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
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
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
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
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
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
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.