Beauty meets irony;Scottish Heritage

24th April 1998 at 01:00
In the ancient kingdom of Fife, a complete town has been restored by the National Trust for Scotland. Once grimy and industrial, Culross is in pristine condition. Seonag MacKinnon reports.

In the small coastal conservation town of Culross in the kingdom of Fife, even a car seems an unwelcome modern intrusion. Such is the silence when the engine is turned off, that birds doing their spring fling seem to make the most noticeable noise around.

The only rival is the sound of the visitor's shoes striking the cobbles which pave the narrow 17th-century streets. A hand bell rings and children from Inchkeith school pour out to play, filling the space with perky voices. In the air is the smell of salt from the sand and sea just a few yards away.

A small royal burgh of white harled buildings with red pantile roofs and crow stepped gables, Culross is filled with cobbled streets winding round, up and down from a palace to the old Mercat Cross, to the Tron and the remains of a once thriving harbour.

Nothing shouts. There are no gaudy hanging flower baskets to attract the tourist to stop. The National Trust for Scotland, which has been engaged in major restoration of the town since the beginning of the decade, has no need to resort to ornamentation to render Culross beautiful. Care and attention to detail have been the order of the day - even electricity officials agreed to site a new sub-station inside one of the restored houses.

The irony is that the elegant restoration does not take the visitor back to the town that Culross once was. Some 400 years ago, when it was one of Scotland's boom towns mining coal from the ground, harvesting salt from the sea and hammering iron into girdles, the place was much dirtier, smellier and noisier.

Grimy smoke rose from the saltpans. At the pithead, winding engines whined on and on and heavy coals tipped into carts. The poorer local people - almost always barefoot - would have to pick their way through rubbish hurled out of windows.

The feet of wealthy citizens were pampered by comparison: properly shod and with the right to walk along the middle, the 'croon o' the causey' - or crown of the causeway - was the only section of the street to be paved and was where waste tended not to accumulate.

Life at the palace was easier for the family of Sir George Bruce, a descendant of Robert the Bruce and founder of the coal mines and salt pans which established the town's prosperity.

Sitting in the old building of Inchkeith school on the edge of the town, Sheila Mackay is kingpin of the Culross sewing group, a team of eight NTS volunteers. They are sufficiently gripped by the town's past and present to come in from outlying areas once a week from October to March to sew soft furnishings for the most important buildings open to the public, as well as period costumes for visiting schoolchildren.

As many as 16 people joined the group when restoration work was at its peak in the winter of 1992-93, several of them retired nurses and teachers. Some were interested in design, some in fabrics, upholstery, lacemaking or embroidery.

One woman had, like her sisters, been apprenticed in her youth to make curtains for the general draper in her town. One man, who delivered his wife by car, was even encouraged to pick up a needle himself.

While working on window seats, bed covers or doublets, the ladies use the designs and stitches that 17th century Culross women would have used. 'It's tremendously exciting,' says Mrs Mackay. 'Working in the same place, you feel that direct link with the past. You feel in tune.' Mrs Mackay has enjoyed needlework since she was a child and is a lifelong member of the NTS, so the work brings together important themes in her life. Researching the fabrics, threads and designs took her to St Andrews University and Edinburgh, where she discovered all about the clothes worn by the working men and women - the cloth dyed with native plants, such as ivy and alder to produce black, or crab apples to produce green.

She learned how many of the clothes had detachable sleeves for easy removal in hot weather. They were attached by tapes concealed by the doublet's heavy, rounded shoulder pad.

The clothes the women made were not for display in a museum. Instead, they were for the 2,000 schoolchildren who visit each year to wear and, as a result, the needlework team did not use dye. They simply tracked down the right colours in fabric and charity shops, and the authentic multitude of ties and bindings was substituted with velcro and buttons to help inexperienced young fingers.

Thirty-three costumes have been made in all, the most elaborate (designed and sewn by Moyra Brown) for Sir George's wife, Lady Bruce. Little tucks, strips of braid and gold embroidery are visible in the heavy black dress which would fit seamlessly into the Doges Palace, Venice.

Other costumes are for all the main characters in Kathleen Fiddler's book, Escape In Darkness, which is based on the lives of the Bruce family in Culross and surrounding community, and is widely read by children as part of the 5-14 curriculum.

But despite the strong appeal of sugar loaf hats, doublets, lace ruffs and bustles, one of the most popular outfits is that of the miner. For the second time in its history, the local mining industry is in steep decline and, though many children wish to put on the working clothes that their fathers wore, they will never be seen at the coalface.

Walk around the palace garden and you will find gardener Nick Hoskins, an expert in plants of bygone days. He talks to visitors about the meadowsweet and sweet woodruff (known in Scotland as witherips), cut from the garden and strewn on palace floors to disguise the malodorous areas of the house. He tells too of the vegetables and herbs used for food and medicine.

A Surrey man, Hoskins came to Culross via Kew and Threave in Castle Douglas, to redesign the site and take it back to its origins as a walled kitchen garden. No ordinary gardener, he has studied the past with help from the NTS Gardens Advisory Group and a databank at the trust's Edinburgh headquarters, and contributed to a new study box on Culross with specimens of plants and information on their history.

Hoskins is the man to ask about all the garden's ancient plants. For instance, there's the skirret, a knobbly narrow white root vegetable related to the carrot and parsnip which was ousted from kitchens when the easier-to-peel potato came on the scene.

Also, there's the Madder's orangey red root which produces a dye, or the coltsfoot, which went into the production of a cough cure.

Other plants like fennel, tansy and sweet cicely had many uses. Herbs were not called herbs at the time of the Bruce family, as there was a wider perception of their function.

Hoskins crunches over the authentically shell-strewn path past the willow hurdles and hazel trellis, precursors of the ubiquitous larchlap panels and trellis of our age.

He draws my attention to the unexpected sight of olive branches and a vine covered walkway on the terraced sheltered south-facing garden with views out to the Forth.

This is home to Scots Dumpies, an ancient breed of short-legged Scottish hen, designed to survive in much harsher conditions.

Culross is also likely to be the last home of 49-year-old Hoskins, at least if he has his way. 'They'll have to prise me out of here,' he says.

For information about the town, the education pack, and its traditional clothing and garden, contact the Culross property manager on 01383 880359.

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