As travel has slowed, the places we revisit seem to say more about us than ever before. That’s how I find myself, every month or so, wandering around the cobbled streets of Culross in search of family memories and a timeless calm.
You may know this Fife town for its cameos in the popular TV series Outlander. But Culross — pronounced ‘Coo-russ’ — isn’t just a picturesque backdrop, with its colourful cottage fronts and pantiled roofs. It’s actually one of the best-preserved seventeenth century royal burghs in the country. To this day, Culross is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, with around 600 people calling the harled town home. My grandmother was one of them.
In this slow travel guide, I share some of my favourite places in Culross to eat, walk and explore. Take photos by all means, but remember — as always — to ‘leave only footprints’.
If you can, I believe the best way to experience a place is by walking it. Culross is no different and one of the pleasures of visiting here is the relative lack of traffic off the wider main street, where the alleys are narrow and cobbled.
Give yourself the time to wander with no particular destination in mind. Notice things: the delicate window frames, flower boxes and gardens bursting with colour, how lanes lead off from the heart of the town square like veins, getting quieter the further you go.
When I visit Culross, I often retrace a walking route which passes many of the landmarks linked to my grandmother. From the square I pass by the tower, where my great-grandfather was town registrar, then up colourful Tanhouse Brae to Culross Abbey, where my grandparents were married. Imagine how many others have walked these cobbles, their stories held in the worn stones.
Buildings and braes
Although the whole town is full of beautiful buildings, there are a few that stand out. The first is the golden Culross Palace, which you’ll notice glowing behind gates in the main square. Entry to the palace and gardens starts from £7 or free for Trust members. Built by a knighted merchant in the late sixteenth century, inside features intricate furniture and painted ceilings, and outdoors the stocked palace garden gives views over the River Forth.
At the top of the town is Culross Abbey, a breaking wave of stone and transept beside the intact, present-day church. It dates from the 1200s but its age doesn’t affect its atmosphere; there’s a stillness here, framed by beech trees that transform from green to gold into autumn. Entry is free.
If you follow the road north past the abbey and then left between farmers’ fields, you’ll reach the West Kirk. This was Culross’s original parish church and, centuries ago, parishioners would walk to worship from the surrounding villages.
It’s one of my favourite places. Some may be interested in its Outlander credits but for me it’s the mysterious gravestones, some with dissolving dates and symbols, skulls or ships etched into the rock, which intrigue.
Forests and gardens
From the ruin of the West Kirk, you can either carry on straight towards the outskirts of Devilla forest — a large woodland area maintained by the Forestry Commission, full of archaeological finds and fauna — or you can head south back to Culross.
This often-muddy path passes Dunimarle Castle. You can explore the gardens, including a snowdrop walk in winter and a wildflower meadow in summer, for just a few pounds’ entry. In 2022, expect a new coffee shop and more family events — it’s well worth a visit.
For families there’s also a good play park by the centre of town, next to the west car park.
Eating and drinking
I’ve had many late lunches – inside on dark December days, or in the courtyard at the height of summer – at Bessie’s Café. You’ll find this family-run eatery right next to Culross Palace. Thanks to their homemade cakes and scran, Bessie’s gets busy. In winter I’d recommend the soup of the day (in a bowl so big you could swim in it) or in summer, sit outside in the sun with a latte and a tub of ice cream from local dairy Nelson’s.
A little further towards the town centre are a few other eateries. There’s the Red Lion Inn, which serves up Scottish pub grub in what was originally a merchant’s house. If light bites and coffee are more your thing, there’s also the Biscuit Café and Rankin’s by Mercat Cross where the town’s market would have been held in centuries past.
A recent addition to the modest foodie scene in Culross is Stickman Food Co., featuring flavourful tacos and themed lunch boxes from a converted horse trailer (aptly stationed at the Stables, by the west car park). Check Instagram for the latest on where Stickman is popping up across Fife, Falkirk and Edinburgh.
The easiest way to get to Culross is by road. There are two car parks to the east and west of the town — and it’s just a short walk to the centre — which have ample spaces for cars and a couple of coaches.
Unfortunately there’s no train service to Culross, although you’ll notice an old railway running parallel to the shore, a relic of the area’s industrial past. You can however get public transport from Dunfermline, one of Fife’s largest towns, on the Stagecoach service 8 or 8A bus.
Otherwise, the popular Fife Coastal Path and new Fife Pilgrim Way also pass through Culross. These are great long-distance trails that are worth investigating if you want to stretch your legs for longer, or even do a day cycle from Edinburgh to see more of what the region of Fife has to offer.