Why Now Is the Time to Visit Scotland’s Ancient Capital

Once one of Scotland’s historic capitals, Dunfermline has plenty to offer the modern-day traveler, including an 11th-century abbey and Scottish tapas.

Why Now Is the Time to Visit Scotland’s Ancient Capital

Dunfermline’s oldest building, Abbot House, is now a new cultural center.

Photo by Jean Morrison/Shutterstock

Dunfermline, a 40-minute drive from Edinburgh, was an important royal center in the Middle Ages where multiple Scottish royals lived. Its rich history is evident in the city’s streets, filled with medieval buildings and the sight of the Abbey tower above the rooftops, but there’s transformation here too, with creative flavors on restaurant tables in an urban area that’s one of the fastest-growing in the country.

Now, after it was named Scotland’s eighth city as part of the civic honors competition to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, Dunfermline is center stage once again. Here’s what to do in Scotland’s newest city.

Visit Dunfermline Abbey and Palace

At the heart of Dunfermline’s Heritage Quarter sits the imposing Dunfermline Abbey and Palace, built in the 11th century as a Benedictine priory by Scotland’s Queen Margaret, and later developed into an Abbey by her son King David I.

Eleven royals are buried here, including King Robert the Bruce, whose name is outlined on the tower of the Abbey Church. The building is impressive outside and in: There’s the imposing wooden west door; the shadowy, medieval nave filled with towering Romanesque columns; and the more modern, working church area, which is home to Bruce’s tomb.

Although the Palace ruins are currently closed to visitors, they can be viewed from the Abbey grounds, which are worth exploring too, both for their views and historic sites, like the Shrine to Saint Margaret.

Admission is free, but tickets can be booked in advance online at Historic Environment Scotland.

Admire Abbot House

You can’t miss Dunfermline’s oldest building, thanks to its bright limewashed pink walls. In the 1500s it was used by abbots and commendators, the religious leaders of Dunfermline Abbey, and it has had various uses over the centuries, being owned by earls and town merchants, and even used as the headquarters for a Royal Air Force training team in the 1940s.

After a multiyear renovation that was completed earlier this year, the architecture can be now be admired in all its glory. Operating as a cultural hub, the building hosts an education center and creative rental space for local artists, with a new coffee shop on the first floor set to open this summer.

Delve into history at Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries

The new Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries opened in May 2017, and the modern architecture links seamlessly with the original 1883 Carnegie Public Library building. The museum, which is free to visit, gives an interactive, in-depth overview of the city’s history through various themes, including royalty, industry, transport, and leisure.

The city was once famous for its innovative linen and silk weaving industry, with the fabric being exported worldwide, and it has a storied entertainment history as the hometown of well-known Scottish rock bands, such as Big Country and Nazareth.

As you make your way upstairs through the exhibits, you’re rewarded with an elevated panoramic view of the Abbey and Heritage Quarter. Don’t miss the gardens that border the Abbey grounds; you’ll find a small maze, sculptures, and even Scotland’s national animal, the unicorn, overlooking the scene from a stone plinth at the back of Abbot House.

Come for the haggis bonbons; stay for the chicken wings

Dunfermline has a varied food and drink scene. For brunch, lunch, and homemade cakes, there’s vegetarian-friendly Cafe Wynd in the center of town. For dinner, 1703, housed in a former church, has two contemporary Scottish restaurants and three cocktail bars to choose among. There are plenty of popular South Asian restaurants worth visiting too, like the award-winning Dhoom Indian Streatery and Bar. Recently opened on the edge of town is Christie’s Scottish Tapas: try haggis bonbons, sticky Irn-Bru chicken wings, or smoked west coast haddock bites with pomegranate for a twist on traditional Scottish flavors.

Pittencrief Park, aka "The Glen," has centuries of history and resident peacocks.

Pittencrief Park, aka “The Glen,” has centuries of history and resident peacocks.

Photo by Jean Morrison/Shutterstock

Walk through Pittencrief Park

Known to locals as “the Glen,” thanks to the valley that runs through it, this 76-acre park was gifted to the people of Dunfermline by Andrew Carnegie in 1903. From formal gardens and glasshouses to wilder woodland walks and children’s play areas, the park provides a natural space to relax for locals and visitors alike.

There’s plenty of history, too, including a statue of Carnegie, who was born in Dunfermline; the 17th-century Pittencrief House, home to a museum and exhibition about the park and city; and Malcolm Canmore’s Tower, believed to be where King Macolm III of Scotland married Queen Margaret in 1070.

From certain vantage points, you can see the Three Bridges that span the Firth of Forth, including the Forth Rail Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Keep an eye out for the park’s resident peacocks, which return to the peacock sanctuary at night but have the freedom to roam the city—and can often be seen stopping traffic.

Visit the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum

Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the United States, but he started life here in Dunfermline, in a small stone cottage a few streets away from the Abbey. The weaver’s cottage is set up as it would have been in Carnegie’s childhood in the 1800s. It opens into a larger museum space that gives an overview of the Carnegie family’s story, from their emigration to North America (like many fellow Scots at the time), to Carnegie’s success as an industrialist and enduring connection with Dunfermline.

>> Next: The Essential Guide to Edinburgh

Katie is a Scottish travel blogger and writer.
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