Nestled in a corner of the Fife peninsula, St Andrews, named for Scotland’s patron saint, is a place like no other. Over the centuries it has been a place of traditional religious pilgrimage, first-class education and then pilgrimage once more, only this time for the world’s golfers! Its quirky traditions and old-fashioned ways beautifully represent the old and the new, and it is a wonderful place to spend a day (or a week!) exploring its history and learning its stories. Despite being one of the world’s foremost religious pilgrimage sites, it has also had its share of violence, torture and death, and there are reminders all over the town of its fascinating past.
Kilrymont, the town’s predecessor, was a quiet hamlet in a remote corner of Scotland until the bones of St Andrews were brought to the town and its fortunes changed for ever.
There are two versions of the story of how the bones ended up in this remote spot. One version is that in the 4th century St Rule, a bishop in the Greek town of Patros, was told by an angel in a dream that Constantine the Great intended moving the bones of the Apostle St Andrew from Patros where they were kept, to Constantinople. The angel instructed St Rule to carry the bones to the far ends of the earth. Shipwrecked off Kilrymont, the bishop came ashore, and a church was established.
The second version suggests that in the 8th century, St Acca, Bishop of Hexham in England, was exiled by the church there. Heading north, he brought a valuable gift – the bones of St Andrew! A church named for St Rule was established, and its tower, built almost 1000 years ago, is St Andrews oldest building. A few decades later work began on the cathedral, which was to become the largest church in Scotland by the time of its completion 150 years later.
Because of its association with an Apostle’s bones (one of only four cathedrals with this link), St Andrews became one of the biggest pilgrimage centres in Europe, rivalled only by Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Even in its current ruined state, you can get a feel for the majestic scale of this building. Churches, hospices, abbeys and associated buildings also sprang up. St Andrews developed on a pattern of three streets fanning out from the cathedral. Essentially there was a one-way system for pilgrims who would arrive via South Street to venerate the relics, buy their souvenirs on Market Street, and then leave via North Street. All very efficient and highly organised!
The scale of the cathedral and the number of pilgrims visiting made the town fantastically wealthy. The numerous hospices and churches created a demand for theologians, whilst the crown needed diplomats. To meet this need, Bishop Wardlaw established St Andrews University in 1413 – the third oldest university in the English speaking world. To ensure the safe passage of students to this remote corner, a bridge was built in Guardbridge which still stands today.
Its prominence at the centre of Scotland’s church life meant that St Andrews suffered particularly badly during the Reformation. Several protestant martyrs were executed for such serious crimes as possessing a bible printed in English! One reformer, Patrick Hamilton, was sentenced to burn at the stake. Hoping to ease his suffering, supporters threw gunpowder on the fire, however it failed to explode, merely scorching his head and hands. The fire also failed to catch properly, with the result that he burned for 6 hours. The site of his execution is marked by cobbles which superstitious students avoid walking on for fear of failing their exams.
Another executed martyr, George Wishart, had his death avenged by supporters who murdered Cardinal Beaton who had presided over his trial. Beaton was hung out of a window of his own castle, which was then occupied by the reformers, triggering an 18-month siege. During this period the besiegers tried to tunnel under the castle walls, whilst the defenders built tunnels to intercept them. These tunnels can still be accessed by visitors.
This period brought an end to St Andrews’ importance as a religious centre, but also had a negative impact on the university. The end of the church’s influence meant a huge lessening in status of the university. What saved the town was the new religion – golf!
By the mid 15th Century golf had become so popular that it was banned by James II who was worried that young men were golfing, instead of practising their archery in case of an English invasion! The ban stood for 50 years, only being relaxed as monarchs discovered the joys of a hooked drive! King James IV made the first recorded purchase of golf equipment in 1502, and the game’s popularity soared. The Royal and Ancient golf club was formed in 1754 and remains the rules body for most of the world to this day.
The Old Course was developed on common land, belonging to the town, and initially shared the ground with shepherds, rabbit farmers and washer women. The iconic Swilcan Bridge actually predates golf, being up to 700 years old and originally used to help shepherds get their beasts across the burn. Today it is recognisable around the world as the place where Open champions are photographed with their trophy. Today’s golfing pilgrims have been known to kiss the 18th green at the end of their round (although presumably only when they’ve played well!).
St Andrews University, so badly affected by the reformation, was at risk of closure by the end of the 19th century. Its traditional syllabus, based on the classics, and the fact it was slow to embrace new subjects such as science and medicine, saw it lose ground. In 1897 it merged with University College, Dundee, which had a much more practical focus and gradually improved its status until 2021, when it was adjudged to be the UK’s top university, the first time a university other than Oxford or Cambridge had won this award. It is, of course, well known now as the place where Prince William and Kate Middleton fell in love (allegedly after he saw her modelling at a charity fashion show, the fashion in question being lingerie!). Who says the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach?
In addition to the main themes explored here, St Andrews has dozens of beautiful little houses, with quirky features, such as a rooftop terracotta cat chasing a terracotta rat. Its cobbled streets and hidden corners include so many treasures including the beach used to film the iconic running scene in Chariots of Fire; a thorn tree planted by Mary Queen of Scots; a quaint little harbour, and one of Scotland’s finest ice cream parlours!
Why not get a blue badge guide to show you the delights of this beautiful little town? It truly has something for everybody.
About the author:
Jim Leslie is a Scottish Blue Badge tourist guide operating as The Kilted Guide since qualifying in 2018. He provides a range of tours including driver guiding and walking tours and has a wide range of interests, including golf and the Reformation. Before becoming a guide, Jim served 30 years as a police officer. In this role he was the national planner and commander for The Open Championships at St Andrews and Troon, and also the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. You can find more about Jim on his Guild profile or on his website.