Cupar, Fife (surveyed in 1854)


Cupar, which was, until 1975, the county town of Fife, is situated on the main road from Edinburgh to Dundee and the north of Scotland. The older part of the town lies on the north bank of the River Eden, south of the small river known as Lady’s Burn, or St Mary’s Burn. By 1854, several suburbs had developed, such as Lebanon to the north of Lady’s Burn (sheet 2) or Pleasance to the south of the town (sheet 8).

The town's name may derive from the Scottish Gaelic, Comhpairt, meaning ‘common land or pasture’. However, Mackay notes that some authorities suggest a pre-Celtic derivation for the name.

Cupar was confirmed as a royal burgh by David II in the mid- to late-twelfth century, although the settlement must already have been established around the site of the twelfth- or thirteenth-century royal castle of Cupar. Certainly Cupar was already making customs payments by around 1330 (McNeill and Nicholson, 1975), suggesting that it was already an active market town by the beginning of the fourteenth century.

The castle, which was held by the MacDuff Earls of Fife, had stood on Castle Hill at the eastern end of the town. It was certainly in existence by 1296, when it was visited by Edward I of England, and it remained the meeting place for the court of the Stewartry of Fife until 1425. Some accounts have suggested that Cupar Castle was the place where Macbeth killed the wife and children of Macduff, as related in Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, but the historical accuracy of the event is dubious. The castle was no longer in existence by the time of this survey.

The Moot Hill at the western end of the town has been variously interpreted as part of an early defence or as a place of law-giving.

During the nineteenth century, the population was increasing steadily, having risen from 6,473 in 1831, to 7,427 in the 1851 census.

Town Planning

The centre of the town is focussed around two main streets, Bonnygate and Crossgate, which lie between the two rivers and radiate from the Castle Hill. Even into the nineteenth century, the administrative centre of the town, with its townhouse and county buildings, lay near the junction of these two roads. By the time of this survey, the railway station had been built. It lies on the edge of the town, south of the River Eden.

Cupar's original parish church lay to the north-west of the town (sheet 1). In 1415 a new parish church was erected in the town centre, on the Kirkgate in the town centre. Only the tower of that church remains, the rest having been rebuilt in 1785. The Free Church and the Baptist Church can also be seen on this map.

Trade and Industry

The town’s industrial development was primarily based on the products of its fertile agricultural hinterland. The weekly corn market held in the town supplied two corn mills and two barley mills, as well as flour mills and breweries, all reflecting the grain-growing capacity of the area. The mills used water power and can be seen on the map alongside the River Eden, to the south of the town (sheet 8).

Another important industry which also used the water power of the Eden for its mills, was flax spinning. The weaving of the flax into linen, however, was based on a home industry numbering 600 weavers according to the 1845 Statistical Account.

Religious life

During the religious strife of the Reformation, Cupar Muir was the site of a confrontation between the army of the Lords of the Congregation who supported John Knox and the Queen Regent's army who were intending to march on to St. Andrews. A treaty between them was signed on the Hill of Tarvit to the east of the town (sheets 6, 9).

The Free Church, the Episcopalian Chapel and the Baptist Church can also be seen on the 1854 map and Wilson (1857) mentions two United Presbyterian churches.


The Madras Academy, founded in 1831 by Andrew Bell, stood on the Castle Hill. The Statistical Account of 1845 mentions other small schools and the foundation of a public library in 1797.


The sixteenth-century playwright David Lyndsay put on the first performance of his satirical play The Three Estates at Cupar in 1535.

In the mid-nineteenth century the town seems to have offered a varied social life with a horticultural society, a philharmonic society and an agricultural society as well as cricket, curling and other games.