The name Dunfermline is thought to have three compound parts. The first, Dun, denotes a hill fort, and the remains of such a building can still be seen today. Ferm and Line, however, have been more difficult to interpret and have been suggested to mean ‘bend’ or ‘twist’ and ‘pool of water’ respectively. Another possibility is that the last two parts refer to a personal name.
Reference to the town of Dunfermline was first made during the reign of Malcolm Canmore (1031-93). His wife Margaret founded the abbey there in 1071. This established the town as the royal centre and thus Scotland’s earliest capital, until the reign of James VI (1567-1625) when the emphasis moved to London. The parish of Dunfermline at this time was 9 miles, north to south, and 6 miles east to west, with a surface area of approximately 36 square miles. The population of Dunfermline was recorded in 1851 as 21,687.
Dunfermline town itself displays many of the features typical of a thriving medieval market town. One long continuous main street, with the tron and market cross in the centre, is intersected at right angles by narrow twisting closes. Dunfermline Abbey, in the town centre, was one of Dunfermline’s many parish churches and is sited next to the remains of the Royal Palace. Pittencrieff Glen, a private estate at this time, also holds what are believed to be the remains of Malcolm Canmore’s fortified tower house. It is estimated that the parish contained about 2,800 houses in 1845.
Dunfermline's main industry at this time was weaving. Dunfermline was especially renowned for its linen production, the first record of which was made in 1491. It is estimated that by 1845 approximately 3,000 handlooms were to be found in Dunfermline. The introduction of mechanical weaving into British industry, along with the cheap and easy availability of cotton, however, meant that most British handloom weavers were out of work by the mid-1840s. Like the rest of Scotland, weaving mills and sheds had arrived in Dunfermline by the mid-1800s.
Dunfermline's hinterland industries were a vital source of economic and social stimulation. One of the most prolific industries practised around the periphery of the town was coal mining. There were four collieries in the area, working a total of nine pits which by this time were deep underground; the Wallsend pit, opened in 1839, was at a depth of 105 fathoms. It is estimated that 1,117 people worked in the pits, with 2,910 of the population being dependent upon them. Limestone quarrying, along with baking and milling, as well as sandstone quarrying were also heavily relied upon for employment. Finally, agriculture was also equally as important to this lush and large rural area. It is thought that 13,391 acres of arable land was under cultivation at this time.
Dunfermline town was one of Fife's presbytery seats and as such the crown supported two parish ministers on a salary of £299 each (approximately £14,000 today). There were three Free churches and four United Presbyterian churches in the town , along with religious buildings and congregations for each of the Independent, Baptist, Episcopalian and Catholic faiths. Dunfermline Abbey, a Benedictine Abbey until 1598, also housed one of the town's parish churches.
The town council managed two schools at this time – the Burgh or High School and the Roland or Prior Lane School – whilst the Guild ran the Commercial Academy. The kirk session was responsible for the MacLean Schools, established by the Rev. Allan MacLean, although there were no parochial schools in the area. There were five schools for young ladies, one of which was founded by the ladies of the parish for the daughters of the poor. All in all, 2,622 children were believed to have attended school in the parish of Dunfermline at this time.
By 1854 two railway lines converged on Dunfermline, one from Stirling in the West and a branch of Edinburgh and Northern Eastern line from the east. The poor house and prison had also just been built at this time, on the ‘Town Green’ to the east of the town centre.
There were four main families of importance living in and around the town during the nineteenth century. The Setons, known as the Earls of Winton or Dunfermline, owned land around Dalgety, although their main area of interest was in the Musselburgh area of Lothian. The Bruce family, much better remembered as the infamous Earls of Elgin, were based at the family estate of Broomhall. The Halketts of Pitfirrane were an old and illustrious line who featured heavily in Scotland’s past politics. Finally, the Wardlaws, designated Barons, enjoyed a family seat on their estate of Pitreavie.
A View from the Rev. Peter Chalmers, A.M; Minister of Dunfermline - 1845
‘The habits of the people as a class are industrious and active, and, with the exception of the lowest and most dissipated among them, are clean and orderly. Very many of the working population have a fair proportion of the comforts of life, and advantages of society.’