10 September 2009--There are several notable Scottish locales that seem to make my short list for a visit every year, but
somehow never get visited. Stirling and the Isle of Mull are most prominent among these, unconscionable omissions which I swear I will
rectify one of these years. Honest. St
Andrews [US] is another that gets pencilled in to the schedule year after year, only to be squeezed out in the final itinerary. And
even now I am only making a day trip, having decided to camp in the sunny East Neuk. One-day visits like this--even overnights--are often
scouting trips in my mind, a look to see if I might want to stay longer another time.
It's a short drive from Anstruther. I park in town, along one of the main streets--there are two extending westward from the ruined cathedral. Look around for pay-and-display meters, but none are in evidence. Is parking on the street here really free? It seems unlikely in a town this size, but there are stranger things in this world.
St Andrews is not a large place, really, but it is blessed with four major attractions, at least. The most famous worldwide is the Old Course, one of several golf courses on the links to the west of town. It is the legendary home of golf, and periodic site of the Open Championship (sometimes called the British Open), arguably the most prestigious tournament in the sport. I will see the links only from a distance today, and the British Golf Museum [US] will have to wait for another day. The second-best known, probably, is the University of St Andrews, founded in 1413. I won't see much of this, either. Instead, I spend time perusing the ruins of the cathedral and the castle.
The site of St Andrews Cathedral had been occupied by a religious community at least since the 8th century. This rose to greater prominence as Iona, on the west coast, succumbed to Viking raids in the 9th century. The cathedral, the largest ever built in Scotland, was begun in the late 12th century, and consecrated in 1318, with Robert the Bruce in attendance. Its history was not a happy one, as it suffered from storm, fire, war, and finally the Reformation. It strikes me as a particularly tragic ruin; it would certainly have been the most spectacular medieval cathedral in Scotland, had it survived...perhaps not quite a rival to the Norman magnificence of Durham, but a Scottish companion.
The surviving tower of neighboring St Rule's Church, which dates from the 12th century, provides a marvelous view over the town. There is also a museum in a surviving outbuilding, housing a variety of stone artefacts--sarcophagi, crosses, bosses and capitals and such.
The ruins of St Andrews Castle date to the turn of the 15th century, although the site was fortified long before that. It served as a residence for bishops and archbishops. There is pivotal Scottish history here, and lots of it--more than I care to relate here. Read the St Andrews Castle page at Undiscovered Scotland. One very interesting feature is the tunnel cut through the solid rock beneath the castle during a siege--actually, two tunnels, one dug by the attackers, and a counter-tunnel dug by the defenders. The two meet end-on, but askew, as you always imagine badly-surveyed train and road tunnels will. The narrow passages are a little creepy...I'm not properly claustrophobic, but don't really like being underground. (Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive, if you want to know.) But the solid rock walls are somewhat reassuring.
After, I stroll around town for a while. By midafternoon, I've seen enough, and stop in for a pint at the Whey Pat Tavern. What's the verdict on St Andrews? Worth a return visit? To be honest, it's not love at first sight. I think I could grow to like the town, but, having seen the cathedral and castle, don't really feel compelled to come back. There are several interesting-looking pubs, though, so it could be well worth an evening or two. I think I'd avoid the weekend in a university town.
I return to my car just in time to see a meter maid slapping a ticket on my window. I peel it off, and she takes a moment to explain the parking regs to me. I tell her that I'd looked for a Pay & Display meter when I parked, but couldn't see one; even now, there isn't one in plain sight, or even a sign. To my surprise, she smiles and asks for the ticket back. I suppose it helps that I'm obviously a foreign tourist, but St Andrews just scored big points in my book.
Back to the B&B in time for a nap; then the walk to Cellardyke for dinner at the Haven, along with wi-fi. Nightcap at the Dreel. There's a group of crazy Norwegians in--is there any other kind?--along with a Kansan expat who also lives in Norway. Golfers. They invite me to join them, but they're more than a little tipsy, and frankly, I feel a little uncomfortable. Oh, I'm being silly, they're really perfectly nice, if a tad overexuberant, and I'm missing a chance to meet some interesting fellow tourists. But sometimes it feels as though there's a tooth or two missing from the gears of the social machinery, and things just don't quite mesh. It's as likely to be my gear as theirs--maybe more--but that's just how it is.