Cupar, Fife (surveyed in 1893-4)


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 and south of Lady’s Burn, otherwise known as St Mary’s Burn. By 1893-4, the suburbs, such as Lebanon to the north of the Lady’s Burn (sheet VII.16.23), were becoming more closely linked to the town. By 1891, there were some 1,128 inhabited houses in the burgh and 62 uninhabited.

The name Cupar may derive from Comhpairt (Scottish Gaelic), 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 c. 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 the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare, but the historical accuracy of the event is dubious. Nothing remained of the castle in 1893 and the Castle Hill was sometimes then referred to as School Hill after the Madras Academy which had been situated there (Groome, 1894-5). 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.

In 1891, the population of the parish was 6,990, and of the parliamentary burgh, 4,729.

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 in the nineteenth century, the administrative centre of the town, with its townhouse and county buildings, lay near the junction of these two roads. By 1854, the railway station had been built, lying on the edge of the town, south of the river.

Cupar's original parish church lay to the north-west of the town. In 1415 a new parish church was erected in the town on the Kirkgate. Only the tower of this church remains, the rest having been rebuilt in 1785.

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 xiii.4.13). The continuing importance of the corn trade is reflected by the building of a new Corn Exchange in Bonnygate in 1862 (sheet xiii.4.4).

A clay seam by the town had long been used for brick and tile works. During the nineteenth century, it was also used to make pottery. Groome (1894-5) mentions other industries that operated in the town in the late nineteenth century, such as malting, tanning, dyeing, flax-spinning and linen weaving.

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.

St James the Great Church was built in 1866 for the Episcopal congregation.


By 1891, Madras Academy, founded in 1831 by Andrew Bell, had been re-named the Bell-Baxter school after a further endowment by Sir David Baxter. Some of the new school buildings on the West Port can be seen on this map. A number of other schools were established for poorer children and the philanthropic trend was also followed in 1870 by the endowment of the Duncan Institute in Crossgate (sheet XII.4.4) for the education of the working classes. This included reading rooms, a library, museum, lecture hall and recreation rooms.


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

In the late nineteenth century, Cupar seems to have offered a wide range of social and cultural activites, from the floral and horticultural society to chess, curling, golf or bowling. There was also a racecourse at the west of the town.