“Dunfermline becoming a city a year ago wasn’t just a semantic shift,” smiles Louise Hutchison, operations manager of Abbot House, the city’s oldest dwelling, now reborn as a café, shop and – soon – museum. “It was a starting point that gave us more confidence and drive… you can really see how many people have tried. We are reinventing our ‘old capital of Scotland’.
King Charles III did as well. It was his late mother who bestowed the coveted city status in May 2022 as part of Jubilee celebrations, but Charles chose Dunfermline for his first official visit as king, declaring the journey ‘made his heart glad’. His coronation may have generated a relatively tepid response in Scotland, but flag-waving citizens of Fife’s only city were on the streets in October 2022 to show their appreciation.
Royals are nothing new in a historical hub filled with kings and queens. Though never officially the capital of Scotland, the city’s abbey is the final resting place of a number of Scottish monarchs; Robert the Bruce’s remains are buried in the adjacent abbey church and Charles I was born in Dunfermline Palace, now an impressive ruin. Then there’s Queen Margaret, Scotland’s only royal saint, who spent her life of devotion here. Her grave lies at the abbey; her relics a few steps away in the church of Sant’Andrea.
It’s easy to get lost in the history of Scotland’s new city, but you shouldn’t; well, not only that. Yes, a stroll through a cobbled old town that looks like a Harry Potter set, or a bijou version of Edinburgh’s Unesco World Heritage-listed Old Town is a must, but so is the new Golden Age that bursts from city status attracts attention.
The most obvious starting point is the renamed Dunfermline City Station (Google Maps still lists Dunfermline Town). It’s a great introduction as you first cross that great iron leviathan, the Forth Bridge, then climb towards the cliff where the city sits, looking proudly towards Edinburgh. The cobalt waters of the Forth estuary and its trio of bridge leviathans create a picture-postcard setting, the Pentland Hills rising to the south; the Ochils, the northern guardians of the city.
He may not have been a king, but a man is undoubtedly the true king of Dunfermline. Yes, the city has given the world Barbara Dickson, Stewart Adamson (and Big Country) and author Iain Banks, plus new Doctor Who Ncuti Gatwa, but it’s quite something to visit the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum and see the bed in which this weaver’s son was born, minutes from the train station. After following an army of Scots across the Atlantic, he set out to become the richest man in the world, only to have his fortune given away as the first global philanthropist.
“Carnegie may be best known around the world for his legacy of halls, fonds and more than 2,500 libraries,” Mark McLeod, director of the museum, tells me, “but he has never forgotten his native Dunfermline. Even more than a century ago Dunfermline was referred to as a city. He would be proud of it.
Carnegie said nothing gave him more pleasure than to return to Dunfermline to secure the property which had been evicted as a child, he, of course, gave it away to bring “sweetness and light to the people of Dunfermline”. Today, the 76-acre Pittencrieff is regularly voted Scotland’s best urban park, a bucolic wonderland of shady waterside paths, castle ruins, peacocks and ornamental gardens.
A short uphill walk takes you to the world’s first Carnegie Library. It still helps educate the citizens of Dunfermline not only through its collections, but as the revived Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries (DCL&G). The building is a marvel, reinvented in 2017 as the city’s offering took shape, winning a number of awards from the Edinburgh Architectural Association in recognition of its brilliant – and sustainable – marriage of the ancient and ultra-modern with a free city museum in his heart.
“Over the last year we have seen a massive increase in visitors, doubling year on year. [City status] it has given people a real urge to visit,” says Tracy McCafferty, DCL&G headquarters manager. She shows me the weeks-old Granary Café, where they do their own pastry and butchery. Even the tea is local, from the Wee Tea Company of Dunfermline.
The barn is not alone. A few blocks away is Dhoom, which excels with a tasting menu that changes with the seasons thanks to the head chef’s regular visits to India for inspiration. A rise in city status has also come to the good old drunkard, The Commercial Inn. It has always offered real ales, but I was told by the bar staff that it wasn’t quite on the map before; in December 2022 CAMRA named it ‘Scotland & Northern Ireland Pub of the Year’.
Also putting the city on the map is the Outwith Festival, an offshoot of the original Edinburgh Festival. It’s very Dunfermline – an intimate affair spread across a handful of locations. Dunfermline has some excellent ones – the majestic Alhambra Theatre, the upbeat haunt of PJ Mollys concerts and of course its majestic Carnegie Hall.
At the Alhambra, marketing manager Claire Fletcher tells me: “City status has given us a huge boost. We’re noticing more tourists coming after, or even instead of, Edinburgh, so much is the interest.” She shares a new mural by Cecile Bryne, daughter of famed Scottish artist John Bryne, and directs me to Fire Station Creative. This reborn barracks The art deco fire brigade lives up to its name, functioning as an unofficial innovation hub which now brings together the vibrant threads of Dunfermline and hosts free exhibitions.I meet Michelle McWilliams, who was part of the city’s bid: ‘We were a city in expected, the fastest growing city in Europe – we are now one of its most creative and historic cities,” she beams.
You cannot accuse Dunfermline of lack of ambition, nor of commitment. It now bills itself as ‘The Electric City’ with its fleet of sustainable buses and this year will test the world’s first driverless public bus from the City’s Park and Ride in Edinburgh. Local football club Dunfermline Athletic were also swept up in the excitement, securing the Scottish League One title this month and reminding more mature fans of the heady days of the 1960s when they reached the semi-final of the UEFA Cup. A year ago the “Ancient Capital of Scotland” was a city built on solid foundations; today Dunfermline is lighting up in its new role as Scotland’s eighth – and newest – city.