Do you think St. Andrews is only about golf? Think again!
The following article was originally written for PGATour.com by David Brice, President of Golf International. The articles represent trips available to Golf International customers.
Any golfer with plans to travel to Scotland and St. Andrews, has a great experience in store, after all, this is the home of golf, the place where the game was born almost 600 years ago. It’s here where the most hallowed piece of golf real estate in existence sits — the venerable, St. Andrews Old Course, the shining jewel in Scotland’s already sparkling golf crown…and this is only the beginning.
There are six more excellent courses in and around this small town of only 16,000 inhabitants and another twenty world-class layouts within a short drive of 15 minutes or so of the town center. Kingsbarns, The Dukes, Crail, Ladybank, Lundin Links, Leven Links, Elie and The Torrance, being among the most impressive, each worthy of attention.
Head across the Tay Bridge and within a scant 45 minute drive of St. Andrews you could be on the first tee of famous British Open host, Carnoustie, reputedly the toughest course on The Open Rota – and Carnoustie is again surrounded by another dozen superb courses.
But for all of its golfing wealth, the Royal & Ancient Game is still only one part of the St. Andrews story. If golf had never been conceived, if the Royal & Ancient Golf Club had never seen the light of day; or if the British Golf Museum had not been built and the seven municipal golf courses around town had remained as sheep pastures, St. Andrews would still be a thriving, prosperous community, attracting thousands upon thousands of visitors each year.
There is another side to St. Andrews that many golfing visitors never take the time to discover. Golf, despite its six century long residency, is a relative youngster in terms of St. Andrews rich, colorful and often bloody history, which extends back to 1500 BC and even further.
From the very first tribes that farmed and hunted in the area in an around St. Andrews, to the Gaelic speaking Picts, to the Roman occupation, to St Columba who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland, there is history everywhere. There was the peaceful surrender of Scotland to William the Conqueror by King Malcolm in 1072, followed by the medieval years when St. Andrews experienced not only its most glorious period but also endured its very darkest days.
St. Andrews University opened its doors in 1413 as Scotland’s very first seat of higher learning and only the third university in the entire British Isles, preceded by just two others – England’s Oxford and Cambridge. Many of the impressive buildings in St. Andrews date from this time, with St. Salvators Chapel and St. Mary’s college being particularly fine examples of 15th and 16th century architecture, still functioning as they were originally intended.
Considered one of Britain’s leading Universities, almost 6,000 of St. Andrews’ population are faculty and students. Until quite recently the student body included the heir apparent to the British throne, Prince William and his bride to be, Kate Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
In medieval times, St. Andrews was one of the most important and powerful cities in all of Scotland, not only as the center of higher learning, but also as the country’s ecclesiastical capital. It was home to the largest cathedral in the land and it was from here and neighboring St. Andrews Castle, the powerful Catholic Archbishops controlled the faithful with an iron fist for centuries. Pilgrims came from across the country and indeed Europe, to pay homage, to atone for their sins and seek cures for their illnesses.
By the early 16th century, religious rebellion was afoot, the bloody Protestant Reformation was underway and St. Andrews as the Scottish center of the Catholic Church, was at the very center of the action.
Burnings at the stake became commonplace, as martyrs of the faith were served the ultimate punishment for heresy and other perceived crimes. For thirty long years the violence continued unabated. The English became involved and King Henry VIII sent his finest regiment to aid the protestant cause. St. Andrews Castle, the Catholic stronghold, was besieged, attacked with cannon-fire, then occupied by Protestants, only to fall once more to Catholics, then back to Protestants again. The Archbishop and many of his clergy were slaughtered in their beds, the cathedral ransacked and looted of its massive collections of silver, gold and fine art and by 1559, it was all over.
It’s difficult to comprehend how such a small town that takes no longer than 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other, could possibly contain so much history, but it’s all here. The stately ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, the proud remains of the Castle, once considered impregnable and the impressive 15th and 16th century university buildings. St. Andrews is packed with a blood and thunder history that epic movies are made of. Wander the streets of the town and there is even more to discover.
If you are searching for more history, visit Holy Trinity Church on South Street. Dating from the 12th century, it was in 1559, one John Knox, preached fire and brimstone from this very pulpit, inciting the congregation to ransack the cathedral, bringing centuries of Catholic domination to an end. Take time to see Queen Mary’s House, the townhouse where the ill fated, Mary Queen of Scots stayed during one of several visits to St. Andrews in 1562.
Take a 15 minute drive west from St. Andrews and you’ll come to one of Scotland’s most charming old country villages, the village of Falkland. This is home to the 15th century, Falkland Palace, which once served as an elaborate hunting lodge for Stewart kings and queens, including Mary Queen of Scots. Open to the public, the palace highlights include the Chapel Royal, the King’s Bedchamber and an exquisite collection of 17th century tapestries. The spectacular gardens contain the Royal Tennis Court, the oldest in Britain and still in use.
Drive 20 minutes along the coast, east of St. Andrews and you will be in a region known as the East Neuk (East Corner) and a delightful collection of picture postcard fishing villages, all dating back centuries.
Crail is famous for its much photographed, 16th century harbor and the two championship golf courses that call this village home. Anstruther is a larger town and former herring port, now perhaps better known as having the best fish and chip shop in all of Britain (The Anstruther Fish Bar), together with the Scottish Fisheries Museum, which illustrates the past and present life of the Scottish Fishermen.
Another fascinating old village is Pittenweem, which dates from the 7th century when St Fillan based himself here in a cave, while converting the local Picts to Christianity. Pittenweem is the main fishing port for the area and has proved to be particularly attractive to artists, resulting in the abundance of small art galleries to explore. And there are still more charming villages, including St Monan’s with its quaint harbor and 14th century church.
The Royal Burgh of St. Andrews is a unique town and as handsome as any you will find in the British Isles. You have come here to play golf and perhaps learn more about the games beginnings, but don’t miss the opportunity to obtain a taste of the wealth of Scottish history that abounds.
©2014 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.