A car park in central Dunfermline's is home to one of Scotland's most unexpected visitor attractions. A small stone building in the north-east corner of the Glen Bridge Car Park provides an entrance to a tunnel and a set of 87 steps that descend into the earth. At the foot of the steps is a small cave, within which is a recreated scene of a woman praying. This is St Margaret's Cave, and it has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. Despite the access tunnel, which feels like it owes more to the Cold War era than the medieval period, it doesn't take much imagination to realise that the cave itself is a rather special place.
Saint Margaret of Scotland lived from 1045 to 16 November 1093. She was probably born in what is now Hungary, and her grandfather on her mother's side was thought to have been Yaroslav I the Wise, Prince of Novgorod and Kiev.
Margaret's great-uncle was King Edward the Confessor of England. When King Harold was killed by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Margaret's brother Edgar Atheling was regarded by the English as rightful heir to the throne. This was not accepted by William of Normandy, and together with their mother, Edgar and Margaret sailed from Northumberland to exile on the continent. A storm took them instead to Scotland, where they were given refuge by Malcolm III, who probably already knew them well from his own years of refuge in England, when Macbeth was on the Scottish throne.
Malcolm III was a widower with three children from his first marriage when he and Margaret married in 1070. Margaret's impact was dramatic. She favoured the Roman Catholic church to the Celtic Church and brought Benedictine monks to establish an abbey at Dunfermline. To allow her to feel more at home, Malcolm decreed that the language used at court should be Saxon rather than Gaelic. As a result Malcolm III was the first to be called "King of Scotland" in his own time.
Margaret spent much of her time in Dunfermline, and it is said that while she was here she would often pray at a shrine in a small cave that penetrated the side of a steep valley close to the centre of the town. After her death and subsequent canonisation the cave became a place of pilgrimage.
The cave and surrounding area was purchased in 1891 by ex-Baillie Walker, and the entrance protected by a metal grille. In 1962 the town council decided to fill in the 60ft deep valley to allow a car park to be built. This would have prevented access to the cave, but in the face of local protests, the plans were amended to provide for the building of the tunnel you see today. Vandalism led to the erection of the entrance building, and in 1990 the access tunnel was improved.
St Margaret's Cave is well worth visiting, even if the changes over the past half century make its original situation hard to envisage. Just as hard to understand is the idea that it was worth the town council's while filling in a 60ft deep ravine in order to provide a car park. We can be grateful that at least part of the cave was preserved during the process.