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History and Heritage - Cullen

The Royal Burgh of Cullen is renowned for both the beauty of its setting and its rich history. Inverculen, the original village, was at the mouth of the Cullen Burn, but the people moved inland to what is now known as Old Cullen about the year 1300, during the Wars of Independence against King Edward I of England. In 1327, King Robert the Bruce's Queen, Elizabeth de Burgh, died at Cullen.

A prominent family of the time, the Ogilvies, lived at Findlater Castle, perched on a rocky promontory, east of Cullen. In 1600, however, they built Cullen House close to the church and village and Findlater Castle fell into ruin. In the 17th Century, Cullen's laird became Earl of Findlater, and in the next century, the estates passed to the Earl of Seafield. Cullen House was extended more than once, and has now been converted into luxury homes.

The Royal Burgh of Cullen and its Coat of Arms

The ancient Burgh of Cullen was founded by William the Lion in the 12th Century. King Robert the Bruce granted a further charter in 1327, but this may never have been registered. A new charter was granted by James II on March 6th 1455, constituting the Town as a Royal Burgh. Records imply that this was granted due to the volume of sea trade with Europe.

The Charter had not been entered in the Great Register of that date. However, after 166 years, the then Council of the Royal Burgh of Cullen decided to have the Charter registered in the books of Chancery for preservation. At this time, an official extract in Latin was written.

Shortly before the 500 year celebration of the Charter, it was discovered that the Coat of Arms had never been registered in the All Arms and Bearings Register of Scotland. The Town Council petitioned the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Edinburgh who granted the Warrant. The Arms, in the shape of a shield coloured silver, has the Virgin Mary and Child as a focal point (the Ancient Collegiate Church having been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin). She is sitting on a cushioned faldstool of mediaeval shape, a stool with an arm at each side, but no back. She is dressed in a red dress with a blue robe and holds the Holy Child in white at her left arm and a sceptre in her right hand.

The Sceptre, Crown and Halo are in gold, and, at the base, there is a Whelp dog (that is reputed to be a pun on the name of the Town, the Gaelic word for whelp being "Cuilean"). In a compartment on the base is the Motto: "In Secula Seculorum" - for which there are two English translations - "celebration of mankind for ever and ever" - "world without end to all eternity".

Cullen Auld Kirk, Old Cullen

The existence of a church at Cullen was first recorded in 1236, and again in 1275. It is likely that part of the present building dates back to this time, since the rounded arch window, originally a doorway, in the southwest corner of the church indicates a building of early 13th century. In 1327, Queen Elizabeth de Burgh, second wife of Robert the Bruce, died at Cullen, and her entrails were buried in the church.

The king founded a chaplaincy in that year to pray for her soul - a tradition that continues to this day. The church was dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, the patron saint of Cullen. A carving of the Virgin and Child, now much weathered, may still be seen on the old Mercat Cross in Cullen Square. This same cross would once have stood outside the Kirk gates in the middle of the original Burgh of Cullen, which was demolished in the 1820's when the town was removed to its present position. Later additions to the church were St. Anne's Aisle, the present south transept (built in 1536), and the Seafield Loft, an imposing example of a laird's gallery (built in 1602).

The church features a beautiful sacrament house in the north wall and an ornate monument (dated 1554) to Alexander Ogilvie of that Ilk, who, in 1543, raised the church to collegiate status. The churchyard has many interesting and imposing tombs, monuments and gravestones. Cullen Auld Kirk stood in the centre of the original Burgh of Cullen. If you stand at the main gate and look up the avenue, the market cross would have been directly in front, with the main street running north south to the left and the right. Between 1820 and 1830, the new town of Cullen was built, and every trace of the old one demolished, save for the Kirk, to allow the Earl of Seafield to improve his policies.

A place was reserved for a new church in Cullen Square, but it was never built. A booklet describing the church is available, and the church is open during the summer months on Tuesdays and Fridays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., with guided tours available. For more information on the Auld Kirk, please visit www.cullen-deskford-church.org.uk

Mercat Cross

Now sited in the Square, the Cross was originally sited in Old Cullen, moved to Castle Hill in 1820 and subsequently to its present location in 1872. It dates from 1696 and incorporates a still older carving of the Virgin and Child.

Fishing and Cullen Harbour

Fishing has been carried on at Cullen for at least 500 years, and the picturesque Seatown with its colourful painted houses and twisting lanes dates in part from the 17th century. The small harbour was built between 1817 and 1819 by William Minto, to a design by Thomas Telford; alterations and an additional quay were added by William Robertson in 1834.

Robert Southey, the well known poet and friend of Telford, who travelled the Highlands with him, wrote of Cullen: "When I stood upon the pier at low water, seeing the tremendous rocks with which the whole shore is bristled, and the open sea to which the whole place is exposed, it was with a proud feeling that I saw the first talents in the world employed by the British Government in works of such unostentatious, but great, immediate, palpable and permanent utility. Already their excellent effects are felt. The fishing vessels were just coming in having caught about 300 barrels of herring during the night…." The harbour is now mainly used by pleasure craft.

The village specialised in the export of smoked haddock and had at one time three large curing houses. The local delicacy, Cullen Skink, is a delicious fish soup of smoked haddock, potatoes, onions and milk.

The Cullen Railway Viaducts

The most striking feature of the town is the series of railway viaducts, one of the great achievements of 19th Century railway engineering, which divide the Seatown from the upper town. They were completed in 1886 by the Great North of Scotland Railway.

The Countess of Seafield would not allow the line to cross the policies of Cullen House. The arches of the viaducts frame some of the best views of the town and its surroundings - the Seatown, the Cullen Burn, the 19th Century Temple of Pomona (a garden teahouse in the shape of a classical temple) and, most magnificent of all, Cullen Bay with the isolated rock strata known as "The Three Kings".

The railway line was closed in 1968 and is now incorporated in a coastal footpath to Portknockie. It also forms part of the SUSTRANS national cycle path (www.sustrans.org.uk) and of the North Sea Cycle Route (www.northsea-cycle.com).

History & Heritage

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This project was part-financed by the scottish goverment and the european community moray leader 2007-2019 programme.