The Story of Fife Pilgrim Kingdom

In the footsteps of medieval pilgrims


The Story of the Fife Pilgrim Kingdom

For 400 years, St Andrews was one of the main pilgrimage destinations in Medieval Europe. Rich and poor flocked to be near the bones of St Andrew, one of Jesus’ disciples.

St Andrews may have been the main attraction, but pilgrims were also drawn to Dunfermline to visit St Margaret’s miraculous shrine within the Abbey. A host of other saints were represented by churches, chapels, and healing wells along the road to St Andrews. These provided perfect places to pause, as well as important destinations for local pilgrims.

Pilgrimage made a permanent mark on Fife’s landscape. Many of its roads, bridges and crossing points, including the famous Queen’s Ferry, were created hundreds of years ago to ease the way for the steady stream of pilgrims. Inns, chapels, and alms-houses were also built to offer a place to rest, refresh and receive medical help. Providing these facilities was considered an act of piety that helped to smooth the path to Heaven. Pilgrimage changed the face of Fife forever and earned it the nickname of the ‘Pilgrim Kingdom.’

Large scale pilgrimage to Dunfermline and St Andrews had a considerable impact on Fife’s economy, landscape, and religious and cultural life, which were shaped by the presence of pilgrims and the veneration of saints. It also led to the development and maintenance of a sophisticated and complex network of ferries, roads, bridges, chapels, hospitals, and inns to ease the way for the pilgrims, who arrived in Fife by land and sea, to visit the national shrine.

The most famous and best recorded route to St Andrews was from the southwest, beginning at Queensferry, reputedly established by St Margaret in the late 11th century. From there the road headed north past Scotlandwell, crossing a bridge there over the River Leven and then on to St Andrews via Markinch, Kennoway and Ceres.

Pilgrimage sites were ranked into four categories:

Category 1.
The Holy Land, Jerusalem, and Rome.

Category 2.
Sites associated with apostles and other biblical characters –
e.g., St Andrews, as Andrew was an apostle, brother of St Peter.

Category 3.
Sites of national or regional saints –
e.g., St Margaret.

Category 4.
Sites of locally significant saints –
e.g., Culross (St Serf and St Kentigern), Isle of May (saints Adrian and Ethernan), Inchcolm (St Columba), Ceres (St Mary) and Markinch (St Drostan).

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Medieval Pilgrimage

There were two primary reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage in medieval times. Firstly, it was often an act of penitence to atone for misdemeanours and to obtain God’s forgiveness. These punishments were often proscribed by the Church or civil authorities. The more uncomfortable and dangerous the journey the better it was and more likely it was to see the pilgrims receive absolution for their sins.

The second reason was due to the medieval fascination for the cult of Saints and their relics, whereby people believed that proximity of a Saint’s relics would somehow enable them to absorb some of the Saint’s power. There was a widespread belief that Saints could perform posthumous miracles, especially miracles of healing. At Queen Margaret’s shrine in Dunfermline a clerk from Inverkeithing was reported to have recovered after losing his senses through too much study, and in another example a woman recovered the use of her disabled arm. A list of 45 miracles was compiled as taking place around her tomb which led to her canonisation in 1249/1250.

Pilgrims faced not only the route’s rugged terrain and the possibility of a lengthy illness, but some pilgrimage routes were infested with bandits who were waiting to assault travellers. Thus, the medieval pilgrim faced daily the chance that he might not only be cheated but attacked, robbed, and even murdered. Therefore, most pilgrims travelled in large groups.

Before a person could undertake a pilgrimage, they had to make the following arrangements.

  • Obtain written permission from the parish priest
  • Safe conducts were needed for foreign travel; wealth was entrusted to the king or to a great church
  • Empower wives to run their affairs

The standard pilgrims’ costume was a heavy cloak, a wide brimmed hat often decorated with badges purchased at shrines along the way, a wooden staff with water carrier attached, along with a small satchel called a scrip.


Pilgrim Badges

Pilgrims often collected pilgrim badges which were sold as souvenirs at Christian pilgrimage sites bearing the image of the Saint venerated there. Pilgrim badge production flourished in the Middle Ages in Europe, particularly in the 14th and 15th centuries, but declined after the Protestant Reformation of the mid-16th century. Tens of thousands have been found since the mid-19th century, of ten in rivers.

https://electricscotland.com/history/st_andrew.htm Open Access API


An example of a pilgrim badge mould was found in St Andrews Church Yard, North Berwick.
Image © National Museums Scotland


The Pilgrim’s Travel First Aid Kit

In medieval medicine the body had four ‘humours’ relating to the four elements: blood (air), phlegm (water), yellow bile (fire) and black bile (earth). Plants and herbs had properties to restore the body’s balance. A medieval pilgrim would not be carrying a first aid kit like we might today but would likely visit a local herbalist or monastery where monks planted and experimented with herbs. Common treatments were bleeding and leeching. Sage was given to despatch venom, chamomile tea to combat poison, dill was good for digestion and cumin was grown for its seeds to make a soothing skin ointment. Clary sage, rue and comfrey would also be found in the garden. And if a pilgrim was unlucky enough to break a bone, they would need to find a doctor or barber-surgeon to set it – but only if they could pay.

Pilgrimage Tourism Comes to an End

From the late 11th century to the late 15th Century St Andrews was one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Europe, with only Rome, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury drawing larger numbers. However, towards the end of the 15th century its popularity was in decline, even before the first ripples of the Protestant Reformation were felt.

The Scottish Reformation was the process by which Scotland broke with the Papacy and developed a predominantly Calvinist national Kirk (church), which was strongly Presbyterian in its outlook. It was part of the wider European Protestant Reformation that took place from the 16th century.

Modern Day Pilgrims

Today people have many different motivations for walking the Fife Pilgrim Way. Some will be modern day pilgrims recreating the spiritual journey of medieval pilgrims. Others take the opportunity to exercise and enjoy the health benefits from being in the countryside. Others enjoy learning about Fife’s rich history, cultural heritage, and contemporary life.


Christianity, colour, cobbles, coal

The picturesque Royal Burgh of Culross (pronounced Coo-ross) makes a colourful start to the Fife Pilgrim Way with its ochre-painted palace and red roof tiles on white-painted cottages. Scotland’s most complete example of a burgh of the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the village is under the National Trust for Scotland’s guardianship.

Culross Palace

Culross is associated with two early Celtic saints, Serf and Kentigern, who were notable Scottish Christian leaders of the early Middle Ages of the likes of Ninian and Columba.

Serf and his followers set up their religious community in Culross in the 6th century and he is credited with founding a small monastery on the Loch Leven Island that still bears his name.

Legend has it that Kentigern’s heavily pregnant mother Enoch landed in Culross, after being banished by her father. He was educated by Serf and later founded a religious community in Glasgow where he is known as St Mungo and the city’s patron saint.

You cannot miss ochre-coloured Culross Palace complete with its reconstructed period garden with herbs, fruit, and vegetables. And you can visit historic buildings the Town House, once the legal and commercial centre of Culross, and The Study.

Climb the steep cobbles to Culross Abbey, a Church of Scotland Parish Church that was constructed out of the choir of the Cistercian Abbey founded in 1217 and whose ruins you can still see.

Culross is a ‘must-see’ for modern day pilgrims on the trail of Outlander filming locations.

North Queensferry

A passage for pilgrims and point where three bridges meet

Most medieval pilgrims started from North Queensferry, so named for the ferry across the Firth of Forth established by Queen Margaret. Margaret also created hostels where pilgrims could rest at either side of the Firth of Forth.

The crossing she established seems originally to have been called Passagium de Inverkeithin and appears to have taken the name Ad Portum Reginae after 1129 when it was granted to the abbot and monks of Dunfermline by King David I with the stipulation that all pilgrims should have free passage. The ferries ceased in 1964 with the opening of the Forth Road Bridge.

Today’s pilgrim should find a vantage point to admire three engineering feats built in three different centuries: The Forth Bridge (opened in 1890) a UNESCO World Heritage Site; The Forth Road Bridge (opened in 1964) and the Queensferry Crossing (opened in 2017).


Staging post of medieval pilgrims and modern-day travellers

Inverkeithing Hospitium

Weary pilgrims crossing the choppy Firth of Forth, perhaps after a long journey from as far away as the European continent, sought refuge in Inverkeithing Hospitium (a place of hospitality). The Hospitium formed part of the 15th century Franciscan friary and catered for the needs of the increasing number of pilgrims. The monastic complex was substantial with living accommodation, cloisters, and cellars. The Friary was dissolved in 1559 but the Hospitium remains as the best surviving example of a friary building left in Scotland today. Explore the public gardens behind to see the remains of the friary cellars.


Queen, Mother of kings, Church woman, Saint

In 1067 William the Conqueror, having won the Battle of Hastings, was on the English throne heralding a new Norman dynasty. Sheltering in the English court were Agatha – widow of recent heir apparent Edward Aetheling – and her three children Margaret, Edgar, and Christina. However, in fear for their lives they fled to Scotland and the safety of King Malcolm Canmore’s court in Dunfermline.

An English Princess born in Hungary, Margaret was a devoutly religious woman who was destined to become a nun, but she married the kind but fierce warrior Malcolm. Three of her eight children became kings of Scotland: Edgar, Alexander I and David I.

Margaret made an enormous contribution to the Church in Fife and across Scotland. She established a Benedictine Abbey in Dunfermline and the ferry crossing across the Forth to assist pilgrims to St Andrews – hence the names North Queensferry and South Queensferry. She devoted herself to charitable causes, feeding poor people and washing their feet.

St Margaret’s Cave

Margaret died in 1093 a few days after learning of her husband’s death in battle and they were both buried in Dunfermline Abbey. Pilgrims soon came to venerate Margaret’s tomb and, following miracles reported around it, she was canonised by Pope Innocent IV in 1249/1250.

Margaret made Fife the ‘Pilgrim Kingdom’ and she is celebrated all over Dunfermline: in street names, a primary school, a hospital, and a railway station. In St Margaret’s RC Church you will find a relic of the saint: a shoulder bone.

Beyond the city, the Queensferry Crossing pays homage to those early pilgrim ferries. Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017, the beauty of this road bridge is in its elegant three towers and their cables which are visible from miles around and seem like glittering angel wings.


Birthplace and burial place of Scottish monarchs

The ancient Royal capital of Scotland gives Fife the right to call itself a Kingdom. Its name meaning ‘the hill by the winding stream,’ Dunfermline was the main residence of Scottish monarchs from around 1065 and the birth and burial place of kings.

Medieval pilgrims would have visited the massive Romanesque Abbey built by David I at the heart of Dunfermline. The first stone-built Royal palace was probably built during the later years of Alexander III’s reign (1249-1286). It was extensively rebuilt by Robert the Bruce in the 1320s and it was the birthplace of Charles I in 1600, the last monarch born in Scotland.

Dunfermline Abbey

Evocative street names like Priory Lane, St Margaret Street and Monastery Street herald the arrival of today’s traveller to Dunfermline Abbey and the Palace ruins.

Only the visually stunning nave of the Abbey now exists, under the care of Historic Environment Scotland. The 19th century parish church stands on the site of the choir and presbytery and to the east is the site of St Margaret’s Shrine. King Robert the Bruce was buried here, and he reigns over the ancient capital from the abbey tower where his name is carved in the parapet.

Follow in the footsteps of Malcolm and Margaret in Pittencrieff Park, known locally as ‘the Glen,’ to find Malcolm Canmore’s Tower. St Margaret’s Cave, where she prayed, is in Glen Bridge car park but is currently closed to the public.

A stone’s throw from the Abbey is Abbot House, a pink-painted building dating back to at least the 16th century and with a lovely walled garden.


The King’s place to survey the River Forth

St Ninans

The name St Ninian’s evokes Middle Age pilgrimage, but there is no evidence here of the great Scottish Christian leader Ninian. Around 1000 acres of former opencast coal mine, fishing loch and woodlands make up St Ninian’s, between Kingseat and Kelty. This is an austere landscape with dramatic land art created by world-renowned architectural historian Charles Jencks where a spiral path winds its way round a grassy hill with three mounds topped by metal and timber artefacts. You can see why locals call this the walnut whip!


From mining to ‘the Meadies’

Lochore Meadows Country Park is 1200 acres of free-to-access recreational space with watersports, playparks, walking and cycling trails, golf, and fishing.

From the Cistercian monks digging at Culross to the last deep mine at Longannet Colliery, coal mining has shaped Fife’s people and landscape for hundreds of years and this site was once home to seven collieries. Site reclamation work – including the planting of 1 million trees – began in 1967 and finished in 1976, costing £1 million. The iconic pit head frame of the Mary Pit, a Scheduled Monument, stands as testament to a proud mining heritage.

The Lochore Castle, which can be seen near the park’s main entrance, was the fortress home of the Lochore family, established by Robert the Burgundian in c.1128. Excavations in 2015 found medieval pottery imported from France, fine window glass, and a carved stone shot-hole. Loch Ore was drained in 1792 with the cutting of a large channel, but originally the castle had stood on an island. This was a Celtic crannog dating to at least the 10th century, the medieval name for which was Inchgall, a Gaelic word meaning ‘Island of the Strangers’. This name refers to the French knights who took over the site. The castle passed successively to the Vallance or Valognes family and the Wardlaws of Torrie, in the 15th century.

Lochore Meadows


Beside the holy burn

Kinglassie was recorded as the place name in 1127 and it was an important pilgrim resting place. ‘Kil’ means church but was replaced with ‘Kin’ which means ‘head’ by the 13th century.

One of the many former mining villages in the West of Fife, Kinglassie has taken the Fife Pilgrim Way to its heart: the community are enthusiastic supporters and have developed and maintained the infrastructure around Finglassin’s Well (Fionn-glais, which means white or holy burn), found on the hill to the west of the village.

Finglassin’s Well


Healing waters for Romans, pilgrims, and monarchs

While today’s route heads east to skirt Loch Ore, most medieval pilgrims would have gone directly north from Kelty to the monastic community on St Serf’s Island on Loch Leven and to Scotlandwell, to refresh themselves at the spring in the hills above Loch Leven. As the Romans marched north through Caledonia in the late 1st century AD, they are thought to have sampled the health-giving waters here and named them Fons Scotiae, the well of the Scots. Among the pilgrims to have visited are King Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots. In the late 13th century, the local friars used the waters in their hospice. Today the curative waters bubble up under a canopy erected in 1858 by local Laird Thomas Bruce of Arnot.


AsvatzCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


A river runs through it

The fast-flowing River Leven turned Leslie into a mill town in the 1800s. Linen, cotton, flax, and other textiles were manufactured and from the 1830s steam power supplemented and then replaced waterpower. As the river roars past, imagine the cacophony of industry on its banks and the crowds of workers lining up for work – at one time in their thousands.

River Leven by Mark Lockhart


Where ancient and modern sit side by side

Pause and imagine the rituals that would have occurred on Fife’s sacred landscape 6000 years ago. At Balfarg Henge, on the northern edge of Glenrothes, a 60-metre diameter level platform is enclosed within a circular ditch and a circle of 16 timber uprights where posts would have stood. Two standing stones remain at the site which was excavated in the late 1970s for a new housing estate.

At Balbirnie Park’s entrance, in an atmospheric wooded area, lies Balbirnie Stone Circle, a Neolithic site later used as a Bronze Age burial site. Together these sites are the biggest concentration of prehistoric ceremonial monuments in Fife.


Place of worship for thousands of years

Was Markinch once the capital of a Pictish kingdom of Fife? The Pictish Stone known as Stob Cross on the town’s northern outskirts suggests so. Markinch was a popular resting point for medieval pilgrims who may have lodged in the grounds of the Prior’s House, near the church.

Markinch and Thornton Parish Church (View the Markinch church website) dedicated to St Drostan, is well worth a visit. This site has probably been a place of worship for thousands of years. All that is left of the Norman church built here by the MacDuff Earls of Fife in the 12th century is the Romanesque tower, one of the finest examples of its kind in Scotland. The earlier church building was granted to the Céile Dé (Culdees) of Loch Leven during MacBeth’s reign.


What’s in a name? Ceres, Syreis, Ciris, Cyres and Saires

As the Fife Pilgrim Way meanders across Fife, it arrives in the picturesque village of Ceres where the 19th century Ceres Church spire dominates the skyline. However, there has been a place of worship and burial on the site since at least the 12th century and the parish church is believed to have been dedicated to St Mary. A 12th century brass and enamelled figure of Christ was found in the graveyard and is now on display in the National Museum of Scotland.

Image © National Museums Scotland

An old packhorse bridge, known as the ‘Bishop’s Bridge’ has spanned the burn since the 17th century and still stands close to a more modern road bridge.

The Waterless Way and the Coal Road was the route travellers took to and from Ceres for centuries. For Medieval pilgrims, Ceres was the last overnight stop before St Andrews. Having journeyed on foot across miles of boggy, uneven ground, on constant high alert for robbers or worse. After an overnight rest in Ceres, they awoke and with tired bodies and sore feet set off on the last leg of their journey to St Andrews with only 10 miles to go and knowing their journey was nearly at an end.

The Italian balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi landed in the parish after his first flight in Scotland in 1785. Fetched from a field near Pitscottie, he was greeted in the village where his flag was carried in procession and the church bell rung in his honour.

Just as in Medieval times there is a warm welcome in the community café, village shops, Fife Folk Museum and Fife Wemyss Ware pottery.


Site of a brutal murder

Originally a moderate and a mediator in troubled times, Archbishop James Sharp is now infamous in local folklore for his murder in 1679.

Throughout Sharp’s life there were movements in Scotland against the monarchy, eventually leading to the Civil War. Moreover, the Reformation had left deep rifts between Catholics and Protestants. The Episcopalian Church was seen as a Catholic religion headed by the monarchy and its allies. Sharp’s decision in 1661 to become Episcopalian Archbishop and Primate of all Scotland was regarded as a betrayal of Presbyterianism (a minimalist form of Protestantism).

Things came to a head on 3 May 1679 as a band of Presbyterian conventiclers set out to scare a local sheriff for some wrong, he had done them. When the sheriff failed to turn up, they became aware of the Archbishop passing on his way from Cupar to St Andrews. They pursued his carriage across Magus Muir and, having overtaken it, held his daughter while they attacked Sharp until the fatal shot was fired into his chest.

St Andrews

The ultimate pilgrim destination

Today St Andrews is known as the home of golf and the location of Scotland’s oldest university, however modern St Andrews has its roots in its pilgrim past: even the town centre’s layout was created in response to the pilgrims who made their way across the UK to worship at St Andrew’s shrine.

Early St Andrews, shown in the c.1580 map by John Geddy
© National Library of Scotland.

St Andrews was still known by its earlier name, Kinrymont, when its earliest pilgrims visited. An Irish prince called Aed or Aodh died during his pilgrimage there in 967. Its popularity as a pilgrimage destination started to grow in the 11th century, and by the 14th century it was considered a national shrine.

This led to the building of one of the largest cathedrals in Europe – 12 metres longer than the one in Santiago de Compostela. St Andrews Cathedral took over 150 years to build and housed St Andrew’s sacred shrine and created an awe-inspiring, once in a lifetime experience for its pilgrims.

The town centre was also redesigned in the 1100s, with two broad streets providing the ultimate processional route. With its walls, gates and massive place of worship, St Andrews became Scotland’s answer to Jerusalem. Feast days were celebrated with spectacular processions, feasting and bonfires. By the middle of the 1400s, nearly all the city’s 3,000 inhabitants were involved in some way in supporting the booming business of pilgrimage.


Other Buildings of Note in St Andrews

St Andrews Castle

St Andrews Castle ruins largely date to the 16th century, but it was originally a residence for the Bishops, and later Archbishops, of St Andrews that was built around 1200 by Bishop Beaumont as a more prestigious and appropriate habitation than the cathedral priory.

The castle was captured and recaptured in the Wars of Independence, during the late 13th and early 14th centuries, by both Scots and English, before being extensively rebuilt in the 15th century and occupied by successive Bishops and Archbishops until the Restoration.

For the next 50 years it lay in ruins until ‘erected from its foundations’ by Bishop Traill. In the early 1400s James I was educated there by Bishop Wardlaw, who had founded the University in 1411, before he returned in 1425 to make the castle his residence. Five resident Bishops later, the death of Archbishop Stewart at Flodden in 1513 saw the castle become central to the struggle for succession, with aspirants variously taking, holding, and being imprisoned within it.

During Archbishop James Beaton’s residence [1523-29], the castle gained a widespread reputation for great splendour and hospitality with Beaton lavishly entertaining many lords and ambassadors.


Martyr’s Monument

Martyr’s Monument in The Scores commemorates those executed for their Protestant religious beliefs in St Andrews during the 16th century, but it also calls attention to the town’s significant role in the Scottish Reformation. Among them is Patrick Hamilton, a Scottish churchman, and early Protestant Reformer, who was burnt at the stake in St Andrews.

Image Source: FHL2, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons



St Peter’s Chapel

St Peter’s is a chapel site now completely lost to St Andrews, but it is undeniable it once existed as the chapel is twice referred to in an undated medieval charter and again in a 1212 document. It is believed the chapel stood close to modern day Gregory’s Lane, at North Street’s east end, where remains of a passible 11th century building were discovered in 1887.



St Rule’s Church

St Rule’s Church is situated to the south-east of the Cathedral ruins and today consists of a tall tower and a square chamber. The tower may have been a beacon for pilgrims as it can be seen from afar.

Image Source: Richard Newton



St Mary’s Church

St Mary’s Church was built in 1123 as a permanent home for the Culdees, an order of Celtic monks who rejected the new monastic orders of the Middle Ages. Known as ‘St Mary on the Rock’ (Kirkheugh), it was next to the new priory at St Andrews Cathedral, but outside its wall.

Image Source: Otter, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Pilgrim Hospital

Pilgrim Hospital (later the Hospital of St Leonards) was located around 200m from the early cathedral and could accommodate up to six of the poorest and feeblest pilgrims.


Holy Trinity Callum Macleod

Holy Trinity Church

Established in the 12th century, fascinating Holy Trinity Church has served St Andrews for over 800 years. The first church was based close to the Cathedral at the end of South Street. Holy Trinity has been in its current location, in the heart of St Andrews, since 1412, around the time of the founding of St Andrews University, after a donation of land by Sir William Lindsay in 1410. Of the original 1412 church, only the tower and two interior arches remain, rededicated on St Andrews Day in 1909. It also houses the Archbishop James Sharp memorial.

Image Source: Callum Macleod



St James’ Church

St James’ Church St Andrews, is a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland. Founded in 1884, St James’ serves the Catholic population in St Andrews and the East Neuk of Fife.

Image Source: Margaret Squires



Blackfriars Chapel

Blackfriars Chapel was built in the 1520s as an addition to the church of the Dominican Friars, built about 10 years earlier. In 1559, Protestant reformers ‘violently expelled’ the friars ‘from their destroyed place’. It now stands on South Street.

Image Source: Shaun Smith



St Salvator’s Chapel

St Salvator’s Chapel is one of two collegiate chapels belonging to the University of St Andrews, the other being St Leonard’s Chapel, situated in the grounds of the adjacent St Leonard’s School. The chapel was founded in 1450, by Bishop James Kennedy, built in the Late Gothic architectural style, and refurbished in the 1680s, 1860s and throughout the 20th century. It is currently the chapel of the United college as well as being the major university chapel. The Sunday services are followed by the famous pier walk, in which students walk to the pier and back in academic procession.

Image Source: Margaret Squires


We would like to acknowledge the contribution made by illustrator Jenny Proudfoot, who turned our vision into a reality with the creation of her beautiful illustrations, which feature in this webpage.

We would like to acknowledge the support of Dr Ian Bradley, whose book ‘The Fife Pilgrim Way’ was an invaluable tool on the development of this page.