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... ;)
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