It was not a dignified entrance. I crawled under a fence, forced my way through nettles and barbwire, and gingerly walked over shifting piles of debris.
Instead of being welcomed by a friendly cousin or a butler I was jeered by disturbed crows wheeling round the castellations and turrets, screeching alarm calls to the surrounding woods and fields that something was amiss at the priory ruins.
As I crawled along the top of a wall that once propped the second floor, I thought of the starkly different welcome my godfather would have enjoyed as a boy.
“The staff were all so friendly because I was young. During some holidays I had to spend two hours improving my maths. At 10.30 every day the butler came in with two large meringues and within minutes my mother would come in and remove one of them so I could have it for supper. No sooner had she left than the butler came in with another meringue.”
Located deep in the Fife countryside Crawford Priory is a tragic example of how a beautiful historic building can, within the memory of one generation, fall from living grace to silent ruin.
My father, my godfather and other cousins enjoyed idyllic childhood holidays at the priory. They roamed the house, explored the estate and surrounding countryside, were taught to shoot by the gamekeeper and were spoilt by the staff. There was a small train up to the local limestone works, a social life, shooting parties, society weddings. In short the pleasure and work of minor aristocracy.
Now the wildlife has avenged those shooting parties and trees grow where drinks would have served before dinner. The roof and floors have collapsed to leave only the standing walls and the surreal sight of fireplaces and doors hovering high up the walls. Every year the priory shrouds itself in more vegetation, removing itself further out of view, piles of rubble sinking back into the ground.
The history of Crawford Priory
The priory was first a spartan hunting lodge built by the Earl of Crawford in 1758 and substantially re-modelled in the early 19th century by Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford using the architect David Hamilton, then James Gillespie Graham. The priory had no religious history but was built in a gothic, ecclesiastical style with buttresses, turrets and pinnacles. She died in 1833, the last of her line, and the priory came into the possession of the Earls of Glasgow and the Cochranes.
It was renowned for the opulence of its interior. “The grand hall was magnificently decorated with fan vaulting and hanging pendants; suits of armour stood under canopied gothic niches; medieval style stained glass lit the hall. The drawing room and morning room opened off a rib vaulted chamber decorated with gargoyles, both with gothic fireplaces inlayed with coloured marbles. The principal staircase…was decorated with gilded armorial panels and armorial stained glass of the Earls of Glasgow.”1 By 1872 a tall gothic tower and an adjacent Episcopal chapel were added. My godfather as a child liked to climb the tower, which was considered unsafe and had to be demolished in the 1970s, and walk along the roof. The grand bedroom was hung with panels of wallpaper depicting the life of Psyche from the ancient Latin story by Apuleius. By 1990 much of this existed, albeit covered in pigeon droppings. Some 24 years later it is all gone.
Like many country houses Crawford Priory was hugely expensive to maintain, relying on cheap local coal and available servants. Even in its heyday it seemed too large for itself. Both my godfather and cousin remember exploring huge unused rooms and clambering about dusty piles of trunks. After the death of 2nd Baron Cochrane of Cults in 1968 the priory needed an expensive and major restoration. Despite the occasional half-plan to find a use it was instead sadly abandoned. It now seems well past the point of any restoration, its fate to sink back into nature.
Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford
The Cochranes during these times chased hounds, evaded death and debt, served for King and Country, re-altered the priory and ultimately lost it. But its spirit, the riddle of the ruins, lies with the enigmatic figure of Lady Crawford.
Lady Crawford was a reclusive and religious woman who was fond of animals and was surrounded by birds, dogs, tame foxes and even a pet deer who followed her everywhere. She was regarded as odd and even her obituary considered her eccentricities as “lean’d to the virtue’s side” for the cause of humanity. Lady Crawford was last of a family that had flourished for 500 years and whose deeds can be found in the chronicles of ancient Scotland. When she died her settlement was generous to the local poor, her friends, domestic servants and her animals.
Her reputation may have derived from envy and spite for this was an unconventional 19th century woman, unmarried, alone and responsible for running a large estate with coal mines, limestone kilns, farms and other business interests. An archive of letters related to the priory reveals Lady Crawford dealing with architects, masons, workers and all the problems associated with such a project.
When she died she was buried in a crypt in local woodland, close to nature and her beloved wildlife, while having a clear view of the priory. The crypt is said to be in as equally a poor condition as the priory.
A ghostly ruin?
The priory is a place of enigma and gothic ruin so it’s little surprise that it’s reputed to be haunted. It is said that Lady Crawford herself still wanders the grounds searching for her pets and animals. The thought of Lady Crawford walking the ruins of her gothic fantasy is disquieting, one hopes that she sees it as it was rather than as it is.
In another ambiguously strange fragment from the past she writes in a letter that “this hall is raised under bad and awful auspice” and describes how her dog howled in “in the most dreadful manner in the next room to the new building…yet in spite of its cries would not leave the dining room.”
Nor is Lady Crawford completely forgotten. A writer, Aline deWinter, inspired by a photo of the abandoned priory, has written a dark fantasy paranormal story based on Lady Crawford.
As I walked back through the overshadowed path of the woods I could hear the crows. Then once again they and the priory ruins fell silent, returning to the rule of nature.
Maybe Lady Crawford would be content with that after all.