St. Andrews is a quintessentially Scottish town, with it lovely old houses, centuries old buildings and view of the sea. There is more to this charming town than its famous golf courses. There are a variety of activities, among them visiting the ancient historic sites here. Those mentioned below are the ones I have had the pleasure to visit. You need more than a day to fully experience all that St. Andrews has to offer.
West Sands Beach – Best known for the opening scene in the movie “Chariots of Fire” in which slow motion runners race down the beach. While there are plenty of visitors who reenact that scene (including my husband, at least in his imagination) on the hard packed 2 mile stretch of beautiful white sand, it is also a great beach for walkers and their canine companions. On a fall day, we were gifted with rare sunshine, but a brisk wind (typical Scottish weather) off the firth bends wispy blades of sea grass on the dunes as people huddle in their jackets to fend off the cold. During the summer, children build sandcastles and some hardy souls brave the frigid water for a dip. A pleasant walk is sure to whet the appetite for a hearty Scottish lunch at one of the town’s many restaurants or pubs.
St. Andrews Castle – I am fascinated by old architectural buildings and ruins, the story they tell of those times and that they were constructed without the aid of modern machinery. The grounds and ruins of both the castle and the cathedral are free to explore. If you seek a history lesson, purchase the combined admission ticket. Start your tour in the Visitors Center to see various exhibits, some with audio narration, to familiarize visitors with the story of the castle.
Perched on a craggy cliff overlooking the North Sea, this 13th century castle was fortified in the 1100s. In 1200, it became the main residence for the Bishop & archbishops of St. Andrews. Today, the castle and cathedral are both ruins, but what remains of the original structures is worth exploring, especially for adventurous curious kids. There are great views from atop some of the remaining perimeter walls.
Don’t miss the famous Bottle Dungeon –Built when the castle served as a prison, it is a bottle-shaped pit dug 22 foot down into solid rock below the Sea Tower, accessible only by the narrow bottleneck shaped opening through a trap door in the floor, making escape impossible. The opening is now covered with a safety grill, but one gets the feeling of what a scary, dank, dark space is below and that many a prisoner was forgotten there.
Another truly claustrophic space are the mines and countermines under the castle. These were created during a long siege ordered by the Earl of Arran in 1546. The attacking forces sought to undermine the walls of the castle by digging a spacious tunnel. The defenders responded to the mine by trying to dig an intercepting tunnel or countermine. After several false starts, the defenders’ low, narrow, twisting countermine broke through into the attackers’ mine, resulting in underground fighting. The tunnel leading into the mine is deeply sloped and very narrow. Try as I might, crouching down and overcome with fear of tight places, I could not make myself go down. My husband crab walked his way in. He found a larger room accessible by a ladder complete with water dripping from the cavern roof. His trip earned him a great memory and dirt on his khaki slacks.
As an additional treat, walk down to the beach below. Take my word for it that it is worth it. Walk out away from the base of the castle, then turn around and enjoy the spectacular view. There’s something else interesting about this beach. Look down at the sand carefully and you’ll find it.
St Andrews Cathedral – Looking at the ruins of Scotland’s largest and most magnificent medieval church, you get the sense of how beautiful this church was. Surviving portions include the majestic west front, the south wall of the nave and the east gable of the presbytery, where the relics of St Andrew were once held. The cloister to the south contains the ruined chapter house. Stone-vaulted undercrofts house the cathedral museum, with its fascinating collection of old stone pieces, many heavily carved with intricate designs and the St Andrews sarcophagus. Also housed here is a display of wax seals of various ranks of church officials.
The cathedral is surrounding by a large cemetery worth exploring to look at the craved grave markers and Celtic style headstones and fascinating to note the old dates and eulogies. The graveyard attracts a special crowd, those interested in the resting places of golf legends Old Tom Morris, young Tom Morris and Allen Robertson. Two American visitors had left pots of sand and tees to pay homage to the younger Morris.
St. Rules Tower – It takes a token to enter the tower, part of overall admission, but can be purchased separately in the cathedral museum. Inserting the token and pushing the revolving gate can be tricky. My husband didn’t do it correctly and couldn’t get in. I got in, but wish I had let him go instead. Be warned this is not a place if you are claustrophobic. The stairway is so narrow that only one person can go up or down. People were smaller in the 12th century. I crawled up the 167 winding steps to the top, thankful that no one was coming down. The tower is 33m high and not being a big fan of heights, it was dizzying. Once I calmed down though, the surrounding views were spectacular and I took several photos.
(Read more about St Andrews in Part 2)