Despite being only just over 50 miles away from Edinburgh by road, St Andrews is a surprisingly difficult place to get to, making it a rewarding day out with a real sense of having gone somewhere!
Thanks to the mainline train routes being curtailed in the 1960s there's no direct rail link between Edinburgh and St Andrews itself - the nearest station is Leuchars, a few miles further up the coast. This could still be the fastest option for getting to St Andrews, however, as the road from Edinburgh is long and winding, and can be prone to traffic delays and hold-ups.
But once you get to St Andrews you'll find a whole medieval town to discover, bursting with shops and restaurants, and with some prime historic features as well as a major golf course and Scotland's first university.
Here's my introduction to four historic features of St Andrews...
ST ANDREWS CATHEDRAL
The settlement on this corner of Fife's north-east coastline has existed for the last 6,000 years or so, and its earliest recorded name was Cennrigmonaid.
The association with St Andrew - one of Jesus's apostles - dates back to the mid-eighth century, when a number of relics (Andrew's arm, kneecap, three fingers and a tooth...) were brought from Greece by a monk after having a dream in which an angel told him to establish a church for St Andrew at the furthest edge of the earth. After being shipwrecked off the coast of Fife, the settlement where St Andrews stands today was the recipient of the relics, and the associated church.
That monk was St Regulus, or St Rule, and around 1077 CE a church was built in his name. Part of that original church survives - still named St Rule's Tower - and was later incorporated into the grounds of St Andrews Cathedral itself.
St Andrews became a destination on the pilgrim trail, with people travelling up to 400 miles and walking through historic towns like Culross or using services such as the ferry established by Queen Margaret from South Queensferry to visit the reliquary of St Andrew, recognised as the patron saint of Scotland since at least 832 CE.
The cathedral itself was built from around 1158 CE, and became the largest single building in the whole of Scotland, approximately 119m long, 51m wide, and 30m high at its tallest point.
For 400 years it was the religious centre of medieval Scotland, until the Reformation in 1560 made the celebration of the Catholic Mass illegal, and the cathedral building was ransacked by mobs and its interior features destroyed. The building fell into ruin, with its stone being taken and recycled into other structures around St Andrews as its walls and towers collapsed over the following centuries.
Today only portions of the cathedral's east and west towers and some of its walls survive intact, but the sense of scale and grandeur of the original building is still impressive.
ST ANDREWS CASTLE
The castle on the rocky promontory grew up alongside the development of the original cathedral, from the twelfth century.
As with many Scottish fortresses, St Andrews castle itself was periodically destroyed and substantially rebuilt as it changed hands between the Scots and the English forces, and the foundations of the version that survives (albeit in ruins) today date from around 1400 CE.
Cardinal David Beaton, whose house in the sixteenth century stood on Cowgate in Edinburgh's Old Town, was executed at St Andrews castle in 1546, after ordering the torture and execution of Protestant reformer George Wishart, who has burned at the stake in front of the castle earlier that year.
The castle finally fell into ruins in the middle of the seventeenth century, and little sense of the grand residential fortress that it once was survives today.
What can still be seen, however, is the original 'bottle dungeon', which was a notorious prison space cut into the solid rock beneath the fortress, as well as the mine tunnels which were carved in the 1540s when efforts were made to attack the castle by tunnelling beneath it to place explosive beneath its foundations.
UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS
The university at St Andrews was founded in 1413, making it the oldest university in Scotland - 150 years older than the University of Edinburgh - and the third oldest in the UK. It is made up of 18 academic schools, split into four faculties - Art, Science, Medicine, and Divinity - across three colleges.
Home to just under 12,000 students (along with staff they make up around a third of the total population of St Andrews), the university routinely features in 'best of' rankings for academic institutions both within the UK and around the world. Unique to St Andrews university is its system of classification of students by year - first years are Bejants or Benjantines, second years are known as Semis, third year students are Tertians, and in their fourth and final year they become known as Magistrands.
The university is spread between a number of buildings and campus areas across St Andrews town centre, including historic structures and more modern faculty spaces.
Subjects studied by students range from medicine and theology, to classics, art history, mathematics, biology, film studies and computer science, and the university is considered one of the most selective in the UK in terms of entry requirements. Typically students accepted to study at the University of St Andrews would be expected to get three grade A results at A-levels (in the English school system), or four As and a B in the Scottish Highers system.
THE HOME OF GOLF
The fourth feature that defines St Andrews is its historic (and economically advantageous) connection to Scotland's national sport - golf!
The Old Course at St Andrews has claims to being the oldest in the world, established in the early fifteenth century (although the course at Bruntsfield Links in Edinburgh has been active since around the same time, and remains free to play).
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, who have the large club house overlooking the course, are just one of several clubs with permission to utilise the course, although the land itself is common ground owned by St Andrews town council.
It was here at St Andrews that the standard golf course length of 18 holes became established, in the 1760s, and the Old Course became the home of the Open Championship, first held here in 1873. It remains the setting for the championship every five years.
One of the most famous features of the St Andrews Old Course is the Swilcan Bridge, a historic stone arch that crosses the narrow Swilcan burn, a small stream which runs through the course and out into the nearby sea.
The bridge is reputed to have been built over 700 years ago by farmers who needed to bring their sheep across the ground.
The bridge features on both the 1st and 18th green of the Old Course, and is a picturesque feature that is uniquely associated with St Andrews.
If you're not able to play a round on the Old Course itself (FYI, par for this particular course is 72...) you might instead want to visit the R&A Wold Golf Museum, or one of the many hotel bars and restaurants overlooking the course, or the multitude of golfing supplies shops to be found in the vicinity.
For non-golfers, St Andrews remains a good option for a day out, with plenty of interesting shops and cafes (Mitchell's would be my recommendation for lunch).
There are lovely views from the walk along the coastal path, between the castle ruins and the back of the cathedral, to the still active harbour area where seafood is brought ashore on a regular basis.
Or wander the narrow lanes of the town, where the buildings routinely date back several hundred years - the picturesque frontages and cobbled streets create a beautiful backdrop for your afternoon exploring.
The beach, famously featured in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, about Scottish missionary and Olympian Eric Liddell, offers plenty of space for walking (or running... in slow motion!), building sandcastles in the golden sand or - for those brave enough - a dip in the chilly waters of the North Sea.
Beneath St Andrews Castle is a small tidal lido is ideal for casual swimming without the risk of waves, tides, and there's a popular aquarium for you to get up-close with the life aquatic...
So it's safe to say that St Andrews has something to keep you entertained for an afternoon, and offers a vibrant alternative to Edinburgh's city centre. And having enjoyed the scenery, an ice cream, and some fresh air, all you then have to worry about is how to make the journey back to Edinburgh... ;)
Get more tips for days out of Edinburgh when you book a private city walking tour!
Although I've written about a lot of figures who I class as local heroes in Edinburgh, when I look back at the names that crop up most often they tend to be writers or architects (or even criminals...) who have left their mark on the city in some way.
I've only written about one former lord provost of the city previously, and that was William Chambers - but there's another man who was significant for Edinburgh's development through his role as lord provost, and I'm ashamed to say that I don't think I've ever mentioned him on a tour! Not even once - in the more than ten years that I've been talking to people about Edinburgh...
So in order to make up for that heinous oversight here's a whole blog dedicated to George Drummond - who was lord provost of Edinburgh not once, or twice, but for a total of SIX terms between 1725 and 1764.
George Drummond was born in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, and he wasn't born in Edinburgh but in Perth. He came to Edinburgh to study at the Royal High School, and by 1707 - at the time of the Act of Union with England - he was engaged as an accountant, helping to make the financial case for the political union. (Following the disastrous Darien Expedition, Scotland was essentially bankrupt and was drawn into the union with England partly to ease the desperate financial state in the nation.)
By 1716 Drummond was active in Edinburgh Council, and one of his first major contributions to the city was to help raise funds for the establishment of the first Royal Infirmary, on what is today Infirmary Street in the Old Town.
This institution had been championed by Alexander Monro, head of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh's school, who had been campaigning for a hospital to serve the needs of the sick and the poor of Edinburgh in the early 1720s.
The hospital opened in 1729, and by 1738 was already in need of a larger building to support its expansion - Drummond led the fundraising, and the new hospital building was designed by William Adam, father to Robert Adam. A later surgical hospital building by David Bryce still stands on the site today, which is accessed via Drummond Street, one of two roads in the city named for George Drummond.
After the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Drummond's next influential commission was the intended Royal Exchange building, which would be used by market traders to take business off the High Street and create a more formal, indoor market space.
The building, by John and Robert Adam, was opened by George Drummond in his role as Lord Provost of Edinburgh in 1760 - but sadly the building proved to be unpopular with the traders and merchants for whom it had been designed. They preferred to conduct business at the nearby mercat cross, as they had done for generations, and instead the building became occupied by the city council itself, and survives today as the City Chambers.
Around this time the population of Edinburgh has grown to above 50,000 people, all crammed into the area of the Old Town, or approximately half a square mile of space. Living conditions in the city were abject in the extreme, and George Drummond began to make the case for a 'new' town to be developed, to ease the overcrowding of what was still, at that time, essentially a medieval city.
In 1766 Drummond announced a public competition to design a layout for this putative New Town - a competition that was won by a young man named James Craig, whose vision for the city's expansion proved to be revolutionary in terms of town planning.
Drummond also set in motion the draining of the Nor Loch, the artificial lake that occupied the valley where Princes Street Gardens are today, in order to provide access to the New Town, and for the ease of allowing its development. Draining the loch proved to be a longer and more problematic task than had been anticipated, and although Drummond laid the foundation for the original North Bridge to cross the valley in 1763, disaster struck in 1769 when the bridge collapsed due to its foundations proving not to be substantial enough, killing five people. The second bridge opened in 1772, and the structure which crosses the valley today is the 1890s replacement, built by Robert Morham.
Drummond would never live to see the New Town that he had campaigned for. He died in December 1766, the year before construction would begin in what became St Andrew Square.
However, he had already been living on land to the north of the city, on his estate near Bellevue, adjacent to the village of Broughton - the place where he had his house (long since demolished but which stood in the centre of what remains a private garden today) is now called Drummond Place.
Throughout his life Drummond had been an active Freemason, inducted into the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) No.1 in1722 and serving as Grand Master Mason of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in the 1750s.
He was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile, in a church that had been built the year he was born. His grave is rather difficult to view today, inaccessible behind a considerable amount of vegetation, adjacent to the wall of the Canongate Tolbooth.
All in all, George Drummond's life was a remarkable one, and his legacy to the city is undeniable. From having direct involvement in major moments of British history (like the union between Scotland and England, and some of the later Jacobite Uprisings) to his impact on Edinburgh itself, Drummond was important because of his sense of vision - he was able to cast forward into the future and make decisions (or argue for developments) based on the versions of the world that emerged through his imagination.
I would argue that this visionary capacity is something that we perhaps lack, as a society, today - the idea that we make decisions now for a future we may never see ('When old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit,' as the old proverb has it) is a notion slightly alien to us. Or a notion we find it hard to act upon, maybe.
So: George Drummond - I'm sorry I haven't mentioned you on tours before, but I promise to do so from now on!
Discover more of Edinburgh's local heroes on my private city walking tours...
Of all the literary associations that Edinburgh has - which helped earn its status as the world's first UNESCO City of Literature - one of the contemporary writers who still lives in the city is Sir Ian Rankin, creator of the Inspector Rebus series of detective stories.
In 2007 Rankin was the inaugural recipient of the annual Edinburgh Award, given by the city to a resident who has "made a positive impact on the city and gained national and international recognition for Edinburgh" - his handprints can be found outside the City Chambers on the High Street.
Edinburgh is no stranger to crime fiction, with figures like Arthur Conan Doyle, born in the city and best known for creating possibly the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. But Rankin more explicitly takes his inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson in exploring the mismatch between Edinburgh's genteel surface and its grimy underworld - the Rebus stories often feature Edinburgh locations as the backdrop to various grisly events, along with utilising significant events and figures from Edinburgh's history to give local flavour to the writing.
Here's my pick of just a few of the city centre settings found in Ian Rankin's books, to help you explore the city in the footsteps of Inspector John Rebus himself.
A terraced street of tenement properties in the suburb of Marchmont, Arden Street is where Rankin was living in 1987, and where he imagined Rebus living in the building directly opposite his as he sat writing the early drafts of the first book.
Arden Street features as a setting both in that story, Knots and Crosses, as well as in flashback in A Song for the Dark Times, the twenty-third title in the series, and is just a short walk from where Conan Doyle himself used to live, on Argyle Park Terrace near the Meadows.
ARTHUR'S SEAT COFFINS
A collection of mysterious wooden dolls, discovered on Arthur's Seat in the 1860s, features in Rankin's twelfth Rebus story, The Falls.
The dolls are historical fact, and can still be viewed - along with prop versions which were made for the TV adaptation of the Rebus story - at the National Museum of Scotland.
A five-star hotel in Edinburgh's New Town, the Caledonian was originally a railway station before being converted into a hotel.
Built from distinctive red sandstone, sourced from the west coast - in contrast with Edinburgh's yellow local stone - the building was built by the Caledonian rail company and served as Princes Street Station, finally closing in 1965.
It features at the beginning of Rather Be the Devil, the twenty-first Rebus novel, published in 2016.
Today a museum complex, Surgeons' Hall was designed by the architect William Playfair and features in Rebus's investigation in The Falls.
The story finds Rebus tracing historical clues related to the serial killers Burke and Hare...
The building itself was the location for the Surgeons' Hall Riot of 1870, one of several high-profile social uprisings in the city.
THE OXFORD BAR
The early novels had seen Rankin create fictionalised settings for his characters, including a variety of local bars where John Rebus consumed a less-than-healthy quantity of whisky and beer.
Later, Rankin realised he needn't go to the trouble of creating fictional locations, when Edinburgh had a good variety of real-life spaces that he could use instead! And so he began putting Rebus into the Oxford Bar in the New Town, known as the Ox, where Rankin himself continues to drink.
The bar remains a popular local, and is decidedly not a tourist bar... Rebus fans may enter if they dare!
ST LEONARD'S POLICE STATION
From the fifth Rebus novel - The Black Book - John Rebus is working out of the police station at St Leonard's, on the southside of the city.
Although St Leonard's is a real place (backing onto Arthur's Seat) it's not necessarily somewhere worthy of visitor attention - unless you're being detained by Police Scotland, of course!
GAYFIELD SQUARE POLICE STATION
Another real-life police station at the top of Leith Walk, to the east of the city centre. Gayfield Square is where DI Siobhan Clarke is working in Saints of the Shadow Bible, the nineteenth Rebus story.
Having previously featured as a location in Alfred Hitchcock's film versions of John Buchan's The 39 Steps, the Forth Bridge, just outside of the city, is the site of the discovery of a body in Rankin's The Black Book, from 1993.
The bridge was built in the 1890s, and is the most recently listed of Scotland's six UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Sometime home of Rebus's nemesis, gangster Gerry Cafferty, Duddingston is a small historic village on the south-eastern side of Arthur's Seat.
The Duddingston kirk is a twelfth century house of worship which remains active, and the Sheep Heid pub has solid claims to being the oldest pub in Scotland.
It may be decidedly tricky to imagine 'Big Ger' Cafferty, one of Scotland's meanest gangsters, living on these quiet cobbled streets, but possibly that was Rankin's point...
MARY KING'S CLOSE
Today a popular underground visitor attraction, at the time that Rankin wrote the sixth Rebus novel - Mortal Causes - Mary King's Close was still a space that could only be accessed by prior arrangement with Edinburgh Council, under whose City Chambers the old street lies. (The setting is right next to where Rankin's Edinburgh Award handprints can be found.)
It's here that the body of a torture victim is found at the start of the story - and where Rebus finds it surprisingly easy to park, even during the summer's festival season...
The eleventh Rebus story, Set in Darkness, features a plot centring on the proposed location of the new Scottish Parliament building, and involves a murder victim being discovered in Queensberry House, a historic property that became part of the modern parliament.
Queensberry House has its own disturbing and gruesome history, dating from the time of the union with England in 1707, when it was allegedly the site of an act of murder and cannibalism - both par for the course in modern politics...!
The only feature of Edinburgh which gives its name directly to a Rebus novel - Fleshmarket Close is Rankin's fifteenth title, published in 2004.
Fleshmarket Close is one of the characteristic narrow alleys - the closes and wynds - of the Old Town which connects the Royal Mile to Market Street.
The defining feature of Edinburgh - and the location which helps give the city its name - is the site of an apparent suicide in The Naming of the Dead.
Seen here viewed from...
KING'S STABLES ROAD
A road I often take groups down, not because it's especially attractive but because it's a good link between the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh. King's Stables Road is the site of a brutal attack which ends in the death of a character in Exit Music, the book which sees Rebus retired from the police (the first time, from 2007).
There are plenty of other references to Edinburgh landmarks and locations in Rankin's Inspector Rebus stories, along with semi-fictionalised settings and places which have never existed on any map. Rankin himself continues to live in Edinburgh, in the Morningside area, and the most recent Rebus novel, published in 2022, brings the inspector bang up to date with a case set during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Discover more of Edinburgh's literary and historical features with my private city walking tours!
Each of Edinburgh's suburbs has its own distinctive style or charms - this arose from many of them originally being separate towns which were outlying the city itself, but which were gradually incorporated into Edinburgh as it expanded and developed.
Morningside is one such suburb, running along one of the main arterial roads into and out of Edinburgh to the south-west of the city centre. This roadway has been one of the historic access roads to Edinburgh for centuries - today it's a popular and well-heeled part of the city, famed for its genteel atmosphere, 'millionaires' row' of charity shops, and distinctive accent.
The area has been home to a number of writers, including Ian Rankin, JK Rowling, and Alexander McCall Smith. Not for nothing has part of the area been nicknamed Writers' Block...!
Although it's a busy thoroughfare with lots of local shops, cafes and amenities, here's my rundown of some of the more curious features of Morningside that are worth looking out for...
The point at which Bruntsfield becomes Morningside, at least in terms of the road names. Bruntsfield Place becomes Morningside Road at a crossroads where each quadrant of the junction has a church - hence its popular nickname, Holy Corner...
Three of the churches are active as centres of worship, whilst the fourth is the Eric Liddell Centre, a community space named for the Olympian and Christian missionary who garnered fame for his performance at the 1924 Paris Olympics, events depicted in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire.
THE BORE STONE
A slab of stone stands on the left hand side of Morningside Road as you crest the peak and begin the journey downhill into Morningside proper.
This ancient artefact is alleged to have been the stone which held the banner of James IV as he mustered his troops nearby before marching south to fight the Battle of Flodden, in September 1513.
It's a nice story, and a significant moment of Scottish history - but alas there are several pieces of evidence which dispute the details given in the plaque affixed beneath the stone itself. There was no such mustering point for troops in this area, and the king himself had left the city before the banners had been produced.
Still, significant as a piece of Victoriana, having been mounted here in the 1850s...
The name originates with a large private estate property which used to occupy this land, built in 1780 and later acquired by a wealthy merchant of the East India Company named Alexander Falconer. He renamed the property Falcon Hall (playing on his surname) and commissioned Thomas Hamilton to build a grand neoclassical facade onto the front of the building.
Falcon Hall was demolished in 1909, and the land it once sat on was redeveloped, with many of the new streets taking the falcon as their name.
Two parts of the original property have survived, however - the original gates, each graced with a stone falcon, now stand outside the entrance to Edinburgh Zoo, and Hamilton's facade was dismantled and reassembled for the headquarters of the Edinburgh Geographical Institute, about a mile to the east of its original location.
A DIAMOND JUBILEE MARKER
This one is easy to miss - look up high on one of the buildings on the right hand side of Morningside Road as you head downhill, and you may see a memorial commemorating Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, in 1897.
The tenement buildings here were being developed extensively during this period, at the end of the nineteenth century, and the monument commemorates Victoria's sixty years on the throne - at that time the longest reign of any British monarch (and still the second longest, after Elizabeth II's 70 years as queen).
The plaque features a likeness of Victoria and references her as Queen of Britain, and also Empress of India, a reminder of the extent at that time of the British Empire.
THE WILD WEST OF EDINBURGH
Tucked away just off the main road is a quirky feature that dates back to the mid-1990s, when a local furniture company had the street decorated as a Wild West frontier town for a TV advert.
Peer down the passageway off Springvalley Gardens and you'll discover more than the usual old garages and lock-ups. Today the alley contains a livery, a jail, a Mexican cantina, a Wells Fargo staging post, and a blacksmiths - or their frontages, at least! Several of the doors are emergency exits for the businesses on Morningside Road.
It's a curiosity that is worth taking a few minutes to look at, even if it will get you a few strange looks from the people running their business from the lane today...
THE CANNY MAN'S
An iconic watering hole on Morningside Road, the Canny Man's was originally called the Volunteer Arms, and has become known for its quirky interior decor and its distinctive atmosphere.
Opened in 1871, customers today still enter through a door known as the Stage Door, and inside are a number of smaller rooms for socialising, including the Boomerang Room, the Churchill Room, the Four Ale Bar, and the Residents' Lounge.
The interior walls feature an eclectic display of objects, from empty bottles and heritage signage for the beers that used to be sold, to stuffed animal heads, musical instruments, newspaper clippings, puppets, bunches of keys, typewriters... It's like no other pub in the city - and possibly the world!
Stop in for a drink - it's a truly unique experience.
Just past the bottom of Morningside Road, along Braid Road, you'll find two small stone features set into the roadway. These are known as the hanging stanes, and mark the footings of a set of gallows which were erected here in order to execute two men accused of robbing a passing merchant in November 1814.
The two men - Thomas Kelly and Henry O'Neil - were Irish immigrants to Scotland, and at their trial for robbery were found guilty by a jury without the need for any time for deliberation. Such was the social climate in Edinburgh at that time, justice could be swift and meted out without a huge amount of due process...
The two men were to be hanged at the site of their robbery, on this main road into Edinburgh, known to have been a dangerous route where highwaymen targeted merchants as they headed to the city markets. The gibbets were set up in the road, and after the men were executed, on 25 January 1815, their bodies were left to rot on the gallows as a warning to others.
Discover more of Edinburgh's intriguing moments of history with my private city walking tours!
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour?
Show your support and
buy me a coffee!