St. Andrews The Arms of the Royal Burgh of St.Andrews Community Council (Used by permission )

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A (very) Brief History of St Andrews

or how St Andrews became what it is today

By Raymond Lamont-Brown and Frank G. Riddell


It is believed that the first people to inhabit the area of Scotland around St Andrews came some 8,000 years ago. They probably travelled overland from the south and across the North Sea following up the coast in log boats. They were hunter gatherers who existed on the flora and fauna of the area - deer, wild cattle, birds, fish, shellfish, nuts, berries roots and leaves. There are many very ancient archaeological sites near St Andrews from the Bronze Age and earlier that attest to an early settlement of the area.

From 1500 BC to 500 BC the first farms were established in the area which seems to have been warmer and drier than it is now. This process of human settlement culminated in the arrival of the Celtic-speaking people. The main record we have of these early people is from their burials and hundreds of early graves and cremation urns have been found from this period in and around St Andrews.

When the Romans came to Fife around 82 AD they established camps near St Andrews; one near Cupar, one at Newburgh on the southern banks of the Tay, a marching camp at Auchtermuchty and a temporary marching camp outside Boarhills just south of St Andrews. The principal enemies of the Romans in Scotland were the Picti (the painted men - now known as the Picts) and by the end of the third century AD the power of the Romans in Scotland declined.


Christianity came to Pictish Scotland around 565 AD when St Columba and his followers travelled from Ireland and settled on Iona. In 710, Nechtan, King of the Picts took up the ritual of the Roman Church and thus it was that the Roman rite became the established religion in most of Scotland.

Some of the earliest holy men who lived in St Andrews were the Celtic speaking Culdees who nominally belonged to the Roman Church. The Culdees (from céli dé, companions of God) were a loose assemblage of non-celibate clergy who probably were established in the early part of the ninth century. A church was built for the Culdees at St Andrews before 877 by Constantine II, and Constantine III became Abbot of the Culdees and died amongst them in St Andrews in 952.

Tradition has it that the first church was set on the Lady's Craig Rock at the end of the present pier, but tide and storm forced the Culdees to rebuild it on the rocky headland above. The church was to develop into that of the Blessed Mary of the Rock, the ruins of which can still be seen at modern Kirkhill. The Culdees had a long and chequered history in St Andrews with many of their members holding important local positions, but as the power of King and Clergy grew in feudal Scotland, the influence of the Culdees waned.

Two legends tell of the bringing of the relics of the Apostle St Andrew to what we now call St Andrews. Both involve a religious figure interpreted as St Rule, or St Regulus, who brought relics of the Apostle to the local site then known as Cennrigmonaid or Kilrymont. Both legends have St Rule establishing an area of consecrated ground, presumably at modern Kirkhill, marked out with twelve crosses. This ground was to become the new resting place for the relics. Whatever the truth of these legends, and whether Rule was no more than a monkish invention, we may never know. There is no doubt however, that relics claimed to be of St Andrew were present at Kilrymont. This subsequently was the reason for the establishment of the place now called St Andrews, as a major religious centre and a prominent centre for pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages.

An important part of the traditional land endowment of the monastery that developed at Kilrymont was the Cursus Apri Regalis - "the run of the royal wild boar" - in a stretch of land south from St Andrews to where the village of Boarhills stands today. The wild boar was to become, with St Andrew himself, an emblem of St Andrews and survives today in the Coat of Arms of the Community Council.

In 906 St Andrews became the seat of the Bishop of Alba (Gaelic for Scotland). By 975 the diocese of St Andrews was expanded by the inclusion of lands from the Forth to the Tweed and the Bishop of St Andrews became the senior bishop in Scotland.

The Normans invaded England in 1066 and Norman rule came peacefully to Scotland when Malcolm III (1058 - 93) surrendered to William the Conqueror within the shadow of the round tower of Abernethy in 1072. It was during Malcolm's reign in the 1070s that a new large church was built at St Andrews probably near the site of an older one. The tower of this church survives today as St Rule's Tower. St Rule's church was enlarged at least three times with the final rebuilding taking place in the period of Prior William de Lothian (1340 - 1354).

St Rule's church was a much smaller building than the Cathedral whose ruins exist today. The foundation of the Cathedral probably dates from around 1160 and it was about this time that the name of St Andrews was established. Until modern times the Cathedral was the largest edifice ever built in Scotland and probably contained the largest collection of medieval art ever gathered together in Scotland.

The remains of the Cathedral that we see today are the work of many centuries. In its first form it ran to over 320 ft in length and 168 feet across its transepts. In time it was to exceed 391 ft in length making it the longest church in Britain save that in Norwich. Building started around 1160 and in 1230 the building was usable as a Cathedral and priory church. By the episcopate of Bishop William Wishart (1271 -79) the Cathedral was well towards its completion. Hardly had the west gable been completed before it was blown down in a storm. It was decided to rebuild the new gable shorter and this allowed a porch at the western end. The Cathedral was finally consecrated in the presence of King Robert the Bruce on 5th July 1318. Troubles continued to plague this magnificent building. In 1378 a great fire consumed the Cathedral which required repairs to the choir and transepts and in 1409 the south transept was thrown down in a great storm. Minor alterations and repairs took place after that.

The great Cathedral of St Andrews was a centre of pilgrimage. From the south they crossed the Forth at Queensferry and made their way to Cupar and thence via Guardbridge to St Andrews. Hostels strategically placed along the route catered for this medieval tourist industry. They came to seek a cure for their illness, or to atone for their sins. Many also came because they had promised to make such a pilgrimage if divine intervention answered their payers. Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims came each year for hundreds of years to worship at the shrine of the relics of the Apostle and Martyr, St Andrew of Bethsaida in Galilee, who was made Patron Saint of Scotland.

Having the largest cathedral in Scotland and one of the most celebrated in Europe, St Andrews was closely involved in the events of the Protestant Reformation. These events lead to the ultimate desecration and neglect of the Cathedral. The Reformation was a time of great trouble in St Andrews with martyrs of the faith being burnt at the stake for purported heresy including Patrick Hamilton (Feb. 1527), then Henry Forest (1533) who was burnt on the north side of the Cathedral so that the people in Forfarshire could see the flames as a deadly warning. George Wishart was next and in April 1558, Walter Myln. These martyrs of the Reformation are commemorated in the Martyrs Monument at the western end of the Scores overlooking the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.


The end of the Cathedral came in 1559, an event that was without doubt co-or dinated to their advantage by Protestant nobles who occupied St Andrews at the time. John Knox was invited to return to Scotland. For three days up to the 14th June 1559 he preached in Holy Trinity Church. Hardly had Knox finished speaking than the mob, orchestrated by the Protestant lords, sacks at the ready to carry off the booty, made for the Cathedral "to purge the kirk and break down the altars and images and all kind of idolatrie..." as the 'Historie of the Estate of Scotland' said. The buildings were left intact, but on that day four hundred years of continuous worship came to an end. The Cathedral buildings then were to become a source of usable building materials and indeed the ruins were used as a kind of quarry right up to the middle of the eighteenth century. The ruins of the Cathedral, even today, remain a consecrated site of the medieval church.

The rumbustious nature of Scottish medieval politics made it necessary for the Bishops of St Andrews to have a strong residence. This is witnessed today by the remains of St Andrews castle. The first castle was probably built on the existing site around 1200 and in its time the castle suffered many sieges and deeds of infamy. It changed hands several times. On 28th May 1546 a small group of Protestants took the castle by subterfuge and then murdered Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews. The Protestants then held the castle for a year or so with the help of Henry VIII. The castle was besieged by the 2nd Earl of Arran and subsequently taken. During this siege the castle was severely damaged by cannon fire from guns mounted on the towers of the Cathedral and St Salvator's church. The famous mine and countermine, open to inspection today, date from this period. Arran cut a passageway through the rock under the castle with the intention of breaching the castle's foundations. The defenders cut a countermine to intercept this mine. Although the castle was rebuilt after the siege it was back in the hands of the Protestant reformers at the end of 1559.

There is no evidence that St Andrews was ever a walled city, but in the troubled times around the 16th century the outer extremities of all streets and wynds were closed by ports or gates. The rear walls of gardens formed the only additional defence. The only port to remain today is the West Port on South Street which, however, was extensively remodelled in 1843.

Closely integrated with the Burgh, and recognised by the Papal Bull of antipope Benedict XIII in 1413, the University of St Andrews is the oldest in Scotland, and the third oldest in Britain. The three colleges of the University - St Salvator's (1450). St Leonard's (1512) and St Mary's (1537) - gradually evolved into its modern collegiate form, to include the amalgamation in 1747 of St Salvator's and St Leonard's Colleges as the United College. Herein all the arts and science subjects are studied today, while St Mary's has maintained its identity as a college of divinity. During 1897 the university was joined by Queen's College, Dundee, to pursue medical and applied science subjects. This association ended in 1967 with the foundation of the University of Dundee. Currently, the University of St Andrews is one of the highest rated in Britain for the excellence of both its teaching and research.

The development of St Andrews as a burgh began sometime between 1144 and 1153 when it was raised to such a status by Bishop Robert with the active enthusiasm and permission of David I. In 1614 St Andrews was made a Burgh of Regality and in 1620 James VI confirmed it as a Royal Burgh.

Commercial life in medieval St Andrews was dominated by the Trade Guilds. St Andrews had the famous seven trades: Bakers, Fleshers, Shoemakers, Smiths, Tailors, Weavers, and Wrights. They set the quality standards to be expected and their terms of employment etc.

The present Lammas Fair on the 2nd Monday and Tuesday in August is the only relic remaining of five great fairs held annually in medieval times. It was once a hiring fair and an occasion of religious observance. It has now degenerated into a gigantic town centre fun fair.

The ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots visited St Andrews five times between 1561 and 1565, accompanied wherever she went by crowds of people. She is said to have stayed in St Andrews in 1562 in a house on the southern side of South Street, now used as a library by St Leonard's School. Queen Mary's House is a fine example of a 16th century Scottish town house.

St Andrews' change from a medieval city to a modern town was accelerated by the ruthless Major Playfair who became Provost Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair (1786 - 1861) and who dominated local politics in his time. In his work to modernise St Andrews he encountered much vested interest and lethargy which he defeated with a mixture diplomacy and bullying. Equally important to Playfair's architectural and still visible changes was the work of Dr John Adamson. Adamson was Medical Officer of Health at about the same period and he completely overhauled the Burgh's sanitory provisions.

In the 20th century St Andrews has seen another expansion as have most towns in Scotland. St Andrews can only expand in two directions. To the south the first expansion this century was essentially of social, rented housing owned and managed by the local authority. To the west the more recent expansion has been of owner occupied housing.

In medieval times the tourists came for religious reasons. In modern times the tourists come for other reasons. They come to see the magnificent legacy left by the Culdees, by the Archbishops, by the Kings and Queens and by the town planners such as Playfair. They come to see the gracious old buildings, quadrangles and chapels of Scotland's oldest university. They also come because St Andrews is the Home of Golf with famous and challenging courses for people to play on, ranging from the celebrated Old Course to the most recent Duke's Course.

This brief history of St Andrews may be amplified by reading 'The Life and Times of St Andrews' by Raymond Lamont-Brown (ISBN 0 85976 236 X) or many of the other reference works quoted therein.

Back to Dr Riddell's page
This article, Copyright Dr F.G.Riddell and Mr R. Lamont-Brown - used by permission.

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