St Andrews, an historic gem

Our touring blog - St Andrews, Scotland.

30th November 2020.

The ancient and coastal town of St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland is an incredibly special place. It is one of those places where history, natural beauty and culture collide in a most harmonious way. The setting of the town perched, in part, on cliffs and on beach, by the North Sea, ensures it has a title of a Scottish gem.

Our tours to St Andrews go much further than a brief look around the town. We explore the early beginnings on this settlement and look at its importance as a religious place. We look at the medieval old town, a town layout which still exists today! We wander the quadrants of the University of St Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland dating to 1413, and the third oldest in the English-speaking world. We also enjoy the views over the old Course – widely known as the home of golf and to this day is still a public golf course.

November 30th – St Andrews Day in Scotland.

According to Christianity’s teachings, St Andrew was a fisherman and one of Jesus Christ’s Apostles. He was born in Galilee, which is now part of Israel.

Like Jesus, Andrew died a martyr after being killed by the Romans and was crucified in Greece on an X-shaped cross in 60AD. This type of cross is also known as the Saltire and it is this white cross set on a blue background that makes up the Scottish flag. His remains were moved 300 years after his death by St Rule who was believed to be the guardian of St Andrew’s relics. He was supposed to take them to Constantinople, which is now modern-day Istanbul but decided to take them elsewhere and his boat was ultimately wrecked of the Scottish east coast. We don’t know much more about him, but he has been revered in Scotland since around 1000AD where the town of St Andrews became a centre of pilgrimage.

Following Robert The Bruce’s victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, a document which asserts Scotland’s independence from England, officially names St Andrew as the patron saint of Scotland. St Andrew was said to have been crucified on November 30th 60AD which is why the patron saint’s day falls on this date each year. The Saltire flag, or St Andrews cross, appears to have become the official national flag of Scotland in 1385, when the parliament of Scotland agreed that Scottish soldiers should wear the white cross as a distinguished mark.

Scottish celebrations on November 30th are somewhat low key. This is possibly due to the fact that the very next day is December 1st, and the countdown to Christmas is officially on! However, you will find that families across the country cook up a haggis, with neeps and tatties and round off the evening with a favourite malt whisky. It is a quiet affair in Scotland but one that the Scots do love and, dare I say, are happy that it has not become over commercialised. Happy St Andrews Day!

So where did it all begin…

In the early-medieval period, around 747AD St Andrews was known as Kilrymont, which translates as ‘church on the head of the kings mount’. The existence of an early monastic community here is confirmed by surviving sculptures. One such sculpture is the impressive St Andrews Sarcophagus. In 1833, fragments of sculptured stone were found during gravedigging near St Rule’s church. What was discovered was a sarcophagus – a container for a body. This find, now known as The St Andrews Sarcophagus, is one of the finest pieces of sculpture to survive from the early-medieval period in Europe. Detailed research has concluded that this ancient sandstone chest dates to the late 700s. It may have been built over a king’s grave; or it could have contained saintly relics. The Sarcophagus is on display at the wonderful St Andrews Cathedral Museum. The museum is in a resorted warming house and the refectory undercroft and it houses a collection of fascinating artefacts discovered around St Andrews Cathedral over the past 200 years.

St Andrews Cathedral, the largest and most impressive church in Medieval Scotland was begun in 1160. However, before building started here, there was an earlier church, St Mary’s, and this dates to around 1120. You can still see the wall-footings and its cross-shaped layout is clearly visible.

St Rule’s Church appears to have been the first cathedral building in St Andrews and was completed around 1150. The tower of this cathedral is still standing, and you can climb the steep, narrow, spiral staircase to the top for outstanding views of the cathedral complex, the town of St Andrews and the sea. St Rules Church soon proved to small for the community of Augustinian Canons, so work began on the magnificent cathedral a mere ten years after the completion of St Rule’s.

By 1238 the east end of the cathedral was completed, and the builders moved onto the nave to the west and this was completed by the 1270s. A porch was added to the west front and this remained in place until the 14th century making St Andrews, at 140m in length, the longest church in Scotland and on a par with the major cathedrals in England such as York and Durham. The outbreak of the wars of independence with England in 1296 prevented the completion of the cathedral until 5th July 1318. It was the Reformation that brought an end to the Cathedral and by the 1600s the cathedral’s main role was as a quarry, providing much of the building material for the development of the town of St Andrews. It is still an impressive place to visit and, what is left of the cathedral, amounts to a stunning ruin that arguably, gives St Andrews its unique character. We recommend a visit to the Cathedral complex, even for an hour or so, but such is the history of this area you could spend half a day looking at the architecture and history.

St Andrews Castle, slightly to the west of the cathedral was chief residence of the bishops, and later archbishops of St Andrews, who were Scotland’s leading churchmen. The oldest part of the castle dates to the 12th or 13th Century and building continued on ‘upgrading’ the castle through to the 1500s. The castle is also a fascinating visit where you can wander the ruins which have views over the sea. You can also see the bottle dungeon, so-called because of its shape. One of, the most amazing sights is the mine and counter mine. In 1546, St Andrews was under siege, following the dramatic murder of Cardinal Beaton. The siege lasted over a year. In November 1546, the French Ambassador in London reported that the besiegers were digging a mine beneath the castle walls and he also reported that the defenders were digging a counter mine to stall their attempt. You can explore the contrasting tunnels while visiting the castle.

St Andrews was planned around its cathedral when the burgh was founded in 1140. Of the three main streets, only one – Market Street – does not lead directly to the Cathedral. The two streets which do lead to the Cathedral are North and South Street and at the west end of South Street, you can still see the 16th Century sandstone gate.

The town centre of St Andrews is a delightful place for a wander, and if you love local shopping, crafts and food then you are in the right place! Most of the shops are on Market and South Street and the streets connecting them. There are many, but to mention a few… Tastle of Scotland on the corner of Market and Bell Street. One of the best book shops in Scotland is found in St Andrews, Topping & Company Bonkers Gift Shop is an award winning local shop and over the street is the wonderful Embrace Life shop For local bakers treats you wont get much better than Fisher & Donaldson - a St Andrews institution!  There is a wonderdul art gallery on South Street, If cheese is your thing then there is the brilliant artisan Scottish Cheesemonger, I J Mellis, also on South Street.

Coffee shops and cafes are plentiful too… The North Point Café by the Castle is great. Con Panna Coffee Shop, The Cottage Kitchen and Café in the Square are great local places too and there are more spread over the town.

If you are looking for a local pub with a fine selection of Ales then three of our favourites are, the Central Bar, The Criterion and Aikmans Bar

For restaurants you really are spoilt for choice. We love Forgan’s and Mitchell’s The Vine Leaf The Dolls House The Adamson and there are more… Fish & Chips you must try Cromars or The Tail End

Walking around St Andrews 16th century harbour and East Sands Beach is a lovely stroll, as is the longer walk along the famous West Sands Beach. The West Sands were used in the British Film, Chariots of Fire and are a favourite place for recreation for locals and visitors alike. The Old Course runs along side the West Sands, and even if you are not a golfer, it is still special to watch the players finish their round as they play up to the 18th Green on Golf Place.

We offer private and small group tours to St Andrews as part of our extended tours of Scotland. We offer private day tours to St Andrews, where we also include local fishing villages on the East Neuk of Fife.