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Culross Palace

House (16th Century)

Site Name Culross Palace

Classification House (16th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Culross, Main Street, The Palace, Bessie Bar Hall

Canmore ID 48021

Site Number NS98NE 12

NGR NS 98515 85951

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Fife
  • Parish Culross
  • Former Region Fife
  • Former District Dunfermline
  • Former County Fife

Archaeology Notes

NS98NE 12.00 98515 85951

(NS 9851 8595) The Palace (NR)

OS 25" map, (1962).

NS98NE 12.01 NS 98522 85985 Garden

NS98NE 12.02 NS 985 859 Coin

The Palace, sometimes called 'the Colonel's Close' was built between 1597 and 1611 by George Bruce. The buildings, (see plan) stand on the N and W sides of an enclosure, with a smaller courtyard in the NW. The name derives from a visit by James VI in 1617. In 1928, it was uninhabited, but weatherproofed.

D MacGibbon and T Ross 1887-92; RCAHMS 1933.

Visited by OS (M H) 7 July 1953.

Trial trenching in the courtyard area revealed the foundations of what appear to be two masonry buildings, one of which overlies a well-laid cobbled surface. The relationships between these features and the extant buildings of the palace are yet to be determined.

J Lewis and D Reed 1992.

NS 985 859. Excavations were carried out within the ground floor of the building known as Bessie Barr Hall and in the precinct between the hall and the W range of Culross Palace. This work was carried out in advance of development of Bessie Barr Hall for public facilities.

A series of surfaces, of various composition, were uncovered within the building, virtually all containing a range of finds indicating redeposition. A cross 'wall' feature predated the hall itself and the original ground contours had led to the depth of the wall foundations of the building varying from virtually nil at the N end to substantial construction on the S and E.

Excavation in the precinct revealed a complex of drains and cobbled surfaces. The area was split into three by two fireclay drain trenches, probably laid down earlier this century. This truncation made surface relationships more difficult to assess across the site. Part of the drainage was related to the overflow from the Bessie Barr Well (NS98NE 35), located in a covered recess in the wall bounding the N end of the site. Cobbling varied from functional to cosmetic in quality and none thought to be contemporary vath the surrounding buildings of c 1600.

A large, well-constructed, sandstone tank (3m long, surviving to 0.3m high) at the N end of the site probably indicates some light industrial activity in the late 18th/early 19th century. The excavated depth on site was restricted and only in the NW comer did contexts uncontaminated by Georgian/Victorian/later material appear.

Sponsor: National Trust for Scotland.

R Murdoch and J Lewis 1994.

Excavations by Scotia Archaeology Limited of the 'Palace' courtyard, which measures 23m N-S by 17m E-W, revealed structures and other features dating from the 18th (and perhaps the 17th) to the 19th century.

In the SE comer and towards the NE comer of the area were the well-constructed cobbled floors of two chambers which may have formed elements of a range of buildings along the E side of the courtyard. Much of the remaining area was covered with a rude metalled surface, consisting of small stones and flags set into thick clay. Although not physically linked to the putative E range, the two features are thought to have been contemporary and perhaps dating to the 18th century. Overlying the metalled surface were the remnants of a substantial, kerbed path which led from an entrance in the S wall of the courtyard to the main buildings on its W and N sides.

There was considerable evidence of 19th-century occupation towards the NE corner of the area - paths, drains, pits and the remains of a small building which overlay one of the earlier cobbled floors.

Excavation is still under way.

Sponsor: National Trust for Scotland.

J Lewis 1994a.

NS 985 859. The investigation of the courtyard, begun in autumn 1994, was completed by Scotia Archaeology Limited in March 1995 following the removal of a flowering cherry tree from the E side of the palace precinct. Further evidence was uncovered of a range of buildings set against the multi-phased E precinct wall, elements of which are thought to date from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Sponsor: National Trust for Scotland.

R Murdoch 1995.

NS 985 859 A new drain was installed within the inner courtyard of the palace to remove rainwater from the N end of the W range. The 0.35m wide trench for this drain cut through 0.2-0.3m of soils and rubble deposited during the installation of another drain (probably earlier this century); nothing of archaeological interest was uncovered.

Sponsor: National Trust for Scotland

R Murdoch 1997.

NS 986 860 A watching brief was carried out during the construction of wooden buttresses to support a stone boundary wall. Evidence was found for the levelling of the terrace to create suitable cultivation conditions.

A further watching brief was carried out during the excavation of a service trench in a small courtyard area close to Culross Palace. External ground surfaces were uncovered, including a cobbled track.

Archive to be deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: NTS.

A Daly 2003

Prior to reconstruction of a garden wall sloping up to the north from Culross Palace, a full building record was undertaken which showed 4 main phases of build, rebuild, repair and alteration. 2 investigative trenches were excavated on the site of potential retaining buttresses, no archaeological deposits were encountered to a depth of 700mm .

David Connolly, 30 July 2007. (Information from Oasis - connolly1-31187).

Architecture Notes


19th century view of Culross Palace in the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust Catalogue No. CDT 974

(Undated) information in NMRS.


Field Visit (21 March 1928)

The Palace, Culross.

This house which is sometimes called ‘the Colonel's Close' was built between 1597 and 1611 by George Bruce of Culross, later of Carnock. Despite its present rather dilapidated condition it is one of the most interesting domestic buildings in Fife. Situated less than fifty yards to the west of the Town House, it faces the street and the filled-in harbour formerly known as the Sandhaven,* and runs back to an extensive garden on the hillside that confines the greater part of the burgh to the shore. The garden is terraced, the lower part of it being forced soil. The buildings stand on the northern and western sides of an enclosure and on their southern and eastern sides respectively is an outer courtyard, which probably assumed its present dimensions when a neighbouring property was acquired. They surround an inner courtyard near the north-western corner of the main enclosure.

The Palace has grown by stages, the oldest part being the central wing on the west side of the outer courtyard. Whether this represents the whole of the original house is not quite certain, but its plan undoubtedly suggests that it has been in the first instance self-contained and that it lay fronting a small courtyard on the south, which had a smaller building, perhaps a lodge or a stable at the southeast corner. In the early 17th century there was a radical reconstruction. On the north an extension was erected, housing a turnpike and providing additional offices on the lower floor while a long gallery, the northern end of which covered part of the original structure, was runout towards the south. A further addition which can be dated to 1611, is the large isolated block on the north of the outer courtyard, mainly domestic but including a stable and byre at the eastern end. The last addition was a wing thrown out on the northside of the oldest part beside the turnpike. These changes reflect the rise in circumstances of the owner, Sir George Bruce, a commercial magnate of the time. Third son of Edward Bruce of Blairhall, he engaged in commerce and worked collieries and salt-pans to such profit that he was enabled to acquire the estate of Carnock, embracing the greater part of the parishes of CuIross and Carnock. He was knighted, by James VI and died in 1625 (cf. p.74).

The outer courtyard was entered from the south between a pair of modest 17th-century piers, only one of which remains. This courtyard measures 73 feet 6 inches from north to south and 54 feet from east to west. On the western side a forestair now rises westwards to a landing on which is the door that gives admission to the gallery, the platt being supported on two almost straight arches. Immediately beyond the landing lies what was the original house, three-storeyed and rubble-built. Its windows are small, and have the arrises of their margins rounded. Three of them are dormers facing south and having pediments enriched as shown on Fig. 175. The central pediment contains a shield, flanked by the initials G.B. and the date 1597, and bearing: Within a bordure a saltire and chief, for Bruce. A fourth donner on the north has been done away. with when the extension adjoining the turnpike was added; its position, however, is shown by the roof trimming.

There is nothing to show how admission was had to the ground floor of the original house. But after the reconstruction it was entered from the inner court on the north and also from a door set at the southern end of a passage which runs through its centre. This passage is flanked by two unvaulted chambers, the eastern one of which was the earliest kitchen. The northern extensions contained a vaulted chamber on either side of the turnpike, the one on the west being the new kitchen, behind which lies the bake-house, also vaulted. A feature of some interest is the water inlet which enters the kitchen beside the fireplace and is continued in a channel into the bake-house. The well in the inner court may not be original. There are two flues in the bake-house, the east ern designed to heat the oven.

The built-up entrance to the first floor of the original house can be seen at the north end of the landing. Beside it, also built up, is what has been an entrance to the long gallery, the inference being that these doors opened from the landing of an earlier forestair running north, and that the existing arrangement dates only from the later 17th century. Direct access to the original house from the south had of course been superfluous ever since the erection of the turnpike. The gallery, which was originally a single apartment, had a length of 46 feet 8 inches and a breadth of 13 feet 9 inches. At either end is a fireplace, the northern having a garderobe with soil-vent alongside. The ceiling was of pine boards decorated with conventional patterns in distemper, executed about the first quarter of the 17th century. The painted boards have been taken down and are stored at the northern end of the gallery. The lighting was mainly from the west, where there are four large windows breaking upward into the roof, but there were also similar windows, now built up, to the east and in the south gable. The gallery is subdivided, but this subdivision and the present finishings must be assigned to the late 17th or early 18th century, when much of the joiner-work appears to have been renewed.

A door near the south end of the long gallery opens into the first floor of the little south eastern "lodge," a single chamber which can also be reached directly from the landing of the forestair. Beneath it is a living-room, an arrangement which is not earlier than the 17th century, while the space beneath the gallery itself is filled by a single long unvaulted apartment. The door at the north end of the gallery leads into a small panelled room in the eastern part of the original house. A lobby, partitioned off the west side of this room, communicates with the turnpike, while a door on the north leads into one of the most interesting chambers in the palace - an early safe or strong-room. Elaborate precautions have been taken to make it fireproof, for it has a vaulted ceiling, and the floor, which is tiled, lies above a vaulted chamber, while the entrance is massively constructed in stone and is fitted both with a wooden door and with an inner door of sheet-iron. The fireplace, set in the gable, was originally larger. Above it are bookshelves, and the side walls have been partly wood-lined. There are two windows to the east. Beyond the lobby on the west, and above the kitchen premises, lay two chambers en suite. Only the more southerly of these remains, a living-room of fair size with a low ceiling.

On the second floor there are garrets above the kitchen block and above the strong-room, but in the eastern part of the original house there is a living-room with a remarkable coved ceiling painted in distemper. The ceiling is divided into sixteen panels, all treated in the same style. It is considerably dilapidated and only some of the panels are decipherable. They bear inscriptions, a Latin text or maxim at the top of each picture and an English couplet along the foot, similar in tenor to those illustrated. Thirteen of the inscriptions - some imperfect - appear in Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot., ii (1854-7), pp. 340-1.

The isolated block to the north of the outer courtyard consists mainly of living-rooms, but has no kitchen provision, so that it must have been served from the already existing offices. The block contains three storeys, the first floor being level with the lowest terrace of the garden behind. The masonry is of rubble, with the dressings of the voids rounded at the arris. The top windows are dormers with triangular pediments containing respectively, three roses, a conventionalised fleur-de-lys, the initials S.G.B., for Sir George Bruce, grouped round a rosette, and a quatrefoil with the date 1611. The ground floor contains a chamber to the west and another to the east, the latter subsequently adapted for use as a byre. Between these a straight stair rises to the first floor and gives access to the garden. The chambers on the first floor are living-rooms, one lying on either side of the stair and a third, which also served as a passage, over its lower end. All these are wood-lined, and the lining has borne a painted decoration now almost destroyed. The passage-room contains a fitted dresser. The top floor is inaccessible, as the wooden newel-stair leading to it is unsafe. The stable building is two-storeyed, the upper floor being the hay-loft. The palace is uninhabited, but the roofs and walls are kept weatherproof. The floors, however, are in a bad state, several being unsafe.

PEDIMENTS IN GARDEN. In the revetment wall at the back of the garden are three 17th century pediments. The one in the centre bears the Crown and Hammer of the Incorporation of Hammermen, the western one is uninscribed while the eastern one bears an illegible device.

RCAHMS 1933, visited 21 March 1928.

Publication Account (1987)

Culross Palace was built between 1597 and 1611 as the town mansion of George Bruce (later Sir George) of Culross, later of Carnock. Bruce, the third son of Edward Bruce of Blairhall, acquired a fortune about this time from his interests in commerce, coal mining and salt manufacture. The house was built in stages but, after its completion, remained comparatively unaltered. The title 'Palace' is somewhat pretentious but it is described in the title-deeds as 'the Palace of Great Lodging in the Sand Haven of Culross'. The layout of the house is difficult to understand when considered in relation to the present courtyard but the site appears to have been purchased piecemeal, as ground became available, and the house and courtyard developed accordingly. The detached north range of domestic accommodation over a byre-stable is difficult to interpret, particularly since it has the same high quality painted decoration as the main house, yet lacks kitchen accommodation. The house on the other hand has the remains of a kitchen at the east end of the 1597 range and a kitchen and bakehouse in the vaulted north range. Perhaps the north range was an independent house, with a detached kitchen or a kitchen in the basement, purchased by Bruce and converted to his requirements.

Whilst the buildings of Culross Palace are of considerable interest and encourage speculation, they are not the only features of interest. The internal paintwork of tempera and oil on the timber lining to the walls, ceilings and roof beams gives it additional importance.

When looking at this picturesque house with its white harled walls and red pantiled roofs, it should be remembered that the external appearance may have changed many times since the 17th century. At that time the walls would have expressed their honey coloured stonework, the timberwork may have been silvery coloured oak and the roofs, dark thatch. Change in buildings is inevitable and buildings of quality accept this change with little loss of character, indeed they sometimes gain from each successive change.

See also no. 24 for the market cross and discussion of the medieval street plan of Culross.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Fife and Tayside’, (1987).

Excavation (26 October 2006 - 2 November 2006)

NS 985 859 In advance of repointing on the N wall of the Palace, four trial trenches were excavated at the base of the wall. This work was undertaken between 26 October-2 November 2006. This exercise demonstrated that the present ground level is associated with the current kitchen garden and had been raised. The height of any earlier external ground surface was not revealed in the trenches excavated (maximum depth 600mm). A further trench was excavated up to a depth of 1.20m in the sloping pathway immediately W of the Palace in order to reveal any earlier pathway surfaces. No evidence of an earlier surface was found. In addition, the N wall of the Palace was surveyed and principal features recorded.

Archive to be deposited with RCAHMS.

Funder: National Trust for Scotland.

Standing Building Recording (9 March 2012)

NS 9853 8596 Further to work carried out in 2006 (DES 8, 96–97) a programme of standing building recording was undertaken on 9 March 2012 specifically targeting the N-facing external elevation of the N range of Culross Palace.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: The National Trust for Scotland

Gordon Ewart, Kirkdale Archaeology


Standing Building Recording (March 2012 - October 2012)

NS 98515 85951 A building survey was undertaken March – October 2012 in advance of re-harling of the N, W and E elevations of the N range, and of the N wall and E gable of the lower extension to E. A full drawn stone-by-stone survey was undertaken of the three elevations that were stripped of their harling. The survey included small-scale roof investigations; however, no evidence of earlier roofing materials or eaves and verge details survived.

Construction breaks and the remains of quoins indicated the survival of an earlier structure, incorporated and enlarged by Sir George Bruce’s remodelling of the N range in 1611. The earlier building generally corresponds with the footprint of the existing structure, but was smaller in its S extent. MacGibbon and Ross recognised similar evidence in the 1880s, which they interpreted as an earlier stable.

The survey also identified the remains of a cross wall and sill stones that suggest the previous existence of a stair tower at the rear. This would have provided access to the hall at attic level in a more elegant manner than the extant internal turnpike stair within the W room on first floor. A rear stair tower would also mirror the arrangement of the W range, remodelled by Bruce only 15 years earlier.

Evidence for reset quoins, inserted flues and apparently blocked fireplaces combine to suggest a now lost W extension; this apparently was of similar height to the extant N range. Historic photographs underpin the evidence for a pre-existing W extension as the W gable of the extant N range is shown without crow-steps. This implies that the roof had at some point continued further W, with the present crow-steps being rebuilt with reused stones, probably after the NTS acquired the building in 1932. Some of the stones used to block flues and the fireplace serving the W extension retained internal plaster and paint on their underside. These represent a possible resource for paint analysis, as they were probably reused from a demolished building on site, perhaps even from the demolished W extension. Further details such as the removal and rebuilding of the E dormer at rear, the reduction in height of the loading door to the E extension loft and the complete reroofing in pantiles all combine to reveal that Culross Palace’s N range has a far richer building history than the overall presentation of a homogenous structure might suggest at first glance.

Archive: NTS and RCAHMS

Funder: The National Trust for Scotland

Tanja Romankiewicz, Addyman Archaeology

Kenneth Macfadyen,


OASIS ID - addymana1-136588


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