The Duncan Institute

In 1867, Miss Elizabeth Duncan of Edengrove left £5000 (worth about £590,222 today) for the building of a “Mechanic’s Institute” in Cupar. These institutes were the response to an increased interest in education, and served to provide lectures and classes in science, technology, and access to books for the working classes. They already existed in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the Duncan Institute was established for the workers of Cupar, Dairsie and Kilconquhar parishes.

Extract from the Will of Miss Duncan

…….Ninthly that my trustees shall lay aside the sum of £5000 sterling for the establishment of a Museum and library and of an institution of the nature of a Mechanics Institute for the benefit chiefly of the working classes in the Parishes of Cupar and Dairsie and Kilconquhar to be called the Duncan Institute…….

A competition was held to choose the best design, the brief was to be as ornamental to the town of Cupar as possible and to be within a certain budget. Five designs made it to the final and these were available to view in the Corn Exchange. The winning entry was from Mr John Milne of St Andrews, an architect with a fondness for the Gothic. His design was seen as ‘an embellishment to the town’ and a ‘great improvement to the locality’.

The building was erected on the site of the Railway Tavern, and officially opened on 13th December, 1870. It was of Scottish baronial style, with turrets, grotesques, stained-glass rondels, different window styles on each floor, and a 114 ft. twisted “broach” spire. The spire was soon reduced to 111 ft. During a storm in January 1874, strong gales knocked 3 feet off the top!

The Institute originally comprised two reading rooms, a library, a recreational room, a lecture hall, a museum and a billiard room. There was also accommodation for the caretaker. In 1872 a telegraph service was introduced to relay important events to the reading room. There were lectures on Chemistry; Plants; Astronomy; the “six days of creation” and even one on “The Gothenberg Licensing System” under the auspices of the Temperance Society.

The building continued to be well used, and was administered by the Trustees until 1972 when it was acquired by Fife County Council. A room on the ground floor had been used as a library for some years, but the Council had a grand plan for a £50,000 refurbishment. Extensive reconstruction work would be carried out, and the ground floor gutted and remodelled to create “a modern, spacious lending library and meeting centre”.

In 1975 Cupar library – or the Duncan Library to give it the official name – opened its doors, and is a vital part of the town to this day. In addition to books (fiction, non-fiction, children’s, young adults, adults, talking books, large print, EBooks), there are public access computers, a meeting room, and craft, Bookbug and WalkOn sessions. The Local Studies room – the Duncan Room – houses local and family history records, reference material, a photographic and newspaper archive and many other resources.

After nearly 150 years, this iconic building still serves the people of Cupar, Dairsie and surrounding parishes in a way that would surely have pleased Miss Elizabeth Duncan. Although I suspect that the inhabitants of Kilconquhar probably go elsewhere these days.

Corn Exchanges Polish Bugler

A unique story behind the Polish bugler who’d muster their billeted soldiers with a call from the top of the Corn Exchange.

Listen carefully and you’ll hear the piece seems to stop mid note. This is part of the legend surrounding the call – a noble watchman was meant to have been struck down as he sounded the alarm!

Watch the video at Cupar Now

Cupar Mills

The River Eden which flows through Cupar had a major impact on the growth of the settlement from the earliest times. The use of water power probably dates back to the 11th or 12th centuries, with water-powered corn mills being an integral part of the local economy. Over the course of its passage to the sea, the river provided a means of driving the mills on its banks.

One survey suggested that as many as 30 mills were present along the course of the river, originally grinding cereals: from around 1800, flax spinning took over nearly one third of the mills. When the flax trade ran into difficult times, cereal grinding was reintroduced.

The First Statistical Account of Scotland in 1797, stated that in Cupar Parish, “there are no less than 11,000 bolls of grain annually made into meal at the four different station in the parish where mills are erected”.

The two principal mills were supplied from the same weir to the west of the town and some traces of the lade that fed the mills can still be discerned. In 1820. The upper mill – nearest the weir – was called the Spinning Mill and in 1840, it employed 33 people. In 1867, 100 people were employed, but about the time of the First World War it had died out. It had a short revival in 1920 as a coffee mill.

The Cupar Meal Mills are mentioned as far back as 1645 and probably existed before then as it belonged to the monks of St Andrews. Its activities were milling flour, meal and barley, threshing and straw cutting. It is on record that valuable mills existed on the Cupar Mills site in the 17th Century when the Town Council granted a security over them for an annual payment which was payable to the University of St Andrews for what became known as the Bayne Bursaries.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, the mills were feued (leased) for an annual feu duty (rent) of £105, and in 1843 the Council sold their superiority of the mills to James Russell.

In 1894 the property of the mills was acquired by another party with feu duty payments having fallen in arrears. In 1915 the Council acquired the mills once again. This pattern of fluctuating ownership continued until 1926 when they were purchased by T.D. Drummond. He departed from the traditional oatmeal milling and was of the early pioneers of producing compound animal feed marketed under the trade name “Riteway”.

T.D. Drummond retired in 1944 and relinquished ownership, selling to Messrs Hamlyn & Co. Ltd of Aberdeen. Hamlyns reintroduced oatmeal milling, but only as a minor part of the business. Animal feedstuffs became a growth industry after the Second World War, keeping the mills fully occupied, with their bright red delivery lorries and vans a familiar sight around all parts of Fife. Later developments included the installation of a new grain dryer, the building of a large fertiliser store and new grain silos in 1961.

Occasionally, the operation of the mills was threatened by severe flooding on the River Eden – one such occasion being reported in the Fife Herald on the 17th February, 1831. History repeated itself in 1977 when flood water swept through the premises to a depth of two feet. Within a matter of weeks further damage occurred when a fire broke out in a hopper, causing production delays.

Eleven years later, signs of the demise of Cupar Mills became apparent when demolition of grain bins and silos commenced. The site had been purchased by North Fife Metals, with the intention of developing housing on the site. The final announcement of the closure of Hamlyn Milling operations in Cupar came in May, 1989 after a 40 year association with Cupar.

Today, it is possible to imagine some of the scale of the mills by looking at the part of the Mill that was converted into housing. The image below shows the Mill in an idyllic setting in its heyday …

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Bell Baxter

Bell Baxter High School occupied this building at West Port from 1890, with additional facilities added in 1929.

The school moved to a single site at Carslogie Road and the buildings illustrated were partially demolished, or converted to housing and offices. The railings and gate were most likely removed for metal salvage during WW2 and the tree on the right has been removed.

A little more?

Many will know that Bell Baxter High School began its first session in 1889, but although the name was new, in effect the school superseded the Madras Academy, the origins of which can be traced back to the old grammar school of the Burgh of Cupar. Bell Baxter was an amalgamation of the Madras Academy and Sir David Baxter’s Institute for Young Ladies.

In the early 1960s, the old Westport site (above) was bursting at the seams with numerous wooden huts in use. We’re sure some of our readers will have tales to tell. The school’s current Carslogie Road site opened in 1962 and for the next 48 years, the school’s campus was split across the two sites.

St Michael’s Church, adjacent to the Bell Baxter High School Westport site, served for many years as the Bell Baxter Academy Hall and gymnasium. It became redundant following the opening of the new Bell Baxter High School: having stood empty for many years, Fife Council recently approved a scheme to convert it to housing.

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Crossgate House

The property which is set back from the Crossgate was built around 1814 for Thomas Horsburgh, Sherrif Clerk of the County of Fife, replacing four tenement blocks. Only the facade remains, the building having undergone a series of transformations for different uses during the course of it’s history. The 1820 Plan of Cupar, by John Wood lists the property as T.Horsburgh’s.The 1837 edition of Pigot’s Directory still lists Horsburgh as Sheriff Clerk of Fife, so he continued to occupy it at that time. In 1866 in May the Property was advertised for sale in the press:

The House has a carriage approach from the Crossgate with well-stocked gardens extending to the Eden behind. Two handsome public rooms, parlour, six bedrooms, parlour and other conveniences.

Adjoining the house and to be sold with it are a three stalled stable and house for a groom.”

Crossagate House was indeed a magnificent example of Georgian architecture and occupied a prominent position near Cupar town centre.

The Dundee Courier carried a report on 20th September 1919 confirming that the house was occupied by the military from 1914 and at one time as many as 71 soldiers had been living there. The condition it was left in rendered it uninhabitable for a time.

The Dundee Courier reported on 29th November 1919 of a property purchase in Cupar.

“Johnstone Simpson c/o Thomson Solicitors Dundee have purchased Crossgate House and grounds, Crossgate, Cupar, from Mr James Grosset, Agent for the Trustees of the late Mr W. Murray Johnston, Sheriff Clerk of Fife. During the War it was in occupation of the military. It is understood that it is to be converted into a motor engineering works which will be under the management of one of Mr Smith’s sons. Price paid about £1000.”

The Dundee Courier of May 1934 carried a report of the funeral of a lady that shed further information on Crossgate House.

“Funeral of aged Fife lady. Miss Elizabeth Mitchell aged 91 years who resided with her nieces the Misses Miller at the Neuk, Lundin Links and died there was buried yesterday in St James’s burial ground Cupar. Her father who was provost of Cupar for 7 years was a partner in the old established legal firm the Drummond and Mitchell and now Drummond, Johnstone and Grosset. Crossgate House, now a bus garage was the home to the Mitchells as it was to a subsequent partner of the firm, Mr Ben Johnstone who was also Sheriff Clerk.”

The house and adjoining ground became a depot and bus station for Cupar, utilised by several bus operators until it was eventually sold to a supermarket chain. Several changes of ownership later, it is now a retail outlet for Argos.

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Castlehill School

As part of our mission to inform, engage and intrigue you with aspects of the town’s past and present over the coming weeks we will present you with series of images from the archive with information gathered regarding the image.

Hopefully this will stimulate interest and discussion regarding the towns past.

Castle Hill School, Cupar

From the collection of historic images of Cupar. Part of Digital Cupar Resources.

Photograph taken  in 1900s, based on peoples’ attire.

Previously Madras College, Cupar.

Castlehill School, Castle Hill, Cupar.

Note previous address “School Hill, Cupar”

The building on the left in the 60’s was used as the teachers staff room and headmasters office and general office the small building near the cycle shed was the janitors office/bothy

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Cupar’s Sense of Place 

Cupar’s Sense of Place “causerie”

“causerie”, a short piece of writing in conversational style

The Causerie will provide space to keep you informed about our activities, and as Classic Cupar progresses, we will inform, engage and intrigue with aspects of the town’s past and present.

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