A lost people who have left little trace in the annals of history; a series of mysterious drawings and carvings that went undiscovered for hundreds of years; and a race against time to preserve a rich archaeological treasure trove. We introduce Wemyss Caves in Fife, a fascinating place to learn more about the Pictish influence in Scotland…
Venture to the north shore of the Firth of Forth in Fife and you will discover Wemyss Caves. Just a stone’s throw away from Macduff’s Castle, these ancient sea caverns were created by waves crashing against the rocks around 8,000 years ago.
Wemyss Caves are home to the largest collection of Pictish-inscribed symbols in one place. These remarkable carvings match carvings of symbols and animals found throughout Pictish territory in early medieval Scotland, and offer one of our only windows into Pictish culture.
Please check the relevant Covid-19 restrictions before planning a visit to a historic site. If visiting Wemyss Caves, please adhere to any warning signs and/or wait until guided tours are available.
Who were the Picts?
We know surprisingly little about the Picts, but their influence can be felt in various parts of Scotland – from a Pictish monastery at Portmahomack in Easter Ross, to a 1,400-year-old Pictish cemetery located on the Black Isle.
The term Picts itself refers broadly to various tribes of people living north of the Roman frontier in Britain from the late third century. For a long while, the Picts have been regarded by some as being enigmatic ‘savages’ who fought back against the Roman occupation in Britain, however more recent evidence suggests that they established a sophisticated culture in northern and eastern Scotland. One of the earliest-known mentions of the Picts comes from a Roman writer, who mentions “Picts and Irish [Scots] attacking” Hadrian’s Wall in AD 297.
Because the Picts did not leave a written record of their own history, it is difficult to decipher the finer details about their society – and they are frequently regarded as a lost people who disappeared from history. As such, drawings such as the ones discovered in Wemyss Caves are all the more significant for what they can teach us about Pictish culture.
Did you know?
The word ‘Picts’ derives from the Latin picti or ‘painted’, and possibly refers to a custom of body painting or tattooing.
There were initially 11 caves in total within the Wemyss Caves complex, with six remaining today: Court Cave, Doo Cave, Well Cave, Jonathan’s Cave, Sliding Cave and Gas Works Cave. All of the caves are accessible to the public – with the exception of Well Cave, which has experienced some recent roof collapse – and all of the caves have fascinating stories to tell.
Take, for instance, Court Cave – named because it is thought to have been used as a court in the medieval period by a laird [the Scottish equivalent of a lord] who was living in Macduff’s Castle. This cave boasts 10 Pictish carvings, plus two additional markings that do not conform to Pictish standards. One particularly fascinating Pictish carving – located in a passageway adjacent to Court Cave – shows a masculine figure holding a hammer – who locals have affectionately nicknamed ‘Thor’ – alongside a goat.
Or consider Jonathan’s Cave, also referred to as Factors Cave and Cat Cave. There are 11 Pictish carvings to be found here, the most notable being a carving of a six-oared boat that some believe to be the earliest depiction of a boat in Scotland. Boasting a number of Christian crosses, it is also postulated that this cave may have been an early place of worship, or perhaps a place that pilgrims visited (Fife was, indeed, a hotbed for pilgrimages during the medieval period).
A number of the Pictish symbols found in the caves are abstract in nature, showing strange beasts or unusual patterns. It is difficult to ascertain their meaning, but they undoubtedly were important to the people who created them. To put into context the rarity and significance of the symbols discovered at Wemyss, it’s worth noting that the caves contain 49 of only 60 examples of Pictish symbols documented in caves in Scotland.
Today, a dedicated team of volunteers work hard to preserve Wemyss Caves and the treasures they contain. Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) usually runs tours of the caves on the first Sunday of each month, although these are currently not taking place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Visitors can, however, explore the caves for themselves (although SWACS recommend that people wait to book a guided tour). It is recommended that people park at the east end of the village and follow advice on the information boards to locate the caves.
There is an additional option for those who wish to learn more about the caves from the comfort of their own home. Thanks to the efforts of SWACS, you can now virtually explore each of the caves online. Utilising laser scanning and drone photography of the site, the 4D model of the caves offers a virtual window to the past, with explanations of what you’re looking at and even a Facebook chat function for those who want to ask questions about the caves. “Maybe nothing can quite replace the experience of actually being there but in the face of necessity we have to be inventive,” comments SWACS Vice-Chair Sue Hamstead. “The virtual tour can show you what the site looked like in ages past. It can also take you into a cave that is no longer accessible and show you carvings that no longer exist.”
The kingdom of Fife: 5 more fascinating places to explore
No visit to Wemyss Caves would be complete without an additional look at this ruined castle, discoverable via a long staircase situated near Doo Cave. The ruins today comprise just one surviving tower, but visitors can easily envision the original castle’s dominant position overlooking the Fife coast and imagine what its inhabitants might have felt looking out of its windows each night.
Those familiar with William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth will recall that Macduff’s Castle takes centre stage in the climax of Act IV, Scene II, when Macduff’s wife, Lady Macduff, and her son are put to death following orders from the play’s titular character. Dramatic and entertaining as Shakespeare’s play is, the real story of the Macduffs – the most powerful family in Fife during the Middle Ages – is trickier to uncover. We don’t know for definite whether Macduff’s Castle was ever their home, but it is generally thought that they were responsible for building an earlier version of the castle.
The present castle was built towards the end of the 14th century as the home of the Wemyss family, who are descended from the Macduff clan. However when the Wemysses joined forces with Robert the Bruce, King Edward I of England ordered its destruction.
No respectable ruins would be complete without a ghostly presence, and Macduff’s Castle is said to be haunted by a ‘grey lady’. Legend suggests that the ghost is that of a woman called Mary Sibbald, who died in the castle after being found guilty of theft.
Macduff’s Castle has recently been added to a free app that allows people to explore historic sites around Fife using augmented reality. Find out more here
Fife Pilgrim Way
Uniting the north and south of the county, Fife Pilgrim Way snakes from either North Queensferry or Culross to St Andrews. It is 72.9 miles long (117.4 kilometres), providing a plethora of walking options for those wishing to embark on an outdoor adventure. The route is unbroken and can technically be completed in a single journey (earlier this year three ultrarunners ran the entire Pilgrim Way in just one day). For those wanting a slightly easier time of it, the route is helpfully split into seven sections (each comprising a more manageable 8–11 miles).
As its name suggests, the route encompasses one of the paths taken by medieval pilgrims to St Andrews. For around 400 years, people would flock to St Andrews from all over medieval Europe with a view to being close to the bones of St Andrew, one of Jesus’s disciples. Fife is scattered with remnants of these pilgrimages; many of the inns, chapels, bridges, roads and crossing points were created to ease the path of the pilgrims. Building these facilities was considered an act of piety that would ease an individual’s path to heaven.
Falkland Palace was built between 1501 and 1541 by King James IV of Scotland and his son, James V. It was a popular retreat for Stuart monarchs, and a particular favourite of Mary, Queen of Scots, who enjoyed spending time on the estate falconing, hunting and playing tennis (on what is reportedly one of Britain’s oldest tennis courts).
The fine Renaissance palace is beautifully kept – largely thanks to the efforts of John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who saved Falkland from falling into ruin in the 19th century. It is a rather difficult palace to photograph in its entirety, largely due to its location on a fairly busy street.
Fans of popular historical drama Outlander may recognise Falkland Palace; it was used as an apothecary in the season two episode ‘The Hail Mary’.
- Discover Falkland Palace (note: Falkland Palace, garden and shops are closed until May 2021)
Dunfermline Abbey holds a fascinating place in Scottish cultural history, with many of Scotland’s greatest monarchs being laid to rest within its walls. Its most famous resident is arguably Robert the Bruce, who famously defeated English king Edward II at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 in what was a decisive battle in the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Bruce’s history with Dunfermline Abbey is an interesting one; he financed its rebuilding after it was badly damaged by Edward I, adding an imposing monks’ refectory. He had every intention of being buried within its walls, leaving behind detailed instructions on how his body was to be entombed there.
How did Robert the Bruce die?
It’s unclear how Robert the Bruce died, although it is known that he suffered ill health throughout his life. Some of his contemporaries suggested he had leprosy, however recent research by academics at the University of Western Ontario has dispelled this.
In accordance with these wishes and following his death on 7 June 1329, Bruce’s body was embalmed and his heart was extracted. Sources are conflicted on the matter of where Bruce wished his heart to be buried, although some suggest that it was intended to be taken on a tour of the Holy Land (Bruce had long wanted to go on a Crusade, but had ultimately been unable to fulfil this goal). This plan was put on hold when the knights responsible for the heart were called to fight in Spain, however they did take the heart with them in an urn (and legend suggests it was thrown at an enemy mid-confrontation). Ultimately the heart was returned to Scotland and found a final resting place at Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire. It was buried here in the 14th century and uncovered during excavations at the abbey in 1921.
Bruce’s other remains were buried in 1329 in the choir at Dunfermline Abbey. Much like his heart, it would be many years before they received their final burial (his tomb was destroyed during the Reformation). Fragments were discovered in the early 19th century and these remains were subsequently reinterred – with suitable pomp and splendour – beneath the abbey. In recent years, Scottish heritage organisations have joined forces to create a digital reconstruction of what Bruce’s original tomb might have looked like. A resulting half-scale 3D-printed model is now permanently housed in the abbey.
Aside from its Robert the Bruce ties, the abbey’s large nave is well worth a look – a visually resplendent example of Romanesque architecture within Scotland.
St Andrews Cathedral
Frequently dubbed Scotland’s ‘greatest cathedral’, these mighty ruins in St Andrews were once a magnet for pilgrims from across Europe. The cathedral – and, indeed, the wider town of St Andrews, have long been tied to the story of the Apostle Andrew; one version of the tale suggests that a monk called Regulus was inspired by a vision to steal the relics of St Andrew and flee to Scotland. He landed on the coast of Fife, ultimately depositing Andrew’s bones at St Andrews.
Examination of the ruins suggests that the original building was around 119 metres (390 ft) long, which would make it the largest cathedral ever built in Scotland. It would have been a marvel to behold in its heyday – but in 1559, in the midst of the Reformation, a group of Protestants ravaged the building and destroyed much its interior. From thereon, the cathedral served as building material for the rest of the town. Despite its ruin, it remains a remarkable place to visit today, and visitors to the site can still gain a full sense of the vastness of the original cathedral.
What to look out for
St Andrews Cathedral houses a number of fascinating sculptures, relics and artefacts, including the remarkable St Andrews Sarcophagus – a Pictish monument first excavated in 1833 and which some historians believe may have been commissioned by the king of the Picts, Óengus I.