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Issue 38 - St. Andrews' ghosts

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


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St. Andrews' ghosts

The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral in Fife are steeped in history. Gary Hayden reports.

In medieval times, St Andrews was the religious centre of Scotland. Its magnificent cathedral housed some of Christendom’s most precious relics (a tooth, an arm-bone, a kneecap and three fingers of St Andrew the Apostle), and pilgrims flocked from far and wide to see them.

The cathedral now lies in ruins. Its relics are gone, and so are the pilgrims. But St Andrews still has plenty to offer. The ancient streets retain their medieval charm; it boasts the oldest university in Scotland; has wonderful beaches; and is a Mecca to golfenthusiasts the world over.

It is also one of Scotland’s most haunted locations. Cardinal Beaton was murdered in St Andrews Castle and suspended from its walls in 1546. Some say he still haunts the castle environs. Archbishop James Sharp was hauled from his coach and murdered at nearby Magus Muir in 1679, and now drives a phantom coach along the Strathkinness Road.

But St Andrews’ most celebrated spooks, a ghostly monk and a white lady, are to be found amongst the crumbling ruins and scattered gravestones of the cathedral precinct.

The ghostly monk of St Rule’s Tower Two magnificent edifices dominate the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral. One is the gravity-defying east gable, which has somehow managed to withstand the ravages of time, gales, Protestant reformers and those in search of cut-price building-stone. The other is St Rule’s Tower, which is all that remains of the cathedral’s predecessor, St Rule’s Church, built around 1130.

No-one should visit St Andrews without ascending the tower.Tokens purchased from the Historic Scotland gift shop allow access through a metal turnstile. Inside, a winding stone staircase leads up to a 33 metre platform that offers a panoramic view of the city.

In summer there is likely to be a steady stream of tourists up and down the tower.

But on winter afternoons it is often deserted.

At such times, the whistling of the wind and the eerie cries of the sea-birds make it seem a lonely and desolate spot.

In the 1950s, a visitor to the tower stumbled partway up the spiral stairway.He grasped the handrail to recover his balance, and when he looked up was surprised to see a figure, dressed in a cassock, a little further along the passageway.

“Are you alright?” the figure asked. “May I offer you my arm?” The visitor politely declined his assistance, passed him on the stairway and continued up the tower. It was only when he reached the top that he realised he had not felt anything as he had squeezed past the cassocked figure.

When he returned to the ground, the visitor questioned the custodian who told him that no-one else had entered the tower, and that he must have encountered the ghostly monk of St Rule’s – a kindly spirit who likes to ensure the safety of those who ascend the stairway.

William T Linskill (1855-1929), formerly the Dean of Guild of St Andrews, was an avid collector of supernatural tales. His excellent book, St Andrews Ghost Stories, gives some useful background information about the ecclesiastical spectre. The benevolent spirit is a former Prior of St Andrews, Robert de Montrose, whose custom it was, on fine moonlit nights, to ascend St Rule’s Tower to enjoy the view.

Although a good and wise Prior, Montrose was forced to discipline one of the monks under his charge for a catalogue of offences including a serious instance of sexual misconduct. This aroused the enmity of the ill-natured monks, and so: “One evening just before Yuletide, when the Prior, as usual, was on top of the tower, the contumacious monk slyly followed him up the ladders, stabbed him in the back with a small dagger, and flung him over the north side of the old tower.” [W. T. Linskill, St Andrews Ghost Stories.] From that time onwards, the murdered Prior was often seen peeping over the tower, and at times falling from it, in a grim reenactment of his death. Nowadays he is more likely to be encountered offering visitors a helping hand up the tower where he met his own violent end.

The White Lady The cathedral precinct covers about 30 acres and is enclosed by an imposing wall, much of which survives. The original wall contained 16 defensive towers, of which 13 are still standing.

A two-storey rectangular wall-tower stands due east of the cathedral’s east gable.

This is known as the haunted tower due to its association with another of St Andrews celebrated spooks, The White Lady.

This ghostly apparition is most often seen inside the cathedral grounds or just outside the north precinct walls, near the castle. In many stories, she glides silently along and then vanishes near the haunted tower. By all accounts, she is very beautiful. William T Linskill provides us with an eyewitness account, obtained from a friend: “She was in a long, flowing white dress, and had her beautiful hair hanging down past her waist... There was something like a rosary hanging from her waist, and a cross or a locket hanging round her throat... I shall never, never see such a divinely beautiful face upon this earth again.” [W. T. Linskill, St Andrews Ghost Stories.] Recent witnesses describe her as wearing white leather gloves.

There have been many sightings of the white lady during the past 200 years. At one time, few local people dared to pass the haunted tower after nightfall, for fear of an encounter. Her precise identity is unknown.

But in 1868 an incident occurred which perhaps sheds some light on the mystery.

Two stonemasons, repairing the walls of the haunted tower, broke into a sealed chamber and found a number of coffins. One of them lay open, and contained the wellpreserved body of a young woman in a white dress – wearing white leather gloves.

Ghost-hunter’s guide The ghostly monk of St Rule’s Tower is most often seen around the time of the full-moon. This makes sense, since the full-moon would have provided the Prior de Montrose with the clearest and prettiest night-time views of the city from atop his beloved tower.

The White Lady is most often seen on stormy nights in October and November. This is a particularly spooky time of year in St Andrews, thanks to the dark evenings and frequent sea mists.

During the tourist season, on Friday and Saturday nights, Blackfriars Tours offer spooky guided walks around St Andrews’ most haunted sites. These are great fun and very informative. For information contact Charlotte Golledge tel: +44 (0)8000 842 220