St Andrews, Scotland – A Medieval Scottish Town

St Andrews is a town on the east coast of Scotland in the Kingdom of Fife, between Edinburgh to the south and Dundee to the north. Like those cities, it has a long, tangled and often murky history. Settled for the past eight millennia, St Andrews boasts a castle, a cathedral, a harbor, one of the oldest golf courses in the world and the oldest university in Scotland, making it a good place to visit when you travel to Scotland. Once the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, it also contains darker connections in its history to the witchcrazes and religious strife that swept through Scotland during the 16th and 17th centuries. Needless to say, St Andrews is also one of the most haunted places on earth.

The town retains its medieval character, with four ancient streets running west to east toward St Andrews Bay. From north to south, they are: The Scores, North Street, Market Street and South Street. The ruins of the Castle, Cathedral and several other churches dominate St Andrews from their standpoint on the cliff overlooking the bay at the eastern end of The Scores and North Street respectively. The eastern section of Market Street has buildings going back to the 14th century. Many other buildings in town date to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. However, new building does occur, especially housing settlements on the southern and western sides and the University of St Andrews’ science complex, North Haugh, to the northwest, fronting West Sands beach and the Old Golf Course.

St Andrews takes its name from a legendary voyage. In the fourth century, St Rule (also Regulus) supposedly shipwrecked near the promontory (then called Kilrymont) on which St Andrews is now built. He carried with him the relics of St Andrew. St Andrew, one of the original apostles, was said to have been martyred on an X-shaped cross. The place was named after him and the St Andrews flag, one of the two official flags of Scotland, became a “saltire”-a white cross on a blue background. It commemorates one saint’s voyage and the other one’s martyrdom. St Andrew’s relics attracted pilgrims and were displayed in the Cathedral until 1559. After that, the relics disappeared, either scattered or perhaps buried for safekeeping in the Cathedral cemetery.

A more historical beginning occurred when the famous Irish saint, Columba, founded an abbey on the future site in the 6th century. The settlement grew, eventually pushing the monks out. But that wasn’t the end of the Church there by a long shot. St Andrews became the ecclesiastical seat of Scotland in 906 under the Bishop of Alba. Several churches were built from St Columba’s time onward, culminating in the building of St Rule’s Tower (c.1070) and the Cathedral (1160-1318). In Europe, burgs that had cathedrals were raised in status from town to city. St Andrews became a major medieval port city and a very rich one.

The University of St Andrews was founded in 1413. It is the oldest university in Scotland and one of the oldest in Europe. It continues to thrive today, rivaling Oxford and Cambridge for academic excellence and prestige. Prince William, future King of England, graduated with an Art History degree in 2005 from the University. Though the town itself declined in power and importance in the 17th and 18th centuries, the University and the golf industry have both revived and come to dominate the town. They bolster the town’s third main industry-tourism. St Andrews, with its many festivals, museums, shops and one surviving medieval fair (Lammas Fair in August) is a popular attraction, both for foreigners and Scots.

The Middle Ages were the high point for St Andrews. Being the ecclesiastic seat of Scotland, it attracted the anger of Protestant reformers early in the 16th century. Several Protestants were burned for their beliefs, most notably the first, Patrick Hamilton, who was burned in front of St Salvator’s Church in 1528. A square of paving stones outlining his name marks the spot. Hamilton was a University student. According to University legend, no student who walks across or stands on the square will ever graduate. Not long after his death, a carved face gradually appeared in the church tower above the spot. Legend attributes it to the impression made by Hamilton’s suffering spirit as he rose to Heaven. More likely, it was carved in protest of his death, but either way, it definitely exists and can be seen by any visitor to St Salvator’s.

On June 14, 1559, Scottish firebrand John Knox came to St Andrews and preached a fiery sermon against the Catholic Church. Knox was involved with a religious reformist group called the “Covenanters”. He incited a mob to strip the altars in the Cathedral and abandon it to the elements. Thereafter, the Cathedral slowly fell to ruin, the victim of earthquake, fire and pillaging of its walls for building materials.

It wasn’t Knox’s first time in St Andrews. In 1546, he had been part of an attack on the Castle that resulted in the murder of the Archbishop of St Andrews, Cardinal David Beaton. The Covenanters held the Castle for a year before it fell and Knox was sent to the galleys for his involvement.

During this time, St Andrews and Fife were embroiled in terrible witchcrazes that hit their peak during the 17th century. Thousands of people, mainly women, were condemned on flimsy evidence and executed. When first accused, suspected witches would be thrown into Witch Lake, a tidal pool on the north side of town. If they drowned, they were adjudged innocent. If they floated, they were dragged back up to nearby Witch Hill and burned at the stake. That part of town is a very dark and spooky spot on a winter’s night when the wind is blowing hard. And the wind blows hard often in St Andrews.

St Andrews is also considered the birthplace of golf. Nobody really knows where exactly golf originated sometime before James II forbade its use in 1457, but St Andrews is a strong candidate. Reportedly, James was unhappy that the game was distracting his troops, who were more inclined to bat balls around the Old Course’s infamously rugged terrain than train in archery. The town boasts five golf courses, including the Old Course on the northern side of town near West Sands. Golfers travel from all over the world to play them. These are maintained by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. St Andrews hosts the British Open in July every five years. The last time was 2005, when Jack Niklaus announced his official retirement from golf.

Finally, and perhaps least-known, is St Andrews’ reputation as a fishery, port, harbor and graveyard for ships. St Andrews was a famous port in the 15th century that saw a huge amount of shipping back and forth from the Continent. Its fishery later became famous in the 19th century, drawing workers from miles around and including a colorful, albeit poor and overcrowded, fishing community. The fishery played out in the early 20th century, though a few boats still work the area.

The harbor on the south side of town, being well-protected, was an excellent place to be in a storm. But its bottleneck up near the town’s promontory and treacherous shoals, particularly off East Sands beach, have wrecked many ships within sight of safety. Also, the Eden Estuary north of town near the West Sands has confused many a captain who thought he’d reached the Tay at Dundee, instead.

Should you get a chance to visit St Andrews, enjoy its beauty and resources. But also try exploring its rich and fascinating history. In St Andrews, that’s as close as the nearest narrow street.

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