Confident, poised and well
groomed, if a little snooty, ST ANDREWS , Scotland's oldest
university town and a pilgrimage centre for golfers from all
over the world, is situated on a wide bay on the northeastern
coast of Fife. Of all Scotland's universities, St Andrews is most often compared to Oxford or Cambridge both for the dominance of gown over town, and
for the intimate, collegiate feel of the place. Accentuating
the comparison is the fact that the student population has a
significant proportion of English undergraduates, among them,
famously, Prince William, rather to the chagrin of townsfolk
who imagine there to be a tabloid photographer lurking round
every street corner.
According to legend, the
town was founded, pretty much by accident, in the fourth century.
St Rule - or Regulus - a custodian of the bones of St Andrew
in Patras in southern Greece, had a vision in which an angel
ordered him to carry five of the saint's bones to the western
edge of the world, where he was to build a city in his honour.
The conscientious courier set off, but was shipwrecked on the
rocks close to the present harbour. Struggling ashore with his
precious burden, he built a shrine to the saint on what subsequently
became the site of the cathedral ; St Andrew became Scotland's
patron saint and the town its ecclesiastical capital.
St Andrews isn't a large
place, with only three main streets and an open, airy feel encouraged
by the long stretches of sand on either side of town and the
acreage of golf links all around. Local residents are proud of
their town, with its refined old-fashioned ambience. Thanks to
a strong and well-informed local conservation lobby, many of
the original buildings have survived. Almost the entire centre
consists of listed buildings, while the ruined castle and cathedral
have all but been rebuilt in the efforts to preserve their remains.
From St Andrews the attractive
beaches and little fishing villages of the East Neuk ( neuk is
Scots for "corner") are within easy reach, although
the area can also be approached from the Kirkcaldy side. Though
golf and coastal walks are a shared characteristic, the East
Neuk villages have few of the grand buildings and important bustle
of St Andrews, with old cottages and merchants' houses huddling
round stone-built harbours in scenes fallen upon with joy by
artists and photographers.
The centre of St Andrews
still follows its medieval layout. On the three main thoroughfares,
North Street, South Street and Market Street, which run west
to east towards the ruined Gothic cathedral, are several of the
original university buildings from the fifteenth century. Narrow
alleys connect the cobbled streets, attic windows and gable ends
shape the rooftops, and here and there you'll see old wooden
doors with heavy knockers and black iron hinges.
The ruin of the great cathedral
(visitor centre April-Sept daily 9.30am-6.30pm; Oct-March Mon-Sat
9.30am-4.30pm, Sun 2-4.30pm; £2, joint ticket with castle
£4: grounds year-round Sun 9am-6.30pm; HS; free), at the
east end of town, gives only an idea of the former importance
of what was once the largest cathedral in Scotland. Though founded
in 1160, it was not finished and consecrated until 1318, in the
presence of Robert the Bruce. On June 5, 1559, the Reformation
took its toll, and supporters of John Knox, fresh from a rousing
meeting, plundered the cathedral and left it to ruin. Stone was
still being taken from the cathedral for various local building
projects as late as the 1820s.
The cathedral site, above
the harbour where the land drops to the sea, can be a blustery
place, with the wind whistling through the great east window
and down the stretch of turf that was once the central aisle.
In front of the window a slab is all that remains of the high
altar, where the relics of St Andrew were once enshrined. Previously,
it is believed that they were kept in St Rule's Tower , the austere
Romanesque monolith next to the cathedral, which was built as
part of an abbey in 1130. From the top of the tower (a climb
of 157 steps), there's a good view of the town and surroundings,
and of the remains of the monastic buildings which made up the
Down at the harbour , gulls
screech above the fishing boats, keeping an eye on the lobster
nets strewn along the quay. If you come here on a Sunday morning,
you'll see students parading down the long pier, red gowns billowing
in the wind, in a time-honoured after-church walk.
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