A return visit to the enigmatic ruins of Crawford Priory yields family memories, new secrets and golf balls.
One of the most popular posts on this blog to date described a visit to Crawford Priory where my father, my godfather and various other cousins spent part of their childhood. It is a haunting and beautiful place hidden deep in the Fife countryside.
The post outlined the history of Crawford Priory, the enigmatic Lady Crawford and its ghostly hauntings. It also includes a selection of fascinating then and now images. It attracted many comments from people with fond memories of the priory when it was a place of life and livelihood. It was time to go back.
I walked the back-roads to the priory. The hills were obscured by an impressionistic rain blur. Tractors slowly worked the bare fields, turning thick, black soil and exposing insects and worms for the attending avian entourage. The snowdrops drooped with elegant delicacy but their time is passing, heralded by the emerging shoots of the daffodils. A red squirrel darted through the trees above me, a dash of fleeting triumph that all was not yet lost. I saw the crows wheel around the priory, lost amongst the woods until the trees parted and revealed the ruins.
Exploring the priory is an immersive experience, becoming lost in the memories of a bygone age. Every visit offers different perspectives. This time I noticed far more just how much the fine, delicate motifs of the ecclesiastical gothic design was woven through the building – the shape of the doorways, the slender arched windows and delicate pinnacles.
I also wondered at how the priory was less being engulfed by nature, it was simply was nature. It was home to the crows wheeling and cawing overhead, the crenellated walls and turrets perfect for their nests. The ivy sprouted out of windows and up the walls, draped like veils of sadness. Bright green lichen carpeted the piles of fallen masonry and rubble, once roofs and walls. The woods around the priory were now in the priory. Birds flitted in and out of rooms where high tea was once served, orders were given and plans were hatched for a large estate of farms, coal mines and lime works. Maybe the nature lover Lady Crawford, watching from her mausoleum nearby, is at peace. Her beloved home may now be in ruins, but it’s a sanctuary for nature.
Memories of Crawford Priory
The voices of memory and family swarmed up as I walked through the priory. My cousins recounting how, many years ago when they were children, they sneaked out of their bedroom to peer through the window of the dome in the roof, and anxiously check to where their nanny was. They were fearful because there had been a fire in the laundry room in the (now demolished) tower close to their bedroom.
They remember many things: John the Bootman sharpening his knives with a terrible scraping noise and the heavily bejewelled hand of a bedridden grandmother. They remember creeping up the back stairway to the Psyche bedroom. My father talked of roaming endless land as a boy. He visited the farm with his grandfather, took rides on the train that brought lime down from the works and watched the cows being milked in the fields. He remembered the long-lost libraries.
I spoke to another distant family member about her childhood visits. ‘We were always picked up at Springfield station and placed in the car. This old fur rug would be carefully placed across our knees as we were tucked in. Oh the carry on. It would have been quicker if they allowed us to walk! There was always MacGregor the butler, waiting on the steps for us, rubbing his hands in that way of his.’ It was MacGregor who had the habit of slipping my godfather meringues from the kitchen.
Once the priory was the nerve centre of an estate; sustaining different livelihoods. There were butlers, gamekeepers, maids, cooks and housekeepers. Often the jobs, like the house, were passed down the generation, the gamekeeper whose father was a gamekeeper. One of my cousins remembers being upset by the impoverished state of the gamekeeper’s room, an armchair in a cold, bare room with a floor of newspapers.
It’s all gone but not lost. Days later I was in an Edinburgh archive and came across letters from the priory. One letter gave an account of the Cupar ball and then gave a tongue-in-cheek “Give the King my love when you dine with him.”
I made new discoveries, as if the priory was only slowly revealing her secrets to me. I had overlooked the small memorial stone to Lady Crawford’s beloved pet deer that used to follow her around. It’s there but nearly weathered away. I had also inexplicably mistaken the remnants of a back staircase for the main one. I was delighted when I walked into a central hall and there it was, elegantly sweeping up and away, jammed with rubble but still intact. How did I not find it on my first visit? (To be fair I had picked a perilous and difficult way to enter and explore the priory when a far easier option lay just metres away. This seems to happen to me quite often.)
Then there was the incongruous sight of the third golf ball, gleaming white against the rich green lichen. Was this some arcane prank by ruins explorer golfing enthusiasts? Why would someone randomly leave golf balls? I could only conclude that they must have been using the priory as a target, teeing off from the fields and why not? The priory is a siren for all kinds – ghost hunters, artists, golfers, urban and rural explorers, architects and historians.
A footnote: Cambusnethan Priory
Cambusnethan Priory, in North Lanarkshire, Scotland, was designed by James Gillespie Graham, the same architect as Crawford Priory. It is now a ruin and in a similar state to Crawford Priory. Luckily Graham’s legacy does not rest on the fate of these two priories as some of his work still survives in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
It was a strange walk to reach Cambusnethan Priory. Walk out of the station and through central Scotland sprawl: an abattoir, power sub-station, crackling pylons, tower blocks strangled by busy B-roads, peripheral businesses. The path was half-hidden by a cabin selling rolls and hot drinks to passing motorists. The path took me through the woods until it emerged into a different world, dropping down into the Clyde Valley with its rolling countryside, farmlands and woods. Cambusnethan Priory has the same ecclesiastical neo-gothic style as Crawford Priory but is smaller, less rich in detail.
The priories are not just the relics of another age, but the last remaining examples of early 19th-century Neo-Gothic mansions remaining in Scotland as many were demolished in the late 1950s and 1960s.
When the Bough Breaks
When the Bough Breaks is a book by John James Heath who wrote about his childhood memories on the Crawford Priory estate before and during World War One. His father, John Doulton Heath, was chauffeur to Lord Cochrane at Crawford Priory until he lost his job in 1923. It’s an interesting insight into life on the estate and rural Fife in the early 20th century.
Anyone who is interested in reading a copy can contact Trevor Heath on firstname.lastname@example.org.