St. Andrews is situated a little to the north of the capital city of Edinburgh, on Scotland’s east coast. It is a small cathedral city with a population of fewer than 17,000 but it has a grand reputation for such a small town. Depending on your proclivities and interests you may know of St. Andrews as the home of golf, one of the world’s top golfing destinations. You may know it as the place where Prince William met Kate, as the home of the world-class University where that happened. If you have a passion for history then you may have heard that St. Andrews punches well above its weight when it comes to the huge number of historically significant attractions and the quality and quantity of its historic architecture. If you have been to the town then your enduring impression will be of the beautiful streets, the gorgeous wind-swept seascapes and the lovely, big, sandy beaches.
The beating heart of St. Andrews is undoubtedly the ancient university, the oldest academic institution in Scotland and third oldest in the UK, after only Oxford and Cambridge. The University has recently celebrated its 600 year anniversary and enjoys a good academic reputation around the world. The University population accounts for around half the population of the town. The ancient seat of learning is spread throughout the town, which means that the whole town is effectively one big university campus, as well as being a working town. The learned atmosphere (along with student high jinks) have made the town the interesting and quirky cultural melting pot that it is today and its buildings shape also shape the townscape.
The history of St. Andrews town, and that of the University with which it is inextricably bound, is both long and illustrious. The area was first settled by people from Northern Europe during the middle stone age. These first inhabitants were followed by settlement around the area of the modern town in around 4,500BC. In the mid 8th Century a monastery was built here by a Pictish king. It was said to have houses relics of Saint Andrew, and the life of the town as a religious centre began. In the 12th Century the establishment of the present town began. The large Cathedral, built in 1160, was the most important centre of pilgrimage in Scotland and one of the most important in the whole of Europe. This meant that St. Andrews became not just an ecclesiastical centre but also a town of huge political and economic significance. The University drew great minds from all over the world.
The Reformation and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms took a heavy toll on the town and it was not until the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries that the town began to fully thrive once more.
This historic town is best explored on foot, which will give you the time to look at and appreciate all the historic architecture of the three main streets of the town centre, and the maze of alleyways and wynds that lead between them. The three main streets have a charming mix of independent shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants. Between them all you will see many of the University’s historic buildings.
One of the centres of University life, certainly for those who are in the Arts Faculty, is St. Salvator’s Quadrangle. This beautiful grass-centred space is surrounded by historic buildings which are used for exams, and as lecture halls. On the side of the Quadrangle nearest the road you will see St. Salvator’s Chapel, with its clock tower. Walking down the wynd beside the Quad will take you to the Scores, a road with many more historic University buildings.
Walking down The Scores will take you to the historic remains of St. Andrews Castle, which have aged to a beautiful romantic ruin that is close to crumbling into the sea. Be sure to look around the fascinating little museum, and descend to the depths of the intriguing siege tunnel outside.
Follow the coast around and you will find yourself looking out from beautiful viewpoints over the North Sea, and you will see the beautiful ruins of the large Cathedral. For amazing views of the town be sure to buy a token and climb to the top of St. Rules Tower, the square tower at the heart of the Cathedral ruins. It is well worth spending some time in the Cathedral ruins and imagining what was once the largest building in the whole of the country.
Other historic sites include the two extant town gates, the West Port, and the Sea Yett, down near the old harbour. The West Port is one of few surviving town ports (Lowland Scots word for gate) in Scotland.
As well as the Cathedral and the Chapel, there are a number of other historic churches in the town, including the Holy Trinity Church, where the famous protestant reformer John Knox, who is thought to have been educated at the University, first preached in public.
There are three lovely beaches in St. Andrews – one is the small Castle sands beside the castle ruins. Then there is the East Sands, beside the historic pier, and out to the west of the town, the huge West Sands whose lovely pale sand stretches out for over two miles. The West Sands is where they filmed the famous opening scene of the film, ‘Chariots of Fire’. The beach is backed by beautiful dunes, which are subject to ongoing conservation.
History, culture, beaches, fine dining and good pubs – St. Andrews may be small – but it has it all.
St. Andrews, in the Kingdom of Fife by Elizabeth Waddington