So yesterday morning I was just minding my own business (specifically watching Rain Man and enjoying having finished classes for the semester) when a friend messages me with an intriguing invitation – would I like to take a free train ticket to Saint Andrews (henceforth referred to as SA), Scotland’s oldest university town and home to some very impressive ruins? Apparently her boyfriend couldn’t make it. So naturally I said ‘absolutely’ and after some rigmarole at the train station getting the ticket upgraded from a concession to a full fare, we were on our way. It was about an hour to the town, over the Firth of Forth – my first time across the iconic Forth Bridge – and through the (due to the weather) dreary urbanisation of Edinburgh and the farms and towns of Fife. Getting off at a station with fields on both sides, it appeared we needed to take a connecting bus as SA has no rail link. The exorbitant £4.95 for a 40-minute round trip left us a bit flabbergasted (public transport here is much more expensive, especially if you’re trying to get between places, but also within cities), but it was the only way, so we paid up and eventually arrived. First up was a beeline to the Historic Scotland property at the ruined SA Cathedral, first built in 1160-1260 and damaged in a storm in the 1270s, a fire in 1378, a storm in 1409, and a protestant riot incited by the leader of Scottish Reformation John Knox in 1559. The office of bishop was abolished in 1689 after Protestantism was institutionalised in the Glorious Revolution and the cathedral fell into disrepair. But for a very long time it was the most important church in Scotland and the Bishop/Prior/Archbishop was the most important churchman.
It is dramatically set behind a high wall with an enormous grave yard and built atop a cliff (possibly not a good idea if you’re hoping to avoid storm damage, but there you are). Upon arrival, we looked around to try to find a ticket office, because we knew there was a price to get in (I’m a member so it’s free for me but even still I need a ticket usually), but couldn’t find one so we (rather guiltily) enjoyed wandering around looking at all the ancient and modern grave stones and the many many informative signs expelling things like the purpose of the tower that used to stand there or what those weird looking discs in the ground here are, with many a tidbit of historical information and a handy diagram with monks standing inside a building (they always seemed to be far far bigger than the actual size of the building we were standing in). A fun fact that you may not know: even the grandest of monasteries didn’t have many more than 10 or 15 monks, and in many cases they had far fewer – there were enormous monasteries dedicated to the upkeep of three monks at a time, and that included the novice and prior.
What looks like but I doubt actually is a Stone Age tomb
Gotta love gravestones written in Latin with a skull and crossbones
The oldest part of the cathedral complex, the Priory tower – apparently lots of them have one
Creepy exposed sarcophagi, clearly the inhabitants have carefully excavated and escaped
Most dramatic photo of the former central part
Useful map of the whole thing that used to be there, and a sample of the enjoyability of the signs
After walking around the graveyard and ruins to our satisfaction, we went looking for a toilet and happened upon the visitors centre. It turns out you can walk around the ruins for free (this is usually the case because people want to pay their respects to the graves, but they’re not always so close to the ruins themselves – in fact, there were some physically inside one of the buildings, so they could hardly fence anything off), but if you pay you get to go into the museum parts inside, and also you can climb the priory tower and get great views over the city. It was just under $16 to go for that plus to go into the SA Castle, which you can’t get into without paying, so we went for it. And the museum was excellent. They’d taking the cream of the crop of the stone working and sarcophagi they found in the ruins, tastefully presented it and given lots of information. Another fun fact: apparently nearly every serious grave marker or sarcophagus had a skull and crossbones on it – makes the pirate flag much more sensible when you realise that it was a symbol of death first and a pirate flag later. I particularly enjoyed one marker which had an explanation to the effect that the stoneworker was pictured with not just his compass and set square, like a French master mason, but also with his hammer and chisel, suggesting he was not just a designer and overseer but also did the work alongside his men. I love how they use little things like that in random places to find out real historical information. Nerd gush, yes. More photos!
From atop the tower
After the Cathedral, we adjourned to the Castle, which unlike the Cathedral had a very recognisable visitor’s centre with a very different kind of museum that you passed through on the way onto the grounds – less ‘dusty and sober archaeological survey’ and more ‘historical experience’ – lots of colour and dioramas and life-size models and illuminated writing on the walls. It was fun without being kitschy, although the life-size model of a guy about to be burned at the stake may have been going a little far…you be the judge!
Sneaky photo of part of the path, so that you can get some idea
From there, it was time to enjoy the ruins of the castle. Again, there were plenty of informative signs, about the castle’s prince-bishop inhabitants and how that whole system worked, about the various captures and sieges of the castle, and about the final siege in 1546 where Protestants had captured the castle after one of them was executed so that they could kill the bishop and hang him naked from the battlements and then the Catholics attacked, digging a huge tunnel underneath the tower (big enough for pack animals to go through) which was met with a tiny, hastily-dug tunnel from the defenders trying to stop the attackers blowing up and thus collapsing the fortress). There were some interesting views and still-standing rooms, as well as a dungeon shaped like a bottle that prisoners could get into but never get out of; but the best bit was actually going down into the real tunnels dug through the stone, cramped through the counter tunnel and upright in the attacker’s tunnel. It was amazing that these things were still there and touching the walls carved out 500 years ago. I also learned that moss and clover can grow without sunlight as long as it has moisture and is facing an electric light. Fun fact.
Typical Scottish beaches
The tunnels (this is the wider one, you have to crouch through the smaller one) – you can see the moss!
Next up, we went to go look for lunch, but the road we took happened to run through the university, which since it was founded in 1413 was full of stately buildings and by the end of it there was no choice but to take the plunge and go into the University Museum. And it actually was lovely! There were lots of displays about student life through the centuries, with artefacts and pictures and things; and it turns out a whole lot of really eminent people went there! We’re talking John Napier (invented logarithms), Alex Salmond (current chief minister of Scotland) and Prince William and Kate Middleton met there. Other fun people included George Britton Halford (who founded the first medical school in Australia at the University of Melbourne), Olivier Sarkozy (investment banker and half-brother of the former French President), James Wilson (signed the Declaration of Independence in the USA) and the supremely named Archibald Constable (publisher and bookseller). I think my impressions of there being more eminent people was clouded by the numerous name-drops of people who were rectors (something like Chancellors), including John Cleese and J.R.R. Tolkien, who didn’t actually go there. But the museum was still very nice and it was cool to see Tolkien’s handwritten letter to a university academic on display!
After a quick stroll through the museum grounds, we had a look at the Museum of SA which had a great display of an A to Z of SA history, and upstairs was something completely different from all the history: an exploration of the use of x-ray crystallography in modern science. It was so out of place that it interested me for a good half an hour with just two tiny rooms. So kudos to the museum, and indeed kudos to the people who invented crystallography, you unsung heroes of the modern world. Also, the Museum was in an awesome building.
A university square opposite the University Museum
Museum of SA, quite awesome
Well, that about wraps it up! In other news, I’m about to start studying for exams, so any distractions are welcome 😛 Please drop me a message if you are thinking of it, I’d love to chat with people from home. Planning my travels post-exchange and getting keen. Woo!
1 thought on “Surprise Saint Andrews Trip”
Nerd gush likewise. I love those little hidden stories.
No wonder the monasteries were so hated by kings, the poor and political at various times!
Guy at stake: yeah seriously, who makes display of that?