St Andrews is the home of golf and Scotland’s oldest university, both of which help this ancient, attractive town, tucked away on the East Neuk of Fife, to punch well above its weight on the world stage.
Prince William chose to study at the university and met his wife Katherine there. Today, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge act as unofficial ambassadors for the university and have hosted fundraising events around the world.
I’m also an alumna of the university, from the early 1980s although it feels like yesterday. It seemed perfectly logical to me to choose the east coast of Scotland to study for a degree in Spanish.
The lure of St Andrews is such that an American gentleman who once shared my taxi from Leuchars station thought it was worth travelling the 460 miles from London for the day. That would have given him little more than a couple of hours in the town before having to get back to Edinburgh for his return flight.
However, all he wanted to do was see the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and visit Tom Auchterlonie’s golf shop. He could then say he’d been there, done that and got the golf sweater. Those things alone made the trip worthwhile for him!
Tom Auchterlonie’s is no longer there, but those passionate golf fans still flock to St Andrews in large numbers to play golf, watch it or to visit the British Golf Museum.
In case you’re not into the sport, here are my 10 other top reasons to make the trip.
2. Heaps of history
Named after St Andrew the apostle, the town dates from the 11th century although there have been religious buildings on the site since much earlier times. The university was founded in 1413.
Legend has it that a number of relics of St Andrew were brought to the site by St Regulus, also known as St Rule, in the 8th century. St Regulus had been advised by an angel in a dream to take them to a place of safety, but ironically was shipwrecked off the Fife coast.
Whatever the truth of the story, the association with St Andrew’s relics led to the town becoming a major ecclesiastical centre and an important place of international pilgrimage during medieval times.
St Andrews today has beautifully-preserved ruins and period buildings, soft grey stone or rendered cottages and elegant Victorian and Edwardian villas. Many of them house academic departments, as the university is woven into the fabric of the town – it’s not a separate campus. This makes for a unique student experience which regularly places St Andrews at the top of academic league tables.
Modern architecture also has its place, especially to the north of the town where a science precinct has been established.
3. Follow the steps of D.I. Clare Mackay
Detective Inspector Clare Mackay promises to do for St Andrews what Inspector Morse did for Oxford and Jim Taggart did for Glasgow. If you’re already a fan of this wonderful crime series by Fife-based author Marion Todd, you’ll enjoy discovering D.I. Mackay’s hotspots around town. (If you haven’t read these gripping thrillers yet, I can highly recommend them).
The ‘long low red brick police station’ in Pipeland Road is one of the ‘real life’ buildings that feature in the novels alongside the fictional businesses, cafes and pubs. The 3 main streets of central St Andrews – North Street, Market Street and South Street – inevitably make regular appearances in the stories, along with landmark buildings like St Rule’s Tower.
You can stroll along the West Sands (see below), scene of a kidnapping in ‘In plain sight’. Even the mysterious secret bunker outside St Andrews that appears in ‘Lies to tell’ can be visited, much to my amazement. I didn’t even know it existed, which just goes to show, truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Fortunately the real St Andrews is a relatively safe town unlike its murder-prone fictional version. But that doesn’t mean you can’t let your imagination run riot and feel the stories come to life as you stumble upon familiar names and places.
4. The West Sands
This serenely beautiful beach curves out from the west of St Andrews towards the Eden Estuary, alongside the famous Old Course links. I used to love spending a refreshing hour or two walking along there. The best part is when you turn back, and are rewarded with a full panorama of the distant town. St Salvator’s Tower, at the centre of the scene, rises majestically above nearby buildings.
During my student days, the famous running scene from the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’ was filmed here. One or two fellow students were employed as extras to run alongside the Olympian heroes of the film, Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross), Lord Lindsay (Nigel Havers) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson).
It was very exciting for us all in St Andrews to feel that we were somehow part of the film. That scene brings back so many wonderful memories every time I watch it.
My very first viewing was in the cinema at St Andrews, along with crowds of other students. I remember 2 particular moments of uproarious laughter. The first was when our beach was described as ‘Broadstairs, Kent’ (presumably the real Broadstairs had too many modern buildings to be suitable to play itself).
The second was when Harold Abrahams described Cambridge University, his alma mater, as ‘the finest university in the land’! Naturally we all disagreed.
5. St Salvator’s Quadrangle
Accessed from North Street, ‘The Quad’ as it was affectionately known to us is an immaculately kept lawn surrounded by gracious buildings, mostly housing lecture theatres and seminar rooms. It’s a natural hub for students and the scene of a number of traditional celebrations such as Raisin Monday.
Also found along one side of The Quad is St Salvator’s Chapel. This is the main university chapel and is well worth popping into for a moment of peace and reflection. If you’re lucky, you might get to hear the chapel choir.
Built in late Gothic style in 1540, the chapel was founded by Bishop James Kennedy. It has wonderful stained glass windows and is the perfect picturesque backdrop for weddings. Many graduates return to St Andrews to be married in the chapel, especially if they met their spouse at the university.
6. St Mary’s Quadrangle
St Mary’s is another beautiful university quadrangle, this time accessed from South Street. It’s blessed with some fine 16th century buildings including the School of Divinity.
The gardens are peaceful and fragrant during the warmer months, and doves gather on the roof of the college. I used to love to take my books down there and lie in the shade of the huge holm oak tree that dominates the lawn. Thought to have been planted in 1740, this is one of only a few species of holm oak in Scotland. It was one of the 70 special trees across the UK chosen to form part of the Queen’s Green Canopy network in celebration of her Platinum Jubilee in 2022.
My mother once memorably remarked that it was a cop-out to study divinity in such a heavenly place as St Mary’s College. She thought that the students needed a more challenging environment, such as Sauchiehall Street (a notorious Glasgow throroughfare) on a Saturday night, to test their divine resolve! She had a point – I certainly felt close to heaven whenever I spent time in St Mary’s.
7. The cathedral and castle
The cathedral ruins are all that remain of what was once the most important church in Scotland – St Rule’s. It took around 150 years to build, and was finally dedicated in 1318 in presence of the king, Robert the Bruce.
The cathedral was abandoned in 1561, following the Reformation, and subsequently fell into disrepair. The 33 metres-tall St Rule’s Tower is still solid however, and can be climbed. I have not attempted this personally, but I’m told that the view from the top makes the effort well worthwhile.
The castle ruins stand on a rocky promontory overlooking a small beach, and form a dramatic silhouette against the morning sun. I used to enjoy this view while heading to 9am lectures in the nearby Spanish Department, which was based in an elegant aptly-named house called Castlecliffe.
There has been a castle on this site since the 12th century, although the structure has been destroyed and rebuilt on numerous occasions through the wars of Scottish independence and the Reformation. At various times it has been the home of bishops and kings, and also served as a prison.
Today both monuments are looked after by Historic Scotland and are open to the public. There are visitor centres and shops at each site. The Historic Environment Scotland website has further information.
8. Quirky customs and traditions
With so many centuries of history and ecclesiastical links, inevitably a considerable wealth of stories, folklore and associated traditions have built up over the years. The university has its own store of them.
Visitors to the town will soon spot one in particular – the scarlet gown worn by undergraduates. Although mostly donned on formal occasions, gowns are de rigeur for the traditional Sunday Pier Walk.
One lovely tradition is that every new student is ‘adopted’ by ‘academic parents‘ – senior students who act as guides and mentors.
The original custom was to give a pound of raisins to one’s academic parents as a thank-you on what became known as Raisin Weekend. In return, the ‘father’ would give his ‘child’ a ribald receipt in Latin. Nowadays, the gift is usually a bottle of wine! – and receipts take many forms.
I still have my raisin receipt, beautifully executed on parchment by my academic father Diederick.
On Raisin Monday, ‘children’ are dressed in silly costumes by their ‘parents’ and paraded around the Quad. The scene usually culminates in one giant foam fight.
If you happen to witness this event, please don’t think it happens all the time! October is the usual month for Raisin Weekend.
Another crazy tradition, at least in my opinion, is the May Morning Swim. People rise early for a 6am swim in the icy North Sea, followed by dancing around a maypole.
Many tales of paranormal activity have grown alongside all the other customs and traditions. Visitors can take a ghost walk tour to learn all about them first hand.
Among those I remember was the curse that would befall any student who stepped on the initials of the martyr Patrick Hamilton paved into the cobbles in North Street. Exam failure was a certainty for the poor wretch.
A hole in a wall near the harbour was the source of another story that I didn’t risk testing out. Apparently if a first year female student placed her hand inside it at midnight, it would be grabbed by a ghostly hand that would emerge from within!
The cathedral and castle are both said to be haunted, along with many old houses in the town. Among the spirits commonly seen are a white lady, a monk, a malevolent white angel and a nun.
10. Jannettas Gelateria
Jannettas is a St Andrews institution, and one of the few businesses that have remained since my student days. The Jannetta family, originally from Atina in Italy, have been making ice cream in the town since 1908.
As you can imagine, Jannettas was a great favourite stopping place for us students between lectures, whether for a coffee, an ice cream or both. Today, more than 100 flavours of ice cream and sorbet are on offer! I cannot imagine having to decide between them all.
If ice cream isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other good cafes and pubs in the town.
11. Pretty Fife villages
If you’re a ‘slow traveller’, you’ll probably have reached St Andrews by train as far as Leuchars and then either bus or taxi. In which case, there are plenty of other things to do in the town – museums, theatres, shopping, walks, Eden Mill Craft Brewery, the Botanic Gardens, for example.
However, if you do have access to transport, there are plenty of other attractions within a short driving distance of St Andrews including the delightful fishing villages of Crail, Anstruther and Pittenweem.
Some university staff and students choose to live in these places rather than St Andrews, cycling or driving into town each day. I can understand the attraction. These atmospheric villages offer a slower pace of life and a certain timelessness. Although they do make the occasional appearance in the D.I. Clare Mackay series!
When to visit
Being a small town, St Andrews tends to fill up during major events such as the start of the academic year (September), graduations (November and June) and the British Open Golf Championship (July) if it happens to be a year for the Old Course to host. So it’s well worth checking the events calendar before choosing your dates. And booking early!
Winter weather in Fife is rarely snowy or freezing cold, as it can be in the highlands. But it can be a little dreary and bleak sometimes. However, I have found over the years that Scotland does ‘bleak’ really well, at least if you’re indoors. Thick stone walls, glowing lamplight, roaring fires and a wee dram or two, and who cares what the weather is doing. Otherwise, summer is probably the best time to visit.
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