While I breathe, I hope: Visiting St Andrews, Scotland


Battered sausage and chips from Cromars, (possibly) the best chippy in Scotland

In June 2019, I visited St Andrews, in Scotland. This was my second visit to the town – where Wills met Kate, the home of golf, and site of (possibly) the best fish and chips in Scotland. As with my previous visit, I was in St Andrews for a conference, but between conference sessions I took the time to explore some of the towns’ archaeology, history and heritage. It’s this rich historic tapestry that I’ll be writing about in today’s blog post.


One of the first things I notice when I go to Scotland is the quality of the light: it is warm, yellowed, mellowed. It filters the colours of the landscape giving the sea and flora a certain vibrancy in sunshine; in wet weather it filters through the clouds emphasising the angles and arcs of the landscape and seascape. Located on the coast about ten miles southeast of Dundee and thirty miles northeast of Edinburgh, St Andrews sees every aspect of this changing light. There has been a town located on this site since at least the Dark Ages, when it was known as Kilrymont.

The name of the town changed to St Andrews thanks, in part, to the legend that some of the bones of the apostle, St Andrew, were brought to the town. In Scots, the town is known as Saunt Aundreas, and in Scots Gaelic, as Cill Rìmhinn. Its motto is dum spiro spero – while I breathe, I hope. The town is famous worldwide as the “home of golf”, for two hundred and fifty years The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews had legislative authority over the game of golf. It’s also home to the University of St Andrews, which, founded in 1413, is the oldest university in Scotland and the third oldest university in Britain (after Oxford and Cambridge).

It’s not all golf and universities, though – St Andrews has some fantastic heritage. To give you a flavour of this rich heritage, below, I’ll be exploring some of the town’s religious history through its cathedral complex; some of its military history through St Andrews Castle; and some of its scientific heritage through the Gregorian Meridian.

The Cathedral Complex

In the fourth century CE, St Regulus (also known as St Rule – I’ll be using this variation from here on in) was bishop of Patras, now in modern day Greece. In 345CE he had a vision where an angel told him that the Emperor Constantine was going to remove St Andrew’s relics from Patrtas to Constantinople. St Rule was told by the angel to remove as many bones as possible and take them away as far as he could, to the Western ends of the Earth, where he was to found a church dedicated to St Andrew. St Rule gathered together a group of consecrated virgins, three fingers of St Andrew’s right hand, the upper bone of one arm, one kneecap, and one of his teeth, and began his journey. Depending on the version, St Rule was then either shipwrecked or told by an angel to stop on the shores of Fife at Kilrymont, now St Andrews. Here, he is supposed to have been welcomed by King Oengus (who actually lived in the eighth century CE, but stories like this never worry about dates. St Rule founded a church on the site of the current cathedral complex, to house St Andrew’s relics. The church of St Rule was founded in 1070, and the only part of this older church complex to survive to the present is St Rule’s Tower, which, at thirty three metres tall, provides an excellent view of the town.

Gradually, the clerical population outgrew the original Church of St Rule. In 1160, construction began on St Andrews Cathedral, primarily to provide a larger church and more accommodation. The seat of the Archdiocese of St Andrews, and the Bishops and Archbishops of St Andrews, it took nearly two hundred years to build the Cathedral of St Andrews. It was consecrated on the 5 July 1318 in the presence of King Robert I of Scotland, who rode up the aisle on his horse. The cathedral had an active community until the sixteenth century, when, in 1559, it was ransacked by a Protestant mob fired up by the sermons of radical preacher John Knox. By 1561, the Cathedral had been abandoned, and started to fall into disrepair with the fine stone being used for other local building projects.

The Castle

St Andrews Castle is owned by Historic Environment Scotland, and sits on a rocky promontory overlooking the beach, Castle Sands, and looking out to sea. There has been a castle on this site since at least the time of Bishop Roger (bishop 1189-1202), the son of the Earl of Leicester. It was home to the town’s wealthy and powerful bishops when St Andrews served as the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, before the Scottish Reformation. The Archbishops of St Andrews called the castle their palace, signing their letters ‘apud Palatium nostrum’.

During the Wars of Scottish Independence, the castle changed hands, was destroyed, and rebuilt several times. In 1296, following the Sack of Berwick, the Castle was taken by the English and was made ready for Edward I of England, who visited in 1303. The Scottish victory at Bannockburn in 1314 saw the castle retaken by the Scottish, and was repaired by Bishop William Lamberton, Guardian of Scotland and one of Robert the Bruce’s loyal supporters. During the 1330s the Castle was retaken by the English, who reinforced its defences. In 1336, after a siege lasting three weeks, the Scottish army – under the leadership of Sir Andrew Moray, Regent of Scotland in the absence of David II of Scotland – recaptured St Andrews Castle. The castle was destroyed by the Scottish army in 1336-7 in order to prevent the English from using it as a stronghold.

In 1400, Bishop Walter Trail completed work to rebuild the castle, and this forms  the basis of its layout today. Despite the castle being mostly ruinous today, one can use the intricate stone carvings on its facade and the structure of the remaining walls to imagine how it would have looked in its heyday. The castle makes full use of its position on a promontory, jutting out to sea it is an excellent place to appreciate the shape of the coastline and the views of the Fife coastline.

The Gregorian Meridian

The Gregorian Meridian was calculated by the Scottish scientist and astronomer John Gregory in 1673. He laid this meridian line across his laboratory two hundred years before the Greenwich Meridian was formalised. Gregory’s “Scottish Meridian” is several degrees west of the Greenwich Meridian, which works out as a time difference of 12 minutes. Gregory used the line in conjunction with a metal sight fixed on the outside of the windows/ He lined these up with a post located due south on the horizon, and used this line to make astronomical observations. There is a memorial to the Gregorian Meridian on South Street in St Andrews, on the site of Gregory’s laboratory. James Gregory was also one of the three founders of calculus, he invented the Gregorian telescope, and discovered the principles of diffraction gratings.

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