Mention St Andrews and many people think either of golf or the world famous university. The Fife town may be the revered ‘Home of Golf’ and a certain prince did study here, but far more impressive for me are its two greatest historic charms. I headed back to Fife recently to revisit St Andrews Castle and St Andrews Cathedral, for me two of the most striking heritage sites in Scotland.
Long before St Andrews had become synonymous with golf, it played a pivotal role as a hub of the church in Scotland at a time when ecclesiastic power and influence could be felt across the country from commoners through to kings. The legacy of these times are these twin sentinels, which dramatically now lie as intoxicating ruins within easy walking distance of each other in prime spots overlooking the North Sea.
Exploring St Andrews Cathedral
St Andrews Cathedral and the lofty St Rule’s Tower (which soars 33m into the heavens) cast an unmistakable presence over the St Andrews skyline. I climbed straight up this impressive 12th century tower to take in the sheer scale of the once mighty cathedral. I strolled around the perimeter of the old walls of what was once Scotland’s grandest church, before investigating the myriad gravestones that lie all around, many of them from nobles, esteemed soldiers and clergy. I then ventured into the exhibition section, which features an intriguing collection of old stone pieces, many heavily carved with intricate designs.
The highlight for me was the St Andrews sarcophagus, one of the finest examples of early medieval sculpture in Europe. Mystery still surrounds it, with an array of different theories displayed next to it, the most striking for me is the hypothesis that it may not ever even have been a sarcophagus at all. One visitor in 1559 had been far more emphatic. I left the cathedral only imagining the touchpaper atmosphere stirred up by John Knox in his sermon before his mob sacked this great symbol of the established church.
Exploring St Andrews Castle
Next up was St Andrews Castle, which I approached around a walkway that opened up sweeping views out over the North Sea. In and around the cliffs below I could see dozens of fulmars swirling around on the sea breezes.
I made my way through the exhibition, which sheds light and colour on to some of the most intriguing episodes in the castle’s history, including the brutal time in 1546 when Cardinal Beaton paid the ultimate price for ordering Protestant preacher George Wishart be burnt at the stake in front of the castle as he was then himself murdered.
St Andrews Castle may be a ruin, but there is plenty to explore. I clambered around the old walls, checking out the stumps of a once grand loggia, a symbol of the grandeur and riches that the bishops and archbishops enjoyed during their residence here. Other residents didn’t enjoy such a rarefied atmosphere as I saw when I ventured into the sturdy Sea Tower, where prisoners were kept. The ‘lucky’ ones with social status had rooms with a window, while others below had to make do without. The lowest of the low were cast deep into the bowels of the castle in the Bottle Dungeon – as it sounds, a deep, dark hole with a narrow neck that offered little chance of escape. Cardinal Beaton is said to have sent many men here and ironically this turned out to be his final resting place after his own murder.
Into St Andrews Castle’s Siege Tunnels
The most enjoyable part of the castle for visitors today is surely the chance to see sections of old siege tunnels. As a travel writer I’ve travelled to 100 countries, but cannot think of any castle where I’ve been able to venture into both a siege tunnel built to attack the castle and a counter tunnel built to stem the incursion.
Had the defenders not been able to locate the attaching siege tunnel they would have faced it being packed with explosives and the castle being blown from under them. Their desperation is clear to see elsewhere in the castle as I could clearly make out two other aborted counter tunnels that they started to build during their frantic defence.
The scramble down into the tunnels is not for the fainthearted. The section of the original main siege tunnel that remains open today is a relatively spacious and stepped affair that you can easily stand up in. It would have been used to bring donkeys in carrying the necessary explosives. The counter tunnel, though, is a much more cramped and uncomfortable space where I could almost feel their desperation.
So, if you have always thought that St Andrews is all just about golf and university I’d thoroughly recommend that you think again. This charming seaside town is also home to two of the most spectacular and rewarding historical sites that I’ve ever visited, which are reason alone to visit.