St Andrews, Scotland is one of those towns that’s compact enough to see in a day or two, but interesting enough to make the stop worthwhile.
The earliest known name for this area was Cennrígmonaid, in Old Gaelic. As the story goes, a 4th Century monk named Regulus (or Saint Rule) brought relics belonging to Saint Andrew the Apostle to town. A shrine was built to house and protect the relics, and the town was renamed St Andrew in his honour.
Here’s a list of highlights to see in St Andrews, most of which can be seen in the space of a 24-hour visit:
St Rule’s Church
Robert I, Prior of St Andrews built St. Rule’s church around 1070 to house the relics of St Andrew that Regulus brought over from Greece. This church quickly became an important site for pilgrims to visit. Only a 33m square tower and the choir remain of the original church:
You can climb to the top of St. Rule’s church tower, where you’ll get some lovely views of St Andrews:
Note St Andrews castle to the left in the photo below, which I will mention in more detail later!
The Cathedral of St Andrew
The Cathedral of St Andrew, also called St Andrews Cathedral, dates all the way back to 1158. It stands on the grounds of the earlier St. Rule’s church.
The Cathedral of St Andrew held high prominence as the seat of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and the Bishops and Archbishops of St Andrews. It was also the largest building in Scotland at the time.
Construction took over a century. Unfortunately, a storm knocked down the west end, which was rebuilt between 1272-1279. In 1318 the cathedral reached completion; but a fire in 1378 caused significant damage.
Then, in June 1559, a Protestant mob attacked and ransacked the Cathedral, destroying the interior. The cathedral was abandoned and fell into ruin, with some of the stone being used in other building projects.
The central tower collapsed sometime in the 16th Century, taking the north wall with it. Today, you can see the outline of the church’s walls marked into the ground, as well as the remains of the column bases.
St Mary on the Rock
All that remains of St Mary on the Rock are the foundations. This was a secular college for priests, built in 1123. It lies next to St Andrews Cathedral, just outside its walls. St Mary’s was home to an order of Celtic monks called the Culdees. After the Protestant Reformation of 1560, the church fell to ruin.
St Andrews Castle
The ruins of St Andrews Castle sit dramatically atop a promontory overlooking the North Sea.
A castle of some sort has occupied this spot since the 12th Century. It was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the centuries. But the castle in its current form dates to around 1400.
Back then, St Andrews served as the ecclesiastical center of Scotland, and the castle was the official residence of Scotland’s leading bishop throughout the Middle Ages.
The castle also served as a prison. Make sure you check out the bottle dungeon, a deep cell cut into the rock. Prisoners were lowered down into the hole, which is only about 4.6 metres wide at the bottom.
Religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics increased over the years, finally coming to a head during the Scottish Reformation. In 1546, Cardinal David Beaton imprisoned a Scottish Protestant Reformer preacher named George Wishart in the castle’s tower. After a show trial, Wishart was found guilty of heresy. He was hanged on a gibbet and his body burned at the stake in front of the castle walls.
A few months later, Wishart’s friends disguised themselves as masons and entered the castle. They murdered Cardinal Beaton in retaliation. The Protestants took refuge in the castle, forming the first congregation of the Protestant Church in Scotland.
The Scottish Regent, James Hamilton and his army dug a tunnel under the gate tower in an attempt to weaken the walls so they would collapse. But the Protestants inside dug a counter-mine through the rock, successfully defeating their would-be attackers. But in 1547, a French fleet bombarded the castle and forced the Protestants to surrender. John Knox, future Protestant leader, was one of the men taken prisoner.
Eventually, the Scottish Reformation succeeded, and William of Orange abolished the office of the bishop in 1689. The castle fell into ruin, and some of the stones were taken and used to repair the pier. In 1801 the Great Hall collapsed, much of it falling into the sea below.
Old Course at St Andrews
If you’re a golf enthusiast, the Old Course at St Andrews is THE site to check out. The modern game of golf as it’s played today originated in 15th Century Scotland. (Other games with similarities to modern golf date back even earlier.)
The 18-hole round at St Andrews dates back to 1764. The little stone bridge below is called the Swilken Bridge, and dates back even further than the golf course itself. It’s at least 700 years old, and was built so shepherds could get their livestock across the Swilcan Burn.
We’d heard that the booking fees to play a round of golf here were outrageous, and that there was a 2-year waiting list! However, according to their website, it isn’t quite that extreme, and the fees are actually pretty reasonable to play such an iconic course. However, it’s probably wise to book well in advance, just to be on the safe side!
If you’re not into golf but still want to learn about the Old Course, they offer guided walks as well.
West Sands Beach
You probably don’t think of Scotland when you dream of a beach holiday. But the soft golden sand here rivals that of more tropical destinations. The water temperature is a bit colder though!
West Sands Beach also has a small claim to fame. This is where the opening scenes from Chariots of Fire were shot! The beach is just a short walk from St Andrews’ city center and also runs alongside the famous St Andrews golf course.
It was chilly and a bit windy when we visited, hence my many layers. But we still had fun playing with our reflections on the beach as the surf came and went!
West Port is the best preserved city gate in St Andrews, and possibly in all of Scotland. It dates to 1587.
The gate is one of the few still standing in Scotland, and was modeled after the Netherbow in Edinburgh.
Address: At the junction of South Street with Bridge Street.
Blackfriars Chapel only takes a minute or two to visit, as there’s very little to see today. The chapel dates to the 1520s, and was an addition to the Dominican Friary of St Mary. Protestant reformers expelled the friars in 1559, and today the chapel is all that’s left of the friary.
Address: In South Street opposite junction with Bell Street.
Bonus: Side Trip to Scotland’s Secret Bunker
If you have the time, I would throw in Scotland’s Secret Bunker as a quick side trip. It’s not in St Andrews proper, but it’s just a short 6 mile journey away. The bunker dates to the Cold War, and was used as a command center. It contains rooms filled with cold-war era communications equipment, dormitories, and a hospital.
A rather unassuming-looking stone farmhouse hides the bunker lying underground. But today all of the road signs advertising “SCOTLAND’S SECRET BUNKER” with arrows pointing you in the right direction just seem ironic. But to be fair, its location was kept secret for a good 50+ years!
The bunker covers about 24,000 square feet of space 100 feet below ground level. If nuclear war had broken out, this is where Scotland would have maintained operations and communicated evacuation orders from.
This was the radio engineering workshop:
There were six dormitories, which could sleep up to 300 personnel. They used the “hot beds” method of rotational sleep cycles, since the bunker required 24 hour observation, seven days a week.
The bunker also had its own broadcasting studio, in order to broadcast a nuclear strike to civilians for the purposes of evacuation.
This is the switchboard room. I found the mannequins more than creepy:
Note the sign next to this heavy steel blast door.
This is the reconstructed Royal Observer Corps Dundee HQ. Personnel would have used the board to track and report the locations of bomb drops.
This sign just speaks for itself:
The bunker is only open from 10-5 each day, so keep that in mind if you want to add it to your St Andrews stay. There is a bus stop approximately 1 mile from the Secret Bunker, connecting the bunker with St Andrews and Anstruther.
How to get there:
Scotland’s Secret Bunker
Troywood, St Andrews, Fife KY16 8QH
Phone: 01333 310301