It’s easy to get caught up in the royalty of Edinburgh. After all, there’s Edinburgh Castle, one of the ancient strongholds of Scotland and birthplace of James VI/I, son of Mary, Queen of Scots. There’s Holyroodhouse, the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen when she’s in Scotland (Balmoral is a privately owned estate). The royal yacht is docked out in Leith. Besides all that, Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, and most people would logically think that the capital city would be the most important city of a country, at least as far as the royal family is concerned.
As it turns out, that isn’t always the case.
Back in the day, Scotland’s government was largely decentralized. There was not just one royal residence; rather, there were several royal residences (at this point, mostly castles) dotted around Scotland, reserved for use by the royal family whenever they were in town. Upon reading this, most people would probably jump right to Stirling Castle – the gateway between the Highlands and the Lowlands, and the place where James VI/I was baptized and crowned king.
But, that’s not the only one.
In fact, one of the most important places in Scotland, so far as Scottish royalty is concerned, is Dunfermline. Everything you read about Dunfermline makes it sound like some small outpost on the north side of the Firth of Forth, with nothing to see. Lonely Planet barely mentions the place in their Scotland guidebook. It is actually a pretty good-sized town, with a bustling downtown area and huge swathes of green parkland. It’s also home to one of the most revered set of buildings of the Scottish royal family: Dunfermline Abbey and Palace.
In 1066, a beautiful and lovely young lady, named Margaret, sought refuge in Scotland. She was a displaced English princess, her father having been ousted by the Danes before she was born and sent into exile. When she was still very young, she returned to England to live in the court of her great-uncle, Edward the Confessor. It wasn’t very long before her great-uncle had problems maintaining control of the throne, and in 1066 Margaret fled north to escape the Norman Conquest, which would oust Edward the Confessor as king and replace him with William of Normandy (the Conqueror).
It was at this time that Margaret found herself in the court of Malcolm III of Scotland, called Canmore (from the Gaelic ceann mòr, meaning great chief). For anyone who’s interested, this is the Malcolm that makes an appearance in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although (as much as I hate to say it) the Bard seems to have gotten his lines a bit crossed with that particular story. But save that for another time. By the time Margaret arrived in his court, Malcolm Canmore was a widower. The young woman was charming, sweet, and devout – and the king fell head over heels in love with her. They were married in Dunfermline in 1070.
After their marriage, Margaret, Queen of Scots founded a monastic community on the spot where her wedding had taken place. It became the first Benedictine community in Scotland. As Margaret was very pious, she spent a great deal of her time and personal resources to assist the monks. A palace was soon built to accommodate her when she was in town, as the simple living of the monks did not afford an appropriate situation for a royal.
When Queen Margaret died, she was buried at Dunfermline, her favorite place. She was buried there with her husband, setting a royal precedent for years to come; Scottish royals were traditionally buried either at Dunfermline or on the Isle of Iona. In 1250, she was canonized by Pope Innocent IV, making her the first (and only) royal Scottish saint.
Saint Margaret played an important role in the royal faith life. Not only was she a member of the Scottish royal family, presumably interceding for her heirs on the throne of Scotland, but she was also a mother. As such, it became tradition for Scottish queens to give birth at Dunfermline Palace, where they could be close to the relics of the saintly queen and mother. The last monarch to be born at Dunfermline was Charles I in 1600.
Today, the palace is in ruins, having fallen into neglect after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and the removal of the royal family to England. The abbey, however, is still an active church. The monastic community was dispersed during the Reformation, but the church building remained intact (remarkable for a Catholic church building in a place where the Reformation took hold). It is now home to a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) parish.
Dunfermline Palace is managed by Historic Environment Scotland. Plan your visit to Dunfermline Palace and Abbey here.
The town of Dunfermline is only about 40 minutes outside of Edinburgh by train – bonus points: you get to ride a train over the Forth Rail Bridge! Plan your journey here.