About Dysart House and St Serf
Our property is situated in a beautiful location on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, with panoramic views across to Edinburgh and stretching from the Island of Inchkeith to the Bass Rock. It incorporates the ancient caves used by St. Serf in the sixth century, and is designated by Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland as being of high historical and archaeological importance.
St. Serf, who died in 543, was Abbot of the Monastery of Culross further inland on the Fife coast. He established, firstly for himself, and then for his monks a hermit base in the caves which are within our enclosure, hence the name Dysart meaning "Desert". The smaller of the two caves seems to have been used as a living area. It was here, according to legend, that he had his "conflict with the devil", and emerged victorious and powerful in bringing Christianity to the people of Fife and surrounding area. He became known as the "Apostle of the Ochils". The larger cave was used as a Chapel. Later it came to be called the "Chapel of the Holy Rood", through its association with the noble family of St. Clair, who also built the Rosslyn Chapel in Edinburgh. They were patrons of the Monastery and caves.
In the Middle Ages they came under the jurisdiction of the Dominican Order and became known as the "Dominican Priory of Dysart". We have much to be grateful for in that when all Church lands were confiscated at the Reformation, our property came under the ownership of the St. Clair family. The walls around it remained and the caves were preserved to the present day practically as they were in St. Serf's time.
There are no maps in existence to indicate the exact location of a Church on the site, which was dedicated by a Bishop De Bernham on the 26th March 1245. It is known that after the Reformation many Church buildings, which were constructed using the finest materials of the day, were converted into Manor Houses. There are parts of our house, especially in the basement area, which are clearly very old, so this is perhaps a possibility here. In a legal document drawn up by Lethington, secretary to Mary Queen of Scots in 1564, it is described as "one house called (ane hous callit) The Hermitage, Manor House of Henry St. Clair". Mary's official itinerary for the spring of 1562 shows that she herself stayed here on the 4th of March, en route from Edinburgh to St. Andrews.
As it can now be seen from the outside, the house dates to around 1726. It was then owned by Lord John St. Clair, a supporter of the Jacobite cause. He commanded the Fifeshire & Aberdeenshire Horse in the 1715 Rebellion, and defeated the Duke of Argyll at Dunblane. When the Jacobites were finally overpowered, he fled to the Continent, where he remained "under attainder" until his pardon in 1726.
In 1722 many family records were lost when the house is described as being destroyed by fire. On his return in 1726, he had the house rebuilt, renaming it Dysart House. In the Records Office in Edinburgh there is a copy of a Receipted Account for work done on the house in 1727, which would suggest that it was not completely destroyed in the fire. It is for £148.3.6 (Scots) from a Mr George Swan for "Work at Lord St. Clair's house, including repair of the roof, putting up of lintels in the lower and upper storeys, replacing joists, repairing and levelling floors, and making shutters for 18 windows". His brother, General James St. Clair, made further alterations between 1755-56. The title Earl of Rosslyn was created for the family in 1801.
Harry, 5th Earl of Rosslyn, inherited the property in 1890 on the death of his father. Unfortunately, he was a gambler, and by 1896 was declared bankrupt. His Dysart Estate, which then included the adjoining Ravenscraig Park and Castle, was sold to Sir Michael Nairn, the linoleum magnate. In 1930 the house and gardens were purchased from his son by Mrs Elsa Mitchell and Miss Evelyn Coates (of the Coates Thread Family) on behalf of the Carmelite Order. Ravenscraig Park was donated to the Town in 1929, on condition that it be used as a public park. It included the ruins of the Castle, which had long been associated with the St.Clair family. Ravenscraig Castle was erected on the orders of King James II (1459-63), and was used by his French Queen, Mary of Gueldres, until her death. In 1470 James III exchanged Ravenscraig and adjoining properties with William St.Clair, for his Earldom in Orkney. In 1651 John, the 7th Lord St.Clair, fought at the Battle of Worcester in the Royalist cause. He was captured and imprisoned for nine years. During his captivity, in 1657, Ravenscraig was stormed and taken by Cromwell and his army.
Dysart is now a picturesque little town. It's quiet harbour shows little sign of the fact that for many centuries it was a vibrant trading port with the Continent. One legacy however, which can be seen, is the beautifully restored little Dutch houses along the shore, which were built by Dutch settlers in 1582.
When the house and gardens was purchased in 1930, neither the nuns nor their two friends were aware of the religious history of the site. It is perhaps a nice thought that God's providence might have played its part in restoring Religious Life to a location where it once flourished for 1,000 years. Visitors often remark that we are blessed to live in a property, which is an almost idyllic setting for a contemplative community.