s fastest-growing town. Now we’re one of its most creative and historic small cities

“We were Europe’s fastest-growing municipality. We are now one of the country’s most creative and historic small cities. And, of course, Dunfermline was Scotland’s ancient capital.”

I’ve been guilty, like many Scots, of underestimating Dunfermline. Despite the fact that I’ve travelled to over 100 countries as a travel writer, I’d never ventured deep into Fife’s new (and only) city, despite its proximity to my home in Edinburgh’s western suburbs. The buzz of the city’s status, however, provided the impetus to explore this ancient town of cobblestones and spires that was once home to kings and queens.

There were rumblings of life in Dunfermline as early as the Neolithic period. However, its story really began in 1069 with the marriage of Scottish King Malcom III and Queen Margaret, a monarch canonised after her death in 1093 for her devotion to both religion and the development of Dunfermline. While the king constructed a castle stronghold on strategic high ground, the ruins of which can be found in Pittencrieff Park, Queen Margaret concentrated on all things ecclesiastical, constructing a priory and a “Queensferry” across the Forth to transport devotees away from Edinburgh to Dunfermline, putting Dunfermline on the map for the first time.–Secret-To-Pass-Exam-In-First-Attempt/wiki

Their marriage established a royal lineage in Dunfermline that lasted until 1603, when the Stuart dynasty – who also reigned over England at the time – relocated their court to London. Scotland’s ancient capital was at the centre of Scottish history for six centuries, leaving a tangible legacy that visitors can walk through today.

In its historical core, I immediately got a sense of Dunfermline’s illustrious history: a Harry Potter-esque world of vaulting towers, cobblestones, and graveyards that’s just as romantic as Edinburgh but with far fewer tourists. It was here that Queen Margaret established her modest priory, around which grew a church and an ever more lavish Royal Palace, the facade of which can be found in the heart of Dunfermline.

Dunfermline Abbey, which towers above the priory ruins, is home to a slew of Scottish monarchs. The abbey is made up of two architectural halves: the oldest, the Romanesque Abbey Nave, dates back to the 12th century, while the 19th-century New Abbey Church next door is revered by Scots as the grand tomb of Robert the Bruce, the king whose victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 led to Scottish independence. Bruce’s tomb, which was originally buried in the nave, became the focal point of the new church, which was built in 1818.

There is no understating the [historical] importance of Dunfermline as Scotland’s ancient capital–Best-Preparation-Material/wiki

“There is no understatement of Dunfermline’s [historical] importance as Scotland’s ancient capital,” church custodian Willie Donaldson said as I admired the striking brass floor tomb. “Not only Bruce and Queen Margaret were born here, but Charles I, Britain’s last Scottish-born monarch, is buried in our cemetery, as is William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace’s mother.”

Meanwhile, Queen Margaret’s relics can be found a short distance away in the newly renovated Church of St Margaret. “For centuries, pilgrims from all over the world have come to pay their respects to Queen Margaret, according to sacristan Tom Condy, who showed me a fragment of her shoulder bone. “Today, they make the pilgrimage to see our relic. Dunfermline is now a city. But it has always been a deeply special pilgrimage site for pilgrims.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking Queen Margaret is the most well-known figure in Dunfermline’s history, but she’s not alone. Downhill from the church is a simple weaver’s cottage where the Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835.

Carnegie is a giant in Dunfermline’s story, a backbone to the town that became a city

Carnegie’s family arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1848 with almost nothing, but he made his fortune during the great era of American railroads. And, despite becoming the world’s richest man in 1902 after selling his businesses, one of which supplied steel for the Brooklyn Bridge, he remained true to his Dunfermline roots.

“Carnegie is a giant in Dunfermline’s story, a backbone to the town that became a city,” museum manager Mark McLeod said as he showed me around the Carnegie cottage, now dedicated to him as a museum, and pointed out the modest bed where he was born.

Carnegie spent the rest of his life donating what would be billions of dollars today, famously saying: “The man who dies thus wealthy dies in disgrace.” He would likely have rejoiced at the city status news, having declared it was his mission to “bring sweetness and light to the people of Dunfermline”. Without him, there would be no 22 Carnegie trusts, which have engaged in a global web of charitable work and philanthropy for more than a century. The Carnegie Baths public swimming pool and the Carnegie Hall music venue would not exist in Dunfermline, nor would New York have its own Carnegie Hall.

Without him, Dunfermline would not have its Carnegie Library, the first of more than 2,500 Carnegie Libraries worldwide, which was brilliantly reinvented in 2017 to house a civic museum and galleries highlighting Dunfermline’s fortitude. Downstairs, the public library is woven around the old sandstone building, while the museum and galleries are housed in an ultra-modern riot of oak, glass, and (in a nod to Carnegie) steel, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Dunfermline Abbey. Visitors can learn how the city survived the devastating Great Fire of 1624, cholera epidemics, and hard times in the 1980s as the old textile mills declined.

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