Uncovering forgotten history and shaping a sense of place

The Benedictine Abbey of Dunfermline is one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Scotland and the royal mausoleum of the medieval Scottish kingdom. Stirling research has been central to reshaping its rich story and bringing its historical significance to the fore.

Dunfermline Abbey illustration

An unrealised treasure

The magnificent Fife abbey, founded in the 11th-12th Century, is the resting place of Scotland’s only officially canonised saint, Saint Margaret, alongside seven kings of Scots including David I and, most famously, Robert the Bruce.

The Abbey Church was built on top of the medieval building in the 19th Century and is currently celebrating its 200th anniversary year. Like London’s Westminster Abbey or Paris’ St Denis Abbey, Dunfermline is a Benedictine royal cult church and, stationed along pilgrim routes towards St Andrews, served as a major Scottish political and religious centre in its heyday.

Despite this, much of the Abbey’s spiritual and material history has remained lost or obscured and its wider cultural importance neglected – until now.

Reframing history

Since 2015, Stirling researchers – led by Dr Michael Penman – have uncovered evidence for the true internal layout of the church and radically reframed people’s understanding of this significant site.

Bringing together the Abbey’s custodians, the Abbey Church Kirk Session, Fife Council and Historic Environment Scotland (HES) with local groups, Stirling’s interdisciplinary investigations have preserved, championed and redeveloped this major heritage attraction.

Using a combination of historical research, ground-penetrating radar and liturgy and digital visualisation, Dr Penman and colleagues Professor Richard Oram (Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities) and Dr Thomas Turpie (History Research Assistant and Lecturer), working with radar expert Erica Carrick Utsi, revealed the Abbey’s true and complex development over time.

The team uncovered evidence of the original layout of the choir of the Abbey and radar images allowed them to create a speculative plan of the lost medieval area, which was left ruinous following the Protestant Reformation in 1560.

Their work also found evidence for the lost high altar settings of the Abbey choir, a formerly unnoticed southern transept chapel and aisle dedicated to St John the Baptist, and detected a possible programme of Catholic worship and burial within the Abbey’s lost choir.

"We hope our work helps shift away from past over-focus on just a few elements of this famous site – chiefly Robert Bruce’s grave – and allows us to re-envisage the abbey as a complex spiritual and physical whole, evolving as a community over time."

Dr Michael Penman

New discoveries

Radar and archival evidence also provided evidence of more than 15 potential and previously undiscovered elite burials and raised questions about the true grave site of Bruce, Robert I King of Scots.

These discoveries have made a significant contribution to an enhanced sense of place and cultural significance in relation to the historic site.

Dr Michael Penman said: “Using a combination of methods, we have been able to undertake a recreation of Dunfermline’s monastic choir, royal burial grounds and pilgrimage shrines. Working closely with the Abbey’s custodians, the local community and many other stakeholders was central to this project’s success as we were able to take everyone on a journey of discovery with us.

“We hope our work helps shift away from past over-focus on just a few elements of this famous site – chiefly Robert Bruce’s grave – and allows us to re-envisage the abbey as a complex spiritual and physical whole, evolving as a community over time. In challenging a number of preconceptions about Dunfermline, this work contributes to further debate and investigation of this fascinating church and its worship long into the future.”

Dunfermline Abbey

Sharing secrets from history

The footprint and engagement around the historians’ work is significant. Stirling’s historical reframing and refocus have contributed to between a 35 and 40% rise in visitor numbers to the Abbey Church and Palace site across 2017-19 and informed a substantial redraft of HES’ Dunfermline Abbey and Palace Property-in-Care ‘Statement of Cultural Significance’.

New heritage displays, which speak to the medieval abbey’s broad historic importance unearthed by the Stirling team, were also erected in 2020 and will inform the future revision of visitor information materials including illustrations, guidebook, panels and the website.

The team have shared their findings and passion for the Abbey’s heritage via workshops, public lectures, conferences, podcasts and digital exhibitions across the British Isles and France and bi-centenary celebrations for Dunfermline’s 19th-century Abbey Church saw Penman’s research contribute to a commemorative play, ‘Bones, Bogles and Coronets’.

Throughout the project, Penman’s activity has encouraged and empowered Dunfermline people to contribute their knowledge to further inform the heritage interpretation at the Church and communicate a more real sense of medieval worship.

This collective approach to highlighting and chronologising aspects of the building and why it survives as a working church, has helped guides bring the past to life and enhanced its value to custodians, locals and visitors alike and informed the strategic direction of Dunfermline’s medieval story to the present day.

Stirling’s historical reframing and refocus have contributed to between a 35 and 40% rise in visitor numbers to the Abbey Church and Palace site across 2017-19.

Beyond the Abbey

The work carried out at Dunfermline Abbey has made links with parallel Fife heritage projects and inspired plans for wider community linkage in the form of a new Fife Pilgrim Way – a 64-mile walking and cycling network opened in July 2019 which attracted around 25,000 users in its first year.

Dunfermline has now been positioned as a key highlight along this heritage network thanks to the new-found and varied importance of this site, with dedicated tours created centred around the Abbey.

Penman and the team’s research continues to be used in relation to heritage work around the city and its heritage quarter as a whole, with a public conference on Sir Patrick Geddes’ plans for the regeneration of Dunfermline’s Pittencreiff Park and medieval heritage quarter set for 4 June 2021.

A community heritage project in nearby Inverkeithing led by Dr Tom Turpie was also praised for engaging local communities in the exploration and appreciation of their heritage, winning a Highly Commended Marsh Award for Best Project with Paid Support. In another offshoot, Research Associate Dr Susan Buckham of Kirkyard Consulting, is now heading up Dunfermline Churchyard's Project, to explore the history of the graveyards at the abbey.

Plans are also underway for the creation of a single, integrated history of the site for the first time based on the research undertaken. These plans include collaborative biography of the Abbey focussed on St Margaret’s shrine and digital multimedia displays that recreate the lost choir and nave and convey the layers of worship and burial that can be found at the Abbey.

Penman’s work has also fed directly into a new project to better understand the Abbey’s burial grounds and their cultural importance to the local community. More widely, this project has pioneered a model for heritage research combining history and radar that HES are now applying to other spiritual sites across Scotland.

The work carried out at Dunfermline Abbey has made links with parallel Fife heritage projects – including a 64-mile walking and cycling network opened in 2019 which attracted around 25,000 users in its first year.

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