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Country life

Anne Shade visits historic Culross. a quaint village of white and ochre-yellow buildings with red, pantiled roofs, Culross lies on the shores of the river Forth. But appearances can be deceptive - although many of the 17th and 18th century dwelling houses of the more prosperous inhabitants of Culross remain, there is little visible evidence of how their wealth was made. In reality, the majority of the villagers toiled for a pittance. Whole families worked to produce salt by evaporating the tidal waters of the river over fires. These had to be stoked day and night with coal mined from seams running under the river.

The local landowner, George Bruce, a talented engineer, designed an entrance to the mine via a moat pit in the middle of the river, the remains of which are still visible.

Iron girdles for making scones were another important export from Culross, but the market crashed in the face of competition from the Carron Ironworks at Falkirk in the middle of the 18th century. The village fell into disrepair as the various industries declined but fortunately many buildings have been saved by the National Trust for Scotland's painstaking restoration.

Most pupils who visit Culross have read Kathleen Fidler's historical adventure, Escape in Darkness, and this helps them picture life there in the 17th century. In addition, there are period costumes available, similar to clothes that would have been worn by characters in the book, so pupils can dress appropriately for their tour of the Palace, Study and Town House.

The main attraction is the Palace. Although Culross is a royal burgh, the Palace was never a royal residence and its name is a mistranslation of the Latin palattium or principal lodging - in other words George Bruce's town house. He used his engineering skills to incorporate running water in the kitchens by channeling it from a nearby well. The only drawback to the system was that waste from his upstairs privy dropped very close to the source of the water supply on its way to the street below. Children are equally fascinated by the chamber pot which was kept in the banqueting hall for general use during meals.

Other curiosities include a baby walker dating from around 1600, and a piece of high-tech marquetry work laid out in perspective. There were strong trading links with Holland and many of the rooms are furnished with Dutch dressers and chests. More European influences are visible in the steep walled garden at the back of the Palace which has been planted with herbs, grape vines, garlic and other vegetables.

Culross, like the rest of Scotland, had its share of witches who were imprisoned and tried in the nearby Town House before being ducked in the river. It was reputed that witches did not cast a reflection and people often hung a mirrored ball in the doorway so they could check out their visitors. One of these can be seen at the Study and, predictably, pupils usually find it very difficult to see their teachers.

The Study was the home of a shipping magnate and has many Scandinavian artifacts including a bridal cabinet decorated with trolls. The Norwegian rose pattern on the ceiling is a reproduction - but it does give an idea of how brightly coloured the painted ceilings looked in their heyday.

Stinking Wynd leads round the back of the Palace from the Study - the name was unlikely to have been an exaggeration and pupils eagerly enter into the spirit of things: the ladies take great pleasure in hitching up their long velvet and brocade skirts and picking their way along the crown of the causeway while the hoi polloi are left to trudge through the gutters at either side.

Contact: Grace Murray, Property Manager, West Green House, Culross, Fife KY12 8JH. Tel: 01383 880359.

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