Balmerino Abbey, Fife

Balmerino Abbey chestnut tree
Balmerino Abbey chestnut tree

A small patch of Paradise in Fife

Cross the Tay Road Bridge from Dundee to Newport and turn right and you’ll find a small patch of Paradise on the edge of the River Tay: the ruined Balmerino Abbey.

It was founded in 1229 as a daughter-house of Melrose Abbey, a working Cistercian Abbey until the Reformation, and converted to a private house in around 1660.

Today there’s not much left.  One and a bit walls of the church remain and humps mark where pillars used to support the roof.

Parts of the Chapter House and living accommodation can also be seen but this is now all fenced off, as it’s unsafe to enter and is undergoing stabilisation.  You can still see some fine carving around the arches, though, which gives an idea of how lovely the building must once have been.

A separate building, half under-ground, was either the infirmary or the Abbott’s house, according to the NTS sign.  I thought it might have been an ice-house.   The Undiscovered Scotland site reckons it was the cellar of the Abbott’s house; I prefer that idea to the thought of sick monks lying in dripping gloom.

The Abbey was never large – probably no more than 20 monks lived here at any one time.  It was damaged first by the English in 1547 and again by Scottish Protestants in 1559, and went into decline.  By 1606 it was a secular lordship for James Elphinstone, 1st Lord Balmerino.

Visiting Balmerino Abbey

We visited on a hot day but the mown grass was damp and very pleasant on bare feet.  There’s a short nature trail through the trees and one ancient, fabulously contorted Spanish chestnut tree, with huge metal props supporting its sagging limbs.  It’s worth coming just to see the tree, which legend says dates from 1229!

A visit to Balmerino Abbey won’t take long but it’s a beautiful, peaceful spot to while away half an hour or so.  You could have your picnic at one of the tables under the trees before walking along the Tay (see below).  It’s definitely worth the trip if you’re interested in history or just want a quiet spot to relax in.

Balmerino is reached from the Wormit-Newburgh road on the south side of the Tay, then down a narrow lane (sign-posted).  The Abbey’s on the right before you reach the village of Balmerino.  It’s a National Trust for Scotland property, so if you’re not a member please put some money in the honesty box.  The cash will be used to help preserve the ruins.

You can park on the verge outside the gate or, if that’s full, there’s room for 2-3 cars a bit further down the lane.  When you’ve finished enjoying the Abbey, walk down the lane to this second parking area, turn left past a cottage and you come to the shingly beach of the Tay.  It’s another great place for a picnic, especially at low tide.  Keep going along the bank and there are paths up into the woods where you can get a good hour’s walk.

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Scotland’s Secret Bunker


Scotland's Secret Bunker
Scotland’s secret bunker: just another farmhouse?

What did you do in the Cold War, Daddy?

It’s just a little farmhouse, isn’t it?  Well, no, not exactly.  It looks innocuous enough from the outside.  Then you notice that the fence is higher than necessary to keep the cattle where they should be.  And you spot radio masts, a sentry box and camouflaged military vehicles.  Welcome to Scotland’s Secret Bunker.

Until 1992, in this “little farmhouse” six miles from St. Andrews, a select few would have monitored – and survived – a nuclear attack.  There’s a nice irony in the fact that such a top-secret establishment now has road signs pointing to it from all over Fife.

In the ticket office/shop there’s a warning that the temperature below stairs is a steady 18 °C, so some visitors may prefer to wear coats.  Once through the turnstile it’s down, down, down, 100 feet below ground level.  This is no place for claustrophobics.  It’s also no place for those who can’t manage stairs.

Life in Scotland’s Secret Bunker

Down here the 300 people stationed at the Bunker worked, ate and slept in a space the size of two football pitches.  There were representatives of every emergency service, plus members of Government ministries and RAF or, later, Royal Observer Corps personnel. The local MP would probably have holed up here, too.

Desks are crammed into astonishingly small offices.  There was a broadcast studio for emergency transmissions, a chapel and, of course, a canteen.

That’s now the Secret Bunker café, though sadly we didn’t get to try its wares as it closes at 4 pm.  The Bunker is open ‘til 6 pm, with last entry at 5 pm when the shop closes.  It seems a shame the tea-room can’t stay open at least as late as the shop.  It looks, apparently, much as it did when the Bunker was operational, though the menu has been updated!

And death…

In the RAF operations room a feature film shows how the Bunker would have operated.  There are also two cinemas showing relevant films of the period.  We watched part of a harrowing one about the results of a fictional attack on Kent.

A sign outside the cinema says both films are suitable for all ages.  Maybe so, but only if they have strong stomachs.  The images are enough to make you join CND; indeed, we got a strong anti-war message throughout the place.

You can hire audio-guides for your visit or, like us, just read the very informative signs as you wander round.  There’s enough memorabilia dotted around to give a really strong feeling of the period.

We left pondering how near mankind had come to wiping itself out.  The Bunker’s a sobering but fascinating place to visit, and not just for adults.  It’s also great for kids, especially during the occasional special events, when they can get involved with re-enactments.

And it’s a warning of what we could still do to each other…

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Scotland’s Secret Bunker closes for the winter, re-opening in March.  For opening and closing times and dates, exhibitions, events and other information, see