Shipping Culross coal to Zeeland

It is difficult to imagine the quiet picturesque village of Culross as a centre of major industrial activity with a thriving maritime export trade – but 400 years ago that was a reality. The town’s prosperity in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was based largely on coal production and salt panning and the export of these commodities to the nearby continent. Coal was shipped to the Low Countries through the port of Veere in Zeeland – which, at the time, had access to the open sea. It is believed that the appearance of red pantiles on many buildings in Fife was the result of their being used as ballast in vessels making the return journey to Culross.

The flourishing commerce was mainly due to the engineering and trading acumen of the local laird, Sir George Bruce. In order to extract coal from a seam running beneath the Firth of Forth, around the year 1600 he opened a mine, reputedly the first in the world to tunnel under the sea, and which was widely admired for its engineering ingenuity. Coal was extracted from the mine through a shaft sunk from a small artificial island in the Forth, about 400 metres from the shore, and loaded directly onto ships. Drainage of the mine was achieved by a horse-powered bucket and chain pumping system.

Culross Palace

The success of Bruce’s commercial ventures enabled the construction of a large mansion utilising materials obtained through foreign trade, such as timber from the Baltic region and roof and floor tiles from the Low Countries. The exterior of the building – known today as Culross Palace – with its use of crow-stepped gables also betrays the influence of Flemish architecture.

Historic print of Veere c1600

The 400-year-old link between Culross and the small town of Veere in The Netherlands is maintained today by means of a community partnership. In 1541, Veere, known at the time in Scotland as Campvere, acquired the status of a Scottish staple port – having rights and privileges for the import of goods into the Low Countries – and continued in that role for over a century. Although the principal commodity arriving from Scotland was wool, coal imports from Culross were also significant. A thriving community of Scottish merchants developed in Veere enjoying a large degree of autonomy and certain exemptions from taxation. Today, the former homes of Scottish merchants in the town house a museum commemorating the connection with Scotland.

In Culross, a small residential close is named Veere Park.

Culross Palace, restored to its former 17th-century splendour, and its reconstructed period garden are now under the care of the National Trust for Scotland and are open to the public.


Culross Palace image © Palickap, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Print of Veere by an unknown artist c1600, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons