Scotland’s forgotten ancient capital

When the county of Fife’s biggest town was awarded city status, it came as a major surprise to many. But Dunfermline has always been at the heart of Scotland’s story.

“We were Europe’s fastest-growing town. Now we’re one of its most creative and historic small cities. And Dunfermline was, of course, the ancient capital of Scotland.”

I’ve been guilty of underrating Dunfermline, like many Scots. Even though it shimmered only across the Firth of Forth estuary from my house in Edinburgh’s western suburbs, despite the fact that I’ve traveled to more than 100 countries in my capacity as a travel writer, I’d never delved deeply into the county of Fife’s new (and only) city. The need to explore this old town of cobblestones and spires, which was once the residence of kings and queens, was finally given by the bustle of the city status that was reverberating through the streets.

Although there are Neolithic traces of life in Dunfermline, the city’s history actually starts with the marriage of Scottish King Malcom III and Queen Margaret in 1069. Queen Margaret, who died in 1093, was canonized for her devotion to Dunfermline’s growth and to religion. Queen Margaret focused on all things ecclesiastical with her priory and a “Queensferry” across the Forth to transport devotees away from Edinburgh to Dunfermline, putting Dunfermline on the map for the first time. While the king constructed a castle stronghold on strategically high ground, whose ruins you can explore in Pittencrieff Park.

As a result of their relationship, Dunfermline enjoyed a royal lineage that persisted up until 1603, when the Stuart dynasty, which by this time also ruled over England, moved their court to London. Scotland’s historic capital was at the epicenter of Scottish history for nearly six centuries, leaving a visible legacy that tourists may still stroll through today.

In Dunfermline’s historic district, which is reminiscent of a Harry Potter world of vaulting towers, cobblestones, and graveyards but with many fewer tourists, I was immediately struck by the city’s distinguished past. Here, Queen Margaret first established her modest priory, around which grew a church and an increasingly opulent Royal Palace, the front of which is located in Dunfermline.


A large number of Scottish monarchs are interred at Dunfermline Abbey, which towers over the abandoned priory. The abbey is a tale of two architectural halves fused together: the oldest portion, the Romanesque Abbey Nave, dates back to the 12th Century, while the Scots revere the nearby 19th-century New Abbey Church as the grand tomb of Robert the Bruce, the king whose victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 paved the way for Scottish independence. Bruce’s tomb, which was originally located in the nave, was moved there in 1818 to serve as the new church’s focal point.

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

Dunfermline celebrated in May 2022 when it was named Scotland’s eighth city (Credit: Ken Jack/Getty Images)

While this is going on, Queen Margaret’s remains are nearby at the recently refurbished Church of St. Margaret. As sacristan Tom Condy handed me a piece of Queen Margaret’s shoulder bone, he remarked, “People from all over the world have undertaken pilgrimages to pay homage to Queen Margaret for generations. They make the pilgrimage to see our relic. Although Dunfermline is now a city, it has always been a very important location for pilgrims to visit.

You may be excused for believing that Queen Margaret is the most well-known character in Dunfermline’s history, yet Carnegie, a Scottish-American entrepreneur and philanthropist, was born in a humble weaver’s hut downhill from the chapel in 1835.

The Carnegie family arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1848 with very nothing, but Carnegie became wealthy during the heyday of the American railways. And even after selling his businesses, which included one that provided steel for the Brooklyn Bridge, he rose to become the richest man in the world in 1902, he never forgot his Dunfermline roots.

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

He is known for saying: “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie would have likely rejoiced at the city status news, having declared it was his mission to “bring sweetness and light to the people of Dunfermline.” Carnegie spent the rest of his life giving away what today would be billions of dollars. Without him, the 22 Carnegie trust bequests that have supported philanthropic endeavors around the world for more than a century would not exist. Neither Dunfermline nor New York would have access to the Carnegie Hall concert hall or the Carnegie Baths public pool.

The city’s historical centre is a Harry Potter-esque world of vaulting towers, cobblestones and graveyards (Credit: Robin McKelvie)

Without him, Dunfermline would not have the first of more than 2,500 Carnegie Libraries, which was wonderfully renovated in 2017 to include a civic museum and exhibits that highlight Dunfermline’s tenacity. An ultra-modern riot of oak, glass, and (as a tribute to Carnegie) steel holds the museum and galleries, with its floor-to-ceiling windows staring out over Dunfermline Abbey. Upstairs, the public library is braided around the original sandstone edifice. Visitors can discover how the city overcame the disastrous Great Fire of 1624, cholera epidemics, difficult times in the 1980s after economic hardship struck as the ancient textile factories closed, and more.

Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie was born in a simple weaver’s cottage in Dunfermline in 1835 (Credit: Robin McKelvie)

The open-air legacy of Carnegie is unfolded just to the west of the historic district. 76 acres of picturesque Pittencrieff Park are collectively referred to as “The Glen” by locals. Carnegie was not permitted to play on this exclusive estate as a child. In order for everyone to enjoy the park’s walks and gardens, he joyously presented it to Dunfermline in 1903 after purchasing it. The “Laird of Pittencrieff” must have been one of his titles that was the sweetest, I thought as I strolled beneath its enormous redwoods and beside its colorful flowerbeds. Today, a huge monument of Carnegie guards what Fields in Trust, a British nonprofit that promotes natural areas that benefit communities, called Scotland’s Best Park in 2019.

The pride of city status was evident as I strolled the same streets that the benefactor previously did. We’re noticing more tourists coming, and I’ve heard that many passengers from the cruise ships in the Forth now come here instead of Edinburgh to find Scotland’s newest city. Marketing manager Claire Fletcher told me this as she stood by the renovated Art Deco bar at the Alhambra Theatre, which is celebrating its centenary this year.

Dunfermline should have been a city a long time ago with our feeling of community, fantastic culture, arts, and architecture, said Louise Hutchison, operations manager at the grand dame from the 1580s known as the Abbot House.

In 1903, Carnegie bought Pittencrieff Park and donated it to the town for everyone to enjoy (Credit: Ramonespelt/Getty Images)

The annual Outwith Festival, which began in 2017, honors this creative tendency. The name, which translates to “outside” in Scottish English, is a throwback to the 1947 inaugural Edinburgh Festival, the largest arts festival in the world, when a performance in Dunfermline Abbey across the water was given the moniker “The Fringe” along with a dozen other events that weren’t part of the main festival. The Outwith Festival honors the notion of culture that exists “outside” of Edinburgh, whereas the Fringe has since expanded to become the largest component of the Edinburgh Festival. The seven creative venues collaborate closely and are all within walking distance of one another, making it very Dunfermline. However, it is also a representation of the disparities between the two cities because Dunfermline’s Outwith Festival is taking place there.

I set out from Dunfermline to tackle a section of the Fife Pilgrim Way, a long-distance walking path that was inaugurated in 2019 and which replicates the route taken by pilgrims between Dunfermline Abbey and the neighboring religious center of St Andrews, a well-known tourist destination in Scotland. Dunfermline is at an exciting turning moment in its story, even though the city that spun around me is just beginning to appear on that map. The new city is evolving into a creative hub worth the journey across the Forth, and pilgrims have recognized this for ages. It is no longer just a historical relic.


By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter

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