A host of websites are devoted to Culross and its most famous son Admiral Thomas Cochrane 10th Earl of Dundonald , Scotland’s Nelson. Visiting this 17th and 18th century village the extent of its surviving vernacular architecture is a revelation. For the yachtsman the Cochrane story has special interest and a visit by sea emphasises the influence the Forth has had on the development and prosperity of Culross.
There is a prominent memorial to Thomas Cochrane in the town square. Old anchors are to be seen in the west car park and the esplanade children’s play park (The Green). Culross Abbey House, immediately east of the Abbey, where Cochrane spent much of his childhood has been reduced in height since his day. It is privately owned and not open to the public but in winter when there are no leaves on the trees its still imposing frontage can be viewed from the south east corner of the Abbey grounds. A doorway in the graveyard wall permits a view of the rear of the building.
The Abbey and its surroundings, very familiar to the young Thomas, can be seen much as they were in his childhood.
An overnight stay is the very least to do the area justice, visiting the Abbey, the Palace, walking the town trail and eating in the Culross Pottery and Gallery Café and the Red Lion Inn.
The Palace is in the care of the National Trust and closed through the winter; check the website for opening times.
The pier, its restoration and how you can help
Culross pier is undergoing restoration, an unavoidably slow process when undertaken by a small band of volunteers but great progress has been made. See The new walkway at Culross pier. Anchoring off as described in the FYCA Pilot Handbook is wise for an initial visit. More shelter from the east can be found between Kincardine Pier and Longannet power station for overnight comfort, a great spot from which to watch herons fishing.
With a low water inspection and liaison it is possible to bring a shoal draft yacht alongside the east face of the pier. Low water inspection is recommended to avoid stones moved by the works and winter storms. Liaison is necessary so as not to hamper mini digger operations and concreting.
Landward access to the pier is on foot over an embankment and railway track. The embankment covers large bore pipes taking ash slurry from Longannet power station to settling ponds on Preston Island where it contributes to land reclamation.
Restoration of the pier involves recovering original sandstone blocks from the mud, rebuilding the walls and back filling with stones. Concrete is then poured on the top and vibrated to percolate through the structure to hold it together. Stainless steel studs inserted in the capstones key them to the concrete. Readymix concrete, 8 cu m at a time, is barrowed from the road. One has to admire the effort. It brings to mind Calum’s Road(1.), inspiring stuff. Ken Garrett Jones of the harbour committee acknowledges it is a slog but says that when a track comes off the digger and the tide is coming in it gets quite exciting! Each year the restoration progresses a bit further.
One is asked to help by picking up stones from the mud and putting them on the top of the pier. Donations towards the restoration costs can be made at the Pottery Café and Gallery and the Red Lion Inn.
Other foreshore interest
Besides the harbour the principle interest of the foreshore are the remains of the shaft of the mine (The Moat Pit) sunk by Sir George Bruce of Carnock (c. 1550-1625) a Scottish merchant and engineer. Bruce facilitated undersea mining by innovations in horse powered drainage technology. In 1617 King James VI was sufficiently interested to see for himself. The King surfaced at the foreshore shaft that was used to load ships. Finding himself surrounded by water he panicked shouted “Treason” and accused Sir George of an attempt on his life. The King was calmed by Sir George who pointed to a rowing boat with which he could return or retrace his steps through the mine. The King chose the boat.
Immediately to the West of Culross below Dunimarle Castle is a ruined pier and a few miles to the east at Crombie Point another. Both are worth looking at, their size an indication of the volume of cargo worked from them. There is still an intact flight of steps on Crombie Pier. The Dunimarle pier is not listed in the FYCA Pilot Handbook. Crombie is mentioned and in quiet weather the prospect of creeping through the rocks and taking the ground on the east shore of Torry Bay.
The whole Culross area is either nature reserve or benefitting from the fringes of it. There is much to see in the lagoons formed by the foreshore embankment and the ecological succession on Preston Island, accelerated by conservation efforts with top soil and planting.
Culross Promenade and Preston Island
Culross promenade is part of National Cycle Route 76 The Round the Forth Route. Landing with a folding bike is a highly recommended way of exploring the area. A level cinder track surrounds Preston Island with views of the river and its historic salt works. The island, now a peninsula, was foreshore rocks reclaimed by Sir Robert Preston of Valleyfield (1740-1834) as a base for his mines and salt works after the fashion of Sir George Bruce at Culross. In an early example of vertical integration of business, coal from Preston’s mines fuelled his salt evaporators. The fires under the saltpans acted as a beacon for sailors, some of whom took away cargoes of salt.
Admiral Thomas Cochrane 10th Earl of Dundonald and literature
Admiral Cochrane was a man of so many parts, radical MP, prolific inventor, naval strategist beyond his time and such incredible naval exploits it is surprising he is so little known to the general public today. He had made powerful enemies of corrupt establishment figures and although entirely exonerated of the stock exchange fraud of which he had been convicted it is perhaps a case of mud sticking. This may be due to his enemies subjecting him to long lasting vindictive persecution. The recent tide of well research biographies(2,,3&4) is redressing this historical injustice. One hopes that there will be a documentary film that will do the job for the wider public.
The eminence of Cochrane’s portrait painters, James Ramsay (1789 - 1854) and Peter Edward Stroehling (1768 – c.1826), mean we have good likenesses of him.
So amazing were Thomas Cochrane’s naval exploits it is not surprising that he was the model for three eminent authors of naval fiction. Captain Frederick Marryat served under Cochrane and acknowledged him as his inspiration for Captain Savage. C.S. Forester time and again recycled Cochrane’s exploits in his Hornblower stories and Patrick O’Brian followed suit mining Cochrane’s life as his model for Captain Aubrey, of whose portrayal the cinema has come closest to bringing Cochrane to life. Aubrey’s lantern on a raft to decoy his night time pursuer is straight from Cochrane.
Original editions of Cochrane’s The Autobiography of a Seaman(5,&76) can be acquired surprisingly inexpensively to read the real life actions of his ships such as the sloop Speedy. One should however read David Cordingly’s Cochrane the Dauntless(3) beforehand so as to be aware of Cochrane’s embellishments. He was a consummate self publicist. His heroic Nelsonian pose for the Stroehling painting, calmly standing on deck, hand tucked in his jacket, in the smoke and heat of battle is a prime example.
Cochrane was a flawed character, his impetuousness an asset in battle a liability when pursuing civil causes. However, the number and scale of his naval victories and the esteem of those who served under him in combat afloat and ashore are the real measure of the man.
Scotland should celebrate its naval hero nationally like Nelson and Trafalgar Day.
1. Calum’s Road, Roger Hutchinson, Birlinn, 2008, ISBN 13: 978 1 84158 677 9, ISBN10: 1 84158 677 3.
2. Cochrane - Britannia’s Sea Wolf, Donald Thomas, Andreé Deutsch, 1978, Cassell Military Paperback 2001and numerous reprints, ISBN 0-304- 35659-X.
3. Cochrane – The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain, Robert Harvey, Constable and Robinson Ltd, London, 2000, ISBN 1-84119-398-4.
4. Cochrane The Dauntless – The Life and Adventures of Thomas Cochrane, David Cordingley, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2007, ISBN 9780747580881.
5. The Autobiography of a Seaman by Thomas, Tenth Earl of Dundonald, GCB, Admiral of the Red, Rear Admiral of the Fleet, etc. Etc. Volume I, second Edition, Richard Bentley, London, 1861.
6. The Autobiography of a Seaman by Thomas, Tenth Earl of Dundonald, GCB, Admiral of the Red, Rear Admiral of the Fleet, Marquis of Maranham, etc. With a sequel edited by his grandson, Douglas, Twelfth Earl of Dundonald, Richard Bentley and Son, London, 1890.
7. The Autobiography of a Seaman by Thomas, Tenth Earl of Dundonald, GCB, Admiral of the Red, Rear Admiral of the Fleet, etc. Etc. Volume The Second, Facsimile edition by Constable and Company Ltd., 1996.
Thanks are due to Ken Garrett-Jones for kindly supplying the photograph of the Moat Pit shaft.
16 February 2016.