Pittencrieff Field School 2019 Blog: Day 14

By Stuart

Abbot House, Dunfermline
Abbot House, Dunfermline

Some of the most noticeable aspects of history are the buildings we see around us every day. They are easy to take for granted and yet they can tell us so much about the towns and cities in which we live. Abbot House on Maygate in Dunfermline is no exception to this rule.

The building itself is striking from the moment you see it. Its pink walls and unique shape scream history, and even the steep steps down towards the door are indicative of its age. Abbot House is the oldest secular building standing in Dunfermline town and was one of the only survivors of the ‘Great’ Fire of Dunfermline which is commemorated as a mural on the walls of one of the rooms – much, I’m told, to the delight of children – as destruction often tends to elicit emotions.

In fact, art is one of the uniting themes of Abbot House. One of the rooms in the upstairs is covered with WWII imagery and was previously used for training. During WWII, troops were trained to recognise the shadows of aircraft in the air so they would be able to identify friend from foe which is why the planes on the mural are silhouetted against the blue-sky background. It’s often hard to reconcile the beauty and artisanship of images such as these with the unpleasant reasons behind their creation, but beauty can often come from hardship and crisis and both World Wars had such a profound impact on the United Kingdom that it is difficult to avoid their influence.

Another image is found just a few rooms down the hall; a frescoed wall painting which has been dated to 1571 and most probably depicts Virgil’s journey in the Roman Aeneid with characters such as Neptune and Mercury drawn skillfully despite the fractured and decaying nature of the fresco itself. Over the years, the fresco has clearly been painted on many times with strangely proportioned depictions of Abbot house and men with legs that clearly don’t belong to them. Though this may seem a shame, to me, it only makes the image more interesting. Change over time is an important part of history and archaeology specifically.

16th century fresco in Abbot House
16th century fresco in Abbot House

Abbot House is currently closed to the public, though there are plans to reopen it as a restaurant. After our visit, a group of us headed into the library for a look at some of the old records of Dunfermline as well as a brief introduction to Canmore. Canmore is probably the most useful archaeological resource in Scotland – both for the general public and experienced archaeologists alike. Run by Historic Environment Scotland, its database contains detailed information, in the form of images, site plans, and links to further reading for well over 300,000 places in Scotland. If you have an interest in Scottish history, then even just 5 minutes on the site looking around your local area or sites of personal interest such as Dunfermline Abbey or further afield like the tremendous Ring of Brodgar in Orkney. Canmore really should be celebrated as part of the ongoing technological revolution in archaeology.

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