Crawford Priory: riddle of a ruin

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.

Further reading

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford: A Paranormal Regency Romance
Follow this blog
Photos on Crawford Priory from GeoTopoi

Crawford Priory Cupar Fife Scotland Aerial View

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82 thoughts on “Crawford Priory: riddle of a ruin

  1. did you not know about the tume here where she was layed to rest and out the back of the house is where all the pets are they all have head stones and i love this pleace i have been going down there since i was a boy to x

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    • I did know about the tomb but didn’t have time to explore and find it. I understand it’s in Mary Woods about a mile or so from the priory. Is that right? The head stones for pets I did not know about so thanks for that tip Fraser. I will look out for that next time I am there.

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  2. as a lad I used to deliver the morn papers by placing them in the lift,at that time you could sneak a glance at the stunning front rooms with furniture,at the side there was a headstone to her favourite deer.as to why the decay its always been known that death duties were the cause,true or not.the estate was sold of bit by bit and is now shamefully a disgrace.other local estates prosper an why good management. it was on rich agricultural land the only conclusion I can come to is ineptitude of recent owners. rip lady mary.

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    • John thanks for dropping by with those memories. It’s wonderful and sad that there are people who still remember it in its more glorious and happier days. I was born in the ’70s and grew up in London so I never visited it until now when it’s a ruin. I am afraid I don’t know the ins and outs of what happened with the priory but I know older members of a different line of the family, including my father and godfather, were greatly saddened by its demise.

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      • I know there was at least one fire in the Priory which forced one wing to be closed & then later on I heard there was another. If you look at a lot of the old photos you can find online you will see the charred wood.

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  3. Interesting post Alex, particularly with having a personal connection and insight to the history of the Priory. I have seen many similar cases in which once opulent buildings can become ruins in a relatively short space of time. Buildings need care and capital to thrive and when any of these are removed, ‘Nature’ is not shy about moving in. Also like the idea of ghosts seeing places as they once were, rather than as they are now.

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    • Yes – overall I think we have a good heritage and respect for history in the UK, some would say too good, and we manage to preserve much for generations to come. Alas there are many like Crawford Priory that slip
      through the net and nature does move in.

      For Crawford Priory there may have been complicated issues about its design and the fact that it has needed frequent renovation and required expensive maintenance. I am no expert on such architectural matters!

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  4. Hi there Alex ,l have many happy memories of Cults mill and Crawford Priory .My mother was Vere Cochranes PA for over forty five years .Many a time I had to accompany her to work and remember playing on the estate with Thomas and Michael, Vere,s two sons.I also remember going to parties in the Priory in the Gothic Hall ,great times indeed ..My mother Cathies memorial tree stands across from the Sun Dial just along from Vere,s house on the estate …..

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    • Hi Brian,
      I have privately emailed you because I would love to hear more about those parties and the days when the priory was not a ruin. I shall look out for your mother’s memorial tree next time I am visit Cults in the spring. Alex

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  5. I enjoyed this story, Alex. Great writing and pictures, I like your style. I can especially appreciate the priory, having toured similar ruins in England myself. It’s difficult to put the beauty of the story into words, but you have done a fantastic job. Subscribed! 🙂

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  6. Wow. This is freakish. When you refer to the “Cochranes”, are you referring to your ancestors?
    Life is full of change. I have been to many ruins where you can sometimes still hear the laughter of the years gone by

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  7. At night there is a spiritual presence and you sometimes see a deer ghost looking about and sometimes lady Crawford too. Alex I only wish the cochranes would sell it I would love to restore it to its former glory seems such a waste.

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  8. I stayed in the old stables. dad worked there for many years….a woodcutter on the estate. I now live at cults n look on to the estate….the priory is a big part of my memories.

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  9. One of my favourite places to be, just so beautiful. I love to imagine what it must have been like in its day. Im Lucky enough to catch a glimpse from my living room window, always raises a smile. Just wish it could have been restored, too late for that now though.

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  10. Hi there. My boyfriend used to live in the old stable block. We were having coffee in the lounge when what appeared to be a female walked in then out. We both saw this and we ran down the stairs to see who it was. We found no one. I felt like I was being watched and when I became pregnant I didnt want to settle here as I felt like I was being watched. I am obsessed with this building it is a very special place and so sad it could not be preserved!!!

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    • Many thanks for posting that Susan. What a story to make you wonder! There is a special feel about the place and hearing everyone’s stories will make it feel more alive when I next visit.

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  11. Great post, I have only just found out about Crawford Priory while attempting to raise support for the rescue of another neo-gothic masterpiece, Cambusnethan Priory, which was built by the same architect who re-modelled Crawford Priory – James Gillespie Graham. I was shocked to find that it is not even on the Buildings at Risk Register – could you send me the address of the building and I can try to add it? Or add it yourself, see link below. Maybe you could start a FB page to save Crawford Priory! Both buildings are beautiful and similar in many ways.

    https://www.facebook.com/CambusnethanPriory
    http://www.buildingsatrisk.org.uk/rcahms-barr-suggest

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  12. My mother had some photo’s of Crawford Priory some of which included her father who stayed there to recuperate when he became very ill in Africa & was sent there by his Uncle The Marquiss of Tullerbadine who had formed the 2nd Scottish Lighthorse which my grandfather was serving in Africa. My grandfather was born in Australia his father Abram Crawford had married my great grandmother Margaret Glenndinning his 2nd wife, the Glenndinnings had shipping lines that travelled to New York & Melbourne. Abram was a merchant in the goldfields in Victoria. He had businesses in Ballarat & Bendigo & Prahan in Melbourne, (those buildings he built to house his businesses still stand & are quite Iconic today), he & his brother & father built the St Kilda line. I was always told they bought the first steam engine to Australia which makes sense since the built the St Kilda line & Margarets family owned a shipping company. They all immigrated together. My grandfather was Glenndinning Crawford. My mother showed me the photographs when I was about 4, I have them etched in my mind & have never forgotten them. They have since been lost, but Mum did tell me the whole story at the time. It is interesting to see in your blog the Psyche Bedroom, My favourite painting is Psyche by John Waterhouse. I also have a bed which has a resemblance to the bed in the photo although it is a long way from being the same, I hadn’t seen the photo of the bedroom before but those 2 little details are a little interesting especially with some other information I was given a few weeks ago. I would love to go there some day & see the place. Do you know of any paintings of those who lived there in the past. Is there something of Lady Mary anywhere. I would love to see a picture of her.
    My grandfather grew up in a fine house in Melbourne. I will find a link to it: https://www.onmydoorstep.com.au/heritage-listing/161/kiora

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    • Thanks for getting in touch with such a fascinating family story and connections to the priory. I don’t know of a painting of Lady Crawford but I am hoping to return to the priory within a couple of months and visit one of my cousins who knows quite a bit about her. I shall ask him if any paintings exists. I will also try and find her mausoleum in the local woods which I think is sadly in quite a state of disrepair. I will keep you posted of anything I find.

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      • Thanx Alex,
        I haven’t picked up on the blog. I will try to find links to it. I would love to know as much as there is to know & to see a portrait would be incredible, or of any of her brothers who predeceased her…. I try work out our link & I just come up a brick wall. As none of my ancestors were titled at least not the ones who came to Australia. I just cannot workout how my great grandfather who was a Crawford, my grandfather referred to The Marquiss as his Uncle which could have made my great great grandfather a younger brother of the Marquiss but I do not think The Marquiss had the last name of Crawford although he held many titles. I guess I really don’t understand the whole titles concept very well & it is also possible that The Marquiss may have been a Great Uncle to my Grandfather or even possibly to my Great Great Grandfather. All I really know is there is a link, my chances of finding it are unlikely. I still have an enormous interest in Crawford Priory.
        I have seen photos of the mausoleum online, it doesn’t appear to be in great shape. I saw some ages ago where some kids had been inside. Was not clear if she was still in there, they didn’t appear to do any damage & were just curious. they seemed to be quite good boys & not into anything evil. The photo’s must have been taken down as I haven’t seen them again.
        Thanx for keeping me posted.
        Love what you do.
        Jacki

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      • Hello Alex, Please don’t think me morbid or anything but I have actually been inside the mausoleum of Lady Mary. We have videos on YouTube of our visit. We run an organisation called strangeplacesinscotland, have twelve thousand subscribers and are always popping up in our local paper ‘The Courier’. One of the first places we researched was Crawford priory and since then have had a fascination with the place and the legend of Lady Crawford.

        We are genuinely interested in what we do and hope you don’t think bad of us for getting inside as there was already a hole in the wall.

        Jag Betty

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      • Hi Alex, I am wondering if you remembered to ask about a portrait of Lady Mary.I would love to see her come to life rather than a shadowy figure from the past. Three has to be a portrait somewhere. Does anyone else know of one?

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      • Hi Jacq. I had written to the National Portrait Gallery, received no response and then forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder. I hope to be in Edinburgh later in the year to do some research so will go in and ask them. Thanks for the reminder. Please bug me to do this!

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      • Thanx Alex, I’m not fond of bugging people but since you have given me the go ahead I will do so every now & then. I would love to see a portrait. I guess if I knew where to start I could have done it my self but being completely unfamiliar with actually being in the UK and how anything works, I just wouldn’t know where to start. I hope to go there one day but until then I love this blog of yours. Thank You……… Jacq.

        Date: Sun, 19 Jun 2016 09:16:36 +0000 To: jacquelinej61@hotmail.com

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  13. Hi Alex, do you have any images of Crawford Priory pre 1817? That is, before James Gillespie Graham worked his magic? I am planning to put together a before and after set of images, to show how he changed buildings and, in my opinion, turned them into enchanted castles! All part of the Cambusnethan Priory project!

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  14. I live on Cults Hill overlooking Crawford Priory. Having only ever known it as a ruin I am delighted to see the interior photographs above. At the moment I am engaged in writing a history of the Parish of the Howe of Fife. This includes what was the parish of Cults. Crawford Priory has been such an important part of that history that it cannot be ignored. Would you have any objection to me using your photographs to illustrate the grandeur that was?

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  15. My dad worked on the estate in the 70 to 80s as the woodcutter, I spent many years in lady Marys wood, and the priory, it captivated mine and my families heart, mum remembers getting a tour of the castle be for it was left unoccupied, she still marvels at its beauty, I’m so said the cochrane family can’t do anything about it x

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  16. I live locally and often take walks around the priory. It is a beautiful place.
    From what I have heard, the reason this building turned into a ruin so quickly is that the current Lord Cochrane had the roof taken down so that he wouldn’t have to pay taxes on a house he didn’t live in anymore. I have also heard that Historic Scotland briefly looked at acquiring the ruin it but it was not deemed significant enough for the amount of work needed to make it safe.
    If all this is true, this is a very sad end to a beautiful building…

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  17. I remember walking here often as a child,particularly the sun dial .there was also a tree in the woods near the priory known as lady marys tree but this was destroyed during the big storm in 67 (?)!

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  18. Hi there Alex, I grew up in Springfield. I can remember playing in the priory as a child. There was still electric in the building in the early 1970’s. Cupar library has photos and records about it. There was a great wee book about the decor of each room. I still love the priory all these years on. Hope you fined more. Good luck. X

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  19. In “The lives of the Lindsays” there is mention of a portrait of Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford by Watson. It was in the possession of Lord Lindsay of Balcarres then. Above a fireplace in Crawford Priory there was a portrait of Lady Mary’s father and at least one of his sons. Where this would be now is anyone’s guess.

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    • I would love to see a portrait of Lady Mary. I remember my mother telling me there was a fire in one section of the Priory in the late 50’s or early 60’s, perhaps the portrait of her father was damaged or destroyed. I have been looking at photographs on the net ever since the first ones were posted in early 2000’s, fire damage was clearly evident then to some of the big timbers supporting the upper floors. Those timbers have since fallen and are likely covered with rubble so the fire damage may not be as obvious now.

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  20. My great grandfather times about 7, John Dickson of the Dumbarton Glassworks and uncle to Wm Dixon of Govan, leased the Knightswood colliery from Lady Crawford and brought the coal, which was q pure, down to the Leven via a wooden tramway, prior to the railways. He died in 1814.
    Great post!

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    • I missed this Candia. A wonderful connection! I shall ask the family expert about the tramway as it sounds like interesting engineering before the trainline was built (which my father loved when he visited as a boy).

      Liked by 1 person

      • The coalfield apparently was on the site of what is now the rugby fieldsof The High School of Glasgow at Anniesland, or thereabouts. Dickson had a farm near Canniesburn Toll and the vet school. Would love to know more- Netherton something, I seem to remember…

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  21. Hello there, My Father is 86 at the end of this month. He was born and brought up on Crawford Priory Estate. His Father was a forester and they lived in the Gas House near the river. I have been helping him to write down a few memories of his childhood. It’s amazing what he remembers about the Priory. On a Sunday the family always went out for a walk and if they met Lord Cochrane they had to salute and his Father doffed his cap. He also remembers taking a wee steam train up to the Cults Lime Works. I found it a fascinating place too although I was very young at the time.

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  22. I visited the estate on Sunday, what an amazing place! So sad to see it rotting away. Your account of your visit and people’s memories of the place is very fascinating to me.

    I will be posting a few pictures to my Instagram account if you’d like to see them. My account is @little.scottish.one

    Think link may work: http://www.instagram.com/little.scottish.one

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  23. I visited today. Was wonderful to see it after reading your blog. An incredible place! So sad to see it like this but still beautiful and totally fascinating. Will revisit soon and hope to find the crypt!

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  24. Reminds me a lot of Inchrye “Abbey” also in Fife which I explored for many months as an adolescent when it was roofless and prior to its demolition. My Grandfather had worked on the estate and knew the history. Suspect same architects and similar history of recreating an earlier era. It also had a dogs graveyard, under a weeping willow where the dogs were laid to rest. From photographs I suspect these would have been hunting terriers, but obviously much loved. It was destroyed by the owners in the 1960s and later a ghastly modern house erected on site. The steading still exists, in a state of ruin just opposite the old Lindores station – it is a simpler building but shows some similar characteristics.

    Such a tragedy that we have lost such beautiful, irreplaceable buildings.

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    • Hi Sheila. Thanks for posting your memories. Fife seems to be full of these lost worlds and buildings. Tragic really. Apparently at Crawford Priory there is a memorial to what may have been Lady Crawford’s pet deer. It may be lost but something to look for next time I am back.

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      • The memorial to Lady Crawford’s pet deer was set in the wall as the Priory was approached from the stables, just over the fence on the left of the road. It’s been many decades since I was there last and I’m not sure if the plaque is still there, but I suspect it was lost with the demolition of the tower, along with the wonderful view from the top, of the Eden meandering East.

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      • Thanks for that Alick – hopefully I will be back later in the year and will have a look. I recently saw a photo of it that suggested it was still intact but in poor condition. I think the photo was fairly recent, as in in the last few years. Will report back!

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  25. My first attempt to post appears to have disappeared but this is the gist of it. Crawford Priory reminds me intensely of Inchrye ‘Abbey’ – built as a mansion house in the North of Fife in the same period. It was same architect , James Gillespie Graham, but it does not appear on his main list. Inchrye was, sadly, demolished in the 1960s although the steading buildings survive in a ruined state. The gate lodge is, today, a holiday cottage.

    My Grandfather worked on the estate for many years and i learned a great deal about it from him as well as spending my adolescent years clambering through it.

    Inchrye also had a dogs’ cemetery under a weeping willow tree with the dogs’ names on the headstones and crosses, All of it is gone and a ghastly new house was built in its’ place, but there is information on Canmore and other places as well as in memory.

    Such a tragedy that we lose such beautiful buildings.

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  26. So sad to think that this building has had such a rapid deterioration within our own lifetimes. I have visited the ruins possibly 3 times with no knowledge as to its history. Has been very interesting reading comments.
    I had just finished reading about another house, Inchdairnie, near Kinglassie, 50 rooms, built around 1550, Fire burnt it out around 1930, a lot of these big houses came to the same fate, what a great shame.
    http://www.scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/record/rcahms/118604/inchdairnie-house/rcahms
    I am afraid I can not bring back some of the life which existed within and around this Priory as other posters have but am learning about its existence from there posts, thanks.

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    • It is wonderful how people have posted their memories of the Priory. Inchdairnie House looked like it was beautiful! At least we have the memories and archives of these places. Thanks for the comments and hopefully I will be posting more on Crawford Priory in the future.

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