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Issue 50 - The city of souls

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 50
April 2010


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The city of souls

Annie Harrower - Gray gives us a spirit guide to St Andrews.

St. Andrews in Fife is not only the home of golf but an ancient burgh that has played host to more than its fair share of historical drama and violent atrocities.

Around AD 740, a Culdee or Scots-Irish religious community established the Church of St Mary On The Rock to house the relics of St. Andrew. This small settlement developed into the religious powerhouse of Scotland. It was also to become the town with the most murders, executions and burnings ever to be carried out in the name of religion.

When strolling through the streets of St. Andrews, it is hard to ignore the presence of the men and women who walked these cobbled streets in centuries past, but their presence lives on in the old stone dwellings, castle and priory.

In North Street, St Salvators College is part of the University founded in 1411. One member secured his place in history when in 1528 he was burned at the stake under the college arch.

Patrick Hamilton, great grandson of James II, joined St. Leonard’s College in 1524, having returned to Scotland from Paris where he had come under the influence of the teachings of Martin Luther. In 1528 he was tried and sentenced to death as a heretic for preaching Protestant reform. The execution took place on the same day to preclude any rescue from Hamilton’s high connections.

According to legend, an image of his face was etched onto the wall of St. Salvators Clock Tower as he burned to death watching the hands of time move slowly round. In the smoke-stained wall just above the arch, a chiselled face casts its eyes down on all those who enter.

Running parallel to North Street on the east side lies the old ‘Swallowgate’, now known as The Scores. Here, by the British Golf Museum stands the Martyrs monument honouring the four St. Andrews’ martyrs, Patrick Hamilton, Paul Craw, Henry Forrest and Walter Myln, each burned at the stake for their religious beliefs. It is built on the site of ‘Bow Butts’ where youths once practised their archery. By 1457, golf and football had overtaken archery in popularity, and James II was obliged to ban the playing of such games on Sundays in order to encourage young men to develop the archery skills they would require at war.

The site of ‘Bow Butts’, however, has more sinister connotations. Just above the old practice field existed a grassy knowle known as either Methven’s Tower or the Fairy Knowle. It was not as the name suggests, a happy place where children, fairies and sprites danced together in a magic ring. This was the evil circle where witches were burned.

According to the records contained in the ‘Diurnal of Occurrents’, two years after Queen Mary’s enforced abdication, John Knox, the Protestant reformer and the Regents Moray and Morton, instigated the burning of ‘certain witches in ‘Sactandrois’.

In 1560, after the upheaval of the Reformation, Knox became alarmed over the growth of the witchcraft cult that followed the unrest. Three years later, the Scottish Parliament passed a statute imposing the death penalty on all those practising witchcraft, sorcery or necromancy.

Immediately afterwards, the Superintendent of Fife accused four women of being witches.

The last woman known to have suffered at the Fairy Knowle was an old woman by the name of Young who lived in Market Street.

At the opposite end of the Scores, the ruins of St. Andrews Castle dominate the skyline.

An aura of romanticism has evolved around its blood stained history and ghostly sightings.

The first fort on this cliff was built in 1200, during the reign of William the Lion.

Constructed by Bishop Roger de Beaumont, it was both a fortress to protect the harbour and the headquarters of a religious order.

The castle’s Sea Tower held the corpse of Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews. His body was pickled in brine after he was murdered on 29th May 1546, in revenge for the burning of reformer George Wishart. It is said the Cardinal returns here to look across the Firth of Tay at the White Lady who loved him. On the anniversary of his death, she allegedly looks over the estuary signalling to him with her handkerchief just as she did on that fatal morning.

Looming over the cliffs, just a short walk south from the castle, are the remains of the once magnificent cathedral, abbey and priory.

The abbey wall runs up to Pends Road with only one break in its thick stone, a turret better known as the ‘Haunted Tower’. The tower is supposedly possessed by a woman who was so disfigured that she became a nun in order to hide behind the veil. Should anyone be unlucky enough to encounter her, she will lift her veil to reveal a face so hideous it will drive the onlooker insane. This story is kept alive by a report in the 1960s that a student saw her face and instantly went mad. He was found slumped over stones repeating the words ‘the nun’ over and over again until he was taken to a psychiatric hospital.

According to an old Scottish magazine The Saturday Review, the Government in 1826 cleared the cathedral precinct of ‘the litter of ages’ and afterwards historians explored the previously sealed up ‘Haunted Tower’. After forcing entry, a professor of United Colleges emerged carrying the corpse of a woman who appeared to have been dead but an hour.

The Lord Advocate ordered the tower be re-sealed and 23 years were to pass before the next grim discovery. A total of 12 corpses found sitting around the walls, all dressed as if going to a feast. They may have been victims of the plague that scourged Fife in 1605.

Scientific opinion of the time was that a certain type of soil preserves bodies from decay and all that lie beneath the shadow of St. Regulus Tower lie as if still on their deathbeds.

Within the abbey walls lies an extensive cemetery reflecting changing burial fashions.

Gravestones range from small square slabs, to table-top to grand monuments. One stone has sacrificed its inscription to the ravages of time. This is the resting place of a man who married several times, his wives all predeceasing him.

Whatever he may have done, he did not want to be buried beside any of them. His grave was hit by lightening and the hole can still be seen in the stone.

Leaving the cathedral and heading towards South Street, visitors pass the great gatehouse where supposedly the hoofs of ghostly horses can be heard thundering through as they pull the spectral empty coach of the murdered prelate, Archbishop James Sharpe, assassinated by a group of Covenanters .

In a house at 71 South Street, Alison Peirson cured the malady of Patrick Adamson, by transferring his illness to a white pony. Alison was burned at the stake in 1588 for prescribing healing potions and corresponding with the Queen of Elphame or Fairies.

All the wynds leading eastwards out of South Street lead to Market Street. Many visitors walk over the cobbles unaware that this is where Paul Craw, a Czech-born Hussite who circulated the writing of the heretics William Tyndale and John Wycliff and was the first martyr to be burned here in 1433.

Today, it is presumably shopping that preoccupies people’s minds, not murder or witchcraft.

But we should never forget that the spirits who guide us around this ancient town sacrificed their live in order that we can pursue any religious or secular belief that we choose without fear of persecution.