Six Stories You Didn’t Know about St Andrews (Scotland) on St Andrew’s Day

By Paula R. Stiles


St Andrew’s Day (November 30) is a big deal in Scotland, and an even bigger dealrule1 in namesake medieval city St Andrews, on the east coast of Scotland in Fife. St Andrews has been a settlement since the Mesolithic for at least 8000 years. I’ve heard there’s even a stone circle about seven kilometers south of town. St Andrews’ history as a medieval Christian town dates back about 1500 years. There are also stories of a legendary shipwreck in which a man named “St Rule” landed in a storm with the relics of St Andrew (an early martyr who was crucified on an X-shaped cross).

Town and Gown

The University of St Andrews is the oldest in Scotland and one of the oldest universities in Europe, having been founded c.1413. It is the third-oldest in the United Kingdom after Oxford and Cambridge and one of the few in Europe to remain active throughout its history (though it did go through a very low point during the 19th century). Many undergraduate students still roam around campus in the traditional garb (a brilliant, crimson robe). There are about 6,000 students to 13,000 residents.

The University owns some of the oldest buildings in town. Student housing, Dean’s Court, for example, and St John’s House on South Street, which houses the Department of Mediaeval History, are both medieval in origin. The oldest part of St John’s House dates to the 14th century, as does the stone-walled garden in back.

Relations between the University, which owns a huge chunk of St Andrews, and the rest of the town have always been fairly uneasy. These are not helped by the presence of boisterous student events like “Raisin Weekend” (generally held the last weekend of November). The original tradition was that first-year students (called “academic children”) at the University were given bags of raisins by their academic parents (upperclass men and women who take responsibility for the first-years over the weekend). The Wikipedia entry for the University primly tells us that first-years are “entertained” by said academic parents on this weekend, culminating in a shaving-foam fight on the Quad on North Street on Monday morning.

Yeah, right. What this really means is that the first-years are dragged around from pub to pub (of which St Andrews has an even larger number than churches, ruined quador otherwise), got blind, stinking drunk, and introduced to such venerable traditions as stumbling half-naked through people’s backyards, harassing anyone sober they can find on the street, and random vandalism, before they arrive, still half-drunk, to slap foam all over each other on a medieval green on Monday morning. Now you see why relations with the town can be a bit touchy.

The Student Union has a funny, but straightforward guide to the weekend for newbies called (appropriately), “Don’t Be an Idiot“.

The University of St Andrews is probably best known currently for being the alma mater of Prince William and his fiancée, Kate Middleton, whom he met there.

Castle and Cathedral

St Andrews boasts both a castle and a cathedral (and yes, that is as cool as it sounds). Both are on the eastern side of town, on the cliffs between the beaches of West and East Sands, and both are in ruins, for similar reasons.

The Cathedral was built around 1160 and houses the relics of St Andrews (St Rule may have been legendary, but there were real relics there). The oldest building of the Cathedral is St Rule’s Tower (also the tallest building in town). The establishment of a cathedral gave St Andrews the status of a city, though it has since been downgraded back to a town.

The site of the Castle has been fortified at least since the 12th century. What we currently have are the ruins of its rebuilding c.1400 after two centuries of sieges and stormings. The creepy “bottle dungeon” (think of an oubliette) was used for important prisoners and to store the body of Cardinal David Beaton. He was murdered in 1546 after he martyred a notable early Protestant preacher, George Wishart, by burning at the stake. There was then a siege that ended badly in 1547, with the capture of the Castle.

One of the defenders, George Wishart’s student, John Knox, was sent to the galleys (a sort of prolonged death sentence at the time). Knox survived and returned in 1559 to preach a sermon and rouse a mob that “cleansed” the cathedral by ripping away all of its statues and trappings, including the relics of St Andrew, which were either dumped in the sea or buried somewhere anonymously in the graveyard on the cathedral grounds. The cathedral was abandoned in 1661 and subsequently fell into ruins, not helped by the odd storm and earthquake. The only structure that stands completely intact today is, ironically enough, the oldest – St Rule’s Tower. Hurrah for medieval architects.

There are legends and ghost stories surrounding both the Cathedral and thevault Castle, especially a lady in white who is said to haunt the grounds outside of an underground crypt on the southwestern side of the Cathedral.

However, for my money, the creepiest place in St Andrews (which does not lack for creepy places) is the Mine/Countermine on the Castle grounds. During the siege of 1546/7, the besiegers made an attempt to assault the Castle by digging a tunnel (mine) under the walls. The defenders frantically started digging holes to catch them before they could break through. They finally made it (barely) with a countermine. There was a vicious little set-to and the besiegers were forced to back off.

The mine (which is nice and wide and flat) and the countermine (narrow and twisted and steep) are both open to the public during the hours the Castle is open. I always hated going down there alone, but couldn’t ever get anybody to go down there with me. It’s wet and dank down there. You can only go in through the countermine. The mine’s other entrance comes out in the cellar of a house across the street. It’s also dark, and if you stamp your feet in the mine, it echoes through what feels like miles of stone. You get the feeling that you’re waking something up you don’t want to meet.

Let’s just say it’s not hard to believe that men died in the dark down there.

Witches and Heretics
It’s an irony that some of the early martyrs of the Protestant Reformation in St Andrews were killed on the same spot where, and in the same way as, their successors, the Covenanters, burned witches. And there’s a monument to the martyrs but not the witches. Nice. Thus, the hill off North Street is known as “Witch Hill” with “Martyr’s Monument” right on top of it. According to town tradition, suspected witches were taken to a tidal pool below the cliff (now known as “Witch Lake”) and tossed in with a thumb tied to an opposite toe. If they sank and drowned, they were innocent and everybody figured they’d gone to Heaven (yikes). If they managed to float, they must be witches. They were then dragged up to Witch Hill overhead and burned at the stake.

We’ll never know how many women died in St Andrews and elsewhere during the witch crazes of the 16th and 17th centuries, but it was a lot and most of them were almost certainly innocent. It was particularly bad in Fife. There is a fairly recent book about the subject called “The Witches of Fife” (2002).

The Covenanters were romanticized by later Scottish writers like Robbie Burns and Walter Scott as heroes of independent thought. They were also religious fanatics who believed that Scotland should be a theocracy with a single, rigidly-enforced religion (only, none of them seem to have been able to agree on what that should be, so they kept quarreling and fragmenting into smaller and smaller groups). They were also vicious about witches, not to mention on the credulous side about evidence brought against such women and men. No amount of romantic afterglow can really disguise the fact that the Reformation wasn’t a happy time for Scotland.

It’s said that, after a particularly violent storm, bones sometimes still wash up on the beach, dredged up from Witch Lake by the waves. However, others have pointed out that, since the Cathedral cemetery is eroding into the sea, that could also be the source of the bones.

Patrick Hamilton, a Protestant student of the University, was martyred on North Street in 1528. He went boldly to the stake, but died screaming. His executioners had apparently intended to load up his kindling with green wood (which causes clouds of smoke), but accidentally used dry wood, instead. This meant that he actually burned to death rather than dying through smoke inhalation (as most victims of this death did).

There are two legends surrounding the spot of his death, which is marked by an entwined P and H on the cobblestones. First, there is a face carved into the church tower about ten feet overhead near the spot. According to local legend, it started to appear gradually in the decades after his death and it was a result of his spirit leaving a mark on the stones as it rose from his burning body. More likely, someone carved it in protest over his death, but either way, it’s a fun story. And the face really is there.

The second legend says that any St Andrews University student who steps on the entwined stones will never graduate. Wikipedia claims that there are remedies to this if you do and that some students will step on the stones to disprove the superstition. Myself, I never heard about any remedies (the version I heard was straightforward and draconian in true Covenanter tradition). I never heard of (or saw) any students walk on the stones, either. Why be a disrespectful jerk just to “prove” something?

On certain days of the year, you will see flowers laid on the stones in memorial. I’ve heard that the University does it, which makes sense.

The Birthplace of Golf
St Andrews is the birthplace of golf. No, really. The town is so famous among golfers that it is not uncommon to see all manner of celebrities on the streets of St Andrews, especially when the Open comes to town. The northern half of North Street, down by the Old Course is all golf shops. I used to work at a golf hotel near the Old Course and you would not believe who came through there.

The origins of the game are controversial (the French and Dutch have also claimed to have invented it), but golf at St Andrews does appear to go back to the 14th century, at least. Mary Queen of Scots was rebuked for playing the Old Course in 1567, soon after her husband’s untimely demise. The game was banned at least twice by Scottish monarchs during the Renaissance and Reformation because it was blamed for declining archery practice in the Scottish Army! Seems the archers preferred to whack a ball around on the greens more than bend a bow.

The hummocky and prickly Old Course, managed by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, is a highly-coveted and difficult to reserve course down by West Sands in the marshes on the north side of town. It’s also likely to be a shock to anyone used to the manicured lawn and gently-rolling hills of golf courses elsewhere. There is a University student tradition where some will run through the course naked – at night (obviously).

The Graveyard of the North Sea
During the 14th and 15th centuries, St Andrews was at the height of its power and ruleprestige as the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland. It was also a major port, and it has been a major port off and on since then. A fishing industry flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries until the fish ran out. The St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum on North Street has a lot of information about the industry, its origins, heyday, and decline.

St Andrews has an extremely safe harbour, but the reason for its safety also makes it highly dangerous to enter during gales. It’s a bottleneck, you see, that starts up near the Cathedral hill and twists around to the south to parallel East Sands. Good luck getting in there during a storm. Worse, there are nasty shoals along East Sands (which is actually to the south, with West Sands to the north) and the geography of West Sands is highly confusing.

The main problem is that the River Eden (once a coveted estuary source for bait mussels by the fishing industry) runs out to the north of West Sands. It effectively acts as a natural boundary to St Andrews on that side. In a storm, ship captains were wont to mistake it for one of two much-larger estuaries: the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh to the south and the Firth of Tay to the north near Dundee. They’d turn their ships toward the Eden, thinking they were safe, and then they’d be dead. Tidal shoals stick out like stone fingers at angles toward the south. They’re covered at high tide and bare at low. It doesn’t help that both East and West Sands are practically flat (the tide runs in very fast when it comes in. Don’t get caught out there).

Case in point: in November 1839, the brig “Petrel” was heading north along the coast and got caught in a storm. It had a compliment of ten, including a ship captain’s wife named Mrs. Westcarth from Yorkshire, seeking to meet up with her husband, a young boy named George from Cromar, a “black man” (possibly a Samuel Robinson of New York), and a Welshman named Henry Thomas, who was the second mate. According to Wrecks and Reminiscences of St Andrews Bay (1884) by George Bruce, the ship wrecked off East Sands in the middle of the night and fell apart, grinding the crew in the flotsam and jetsam. The only survivor who didn’t drown or was bashed to death was Thomas.

One of the saddest parts of the story is that Thomas held onto the boy for a long time while they floated on a beam, but a heavy wave separated them and the boy drowned. Thomas crawled up the beach with a broken leg and collapsed. A local farmer riding by on horseback found him in a field of turnips. Two local pilots found the shipwreck strewn along the beach. The storm had been so high and the night so dark, no one had realized what was going on until it was too late.

Thomas was carried to a house and tended for hypothermia and his injury. It was too late for the others. They were laid to rest in a small kirkyard nearby. Supposedly, you can find a group headstone dedicated to them, still.

When the others were found one by one, they were carried inside a barn and laid out. Thomas was brought out to identify them (and to make sure they’d got all the bodies, I suppose). When he saw them, Thomas burst into tears and declared he wished he’d died with them. It later turned out that this was the third wreck (possibly fourth) of which he had been the sole survivor. For the superstitious sailors of the time, this definitely made him a Jonah (though no one ever blamed him for any of the wrecks). He was offered a lifetime pension if he never went back to sea. He accepted with no protest and went home – by train. Presumably, he never wanted to take a ship ever again.

East Sands can be an eery beach to walk, especially when a bank of fog nearly a hundred feet high rolls in and obliterates the town from view. I was out there one evening when it was raining and windy (it does that a lot in Scotland), when I saw someone down at the other end of the beach, near the harbour. I didn’t think much of it, as I figured they were just another hardy soul. The beach is popular for couples and those with dogs. But when I reached the spot where I had seen them, I realized that no one was there, nor had I seen them leave the beach. It’s impossible to leave the beach without being seen.

I’m not sure now what I saw. I thought at the time it was a person from a distance, but as no one was there, obviously, what I saw was a person-shaped hole in the fog, either an optical illusion…or something else. You decide.

Freemasons Found Here
St Andrews is the home to four Masonic lodges. They originally met in the lodge Master’s house (whoever that was). As such, you see stone Masonic symbols over doorways all over St Andrews. These are where various masters lived. How long ago Freemasonry came to St Andrews seems unclear, but since 1898, they have kept a meeting hall that all four lodges share on South Street. You can identify it by a blue-glass street light with elaborate designs outside the hall.

Freemasons can be shy (largely to avoid ridicule, but also out of institutional habit). However, the Freemasons of St Andrews do open up their hall to the public on St Andrews Day. There is a lovely vaulted ceiling upstairs that is painted like a sort of planetarium, with various famous cities all over the world represented around the base. The upstairs consists of a meeting hall and various small rooms, with display cases of Masonic paraphernalia. There is also a small bar downstairs.

If you are interested in Freemasonry, the Masonic hall at St Andrews is smaller and less elaborate than Roslyn Chapel to the south. But it probably also tells you more about the Craft and those who follow it.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small donation to Innsmouth Free Press.