St. Andrews Stories and Tips

St. Andrews

View Over the Links at St. Andrews Photo, St. Andrews, Scotland

It was golf, of course, that took us on our first trip to Scotland—and more specifically to St. Andrews. For many years, I had marked the special occasions of our lives by presenting Himself with gifts from St. Andrews: a golf towel and logo ball from a shop featuring Scottish gifts, ball markers, a framed production of the 1895 Open, a miniature cast of the Royal and Ancient. Eventually, the goal became to present him with St. Andrews itself, an opportunity to play the sacred greens of the world’s most famous golf course. To accomplish that feat, I saved frequent flyer miles from business trips and from our telephone rewards plan. I moved through the daunting world of timeshare exchanges, and I planned incessantly. Finally, in 1998, it all came altogether, and we were ready to go. Scotland, here we come!

Actually playing the Old Course at St. Andrews, however, was another matter. Players do not simply reserve a tee time and show up as arranged (excepting, of course, through expensive golf packages). To play the Old Course, players typically enter a lottery for the next day’s play and hope for the best. If their names are drawn, they show up at the designated time. But the lottery is an option only for players teeing off in groups of two, three, or four. As a single, the only remaining option is to report to the Starter’s Box and ask to be assigned a spot with a group of less than four.

Thus, our planning complete, the final dates of our first pilgrimage to Scotland came to be governed by the calendar and by our best guess at maximizing the opportunity to play the Old Course. We finally decided to travel during late April and early May. We reasoned that this time of year would be warm enough to enjoy the outdoors but early enough to avoid the hoards of fellow tourists who descend on St. Andrews during the summer months. We also reasoned that the best opportunity to grab a vacant spot would be on a weekday. We even prepared for disappointment: If the Old Course proved unattainable, Himself would play another of St. Andrews’ fine courses—perhaps the New Course or the Jubilee.

So it was that on a Friday in early May 1998, we presented ourselves at the Starter’s Box for the Old Course at St. Andrews—golf cap and camera in hand. The starter examined Himself’s letter of recommendation from his home course, collected the hefty greens fee (currently £110), and told him to expect about a 2-hour wait. Meanwhile, it was off to the practice green for him and a bit of close-in exploring for me. I would not walk the course at St. Andrews. That would be too much of a distraction given the number of players on the course and the nature of the foursome. But I would hang around for the tee-off to capture this historic moment for posterity—and for the golf buddies back home.

Note that the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse itself is striking to look at, but it is off limits to most visitors. Instead, the Visitors Clubhouse, a new and very comfortable facility, provides locker rooms, pro shops, a restaurant and lounge, and just about anything else visiting golfers might need to facilitate their game.

While Himself warmed up and practiced his putting skills, I sat in the shadow of the Royal and Ancient in close proximity to a handful of other golf widows. I particularly noticed a tiny woman, probably Japanese, who beamed with quiet satisfaction when her husband’s name was called and his tee time assigned. Joining three other players about to tee off, he glanced quickly in her direction to make sure she saw, and I imagined that their route to the Old Course quite likely mirrored ours in many ways, though the details surely differed. Lacking the demure qualities of the Japanese couple, when Himself’s turn came, I ran forward with camera poised to capture the moment. Then I followed his progress through the first hole by means of a footpath next to the first fairway. That done, I set off for 4 hours on my own in St. Andrews.

For the non-golfer with curiosity and a bit of time to spare, St. Andrews is easily accessible on foot and chock full of possibilities. My first objective was the castle, and my path from the Old Course to the castle took me up a street called The Scores and past several private golf-related association headquarters and clubhouses. It also took me past St. Salvator's, one of three colleges comprised by St. Andrew’s University. Students bustled busily between classes and lounged contentedly in the spring sunshine.

I wandered through the ruins of St. Andrews Castle, which dates to the 12th century and once served as the residence of the bishops and archbishops of St. Andrews Cathedral. Perched on a cliff above the North Sea, the castle is an impressive landmark. Its 24-foot high "bottle dungeon" hewn from the rock below the castle's northwest Sea Tower is grim evidence of how the lords of the church maintained their rule—as are the letters "GW" embedded in the pavement of The Scores in front of the castle, marking the spot where George Wishart was burnt for heresy in 1547. During that same year, Cardinal David Beaton, the last sitting bishop of St. Andrews, was himself put to death by religious reformers. It all serves as a reminder that in St. Andrews the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism was violent and bloody.

Adjacent to the castle stand the ruins of the great cathedral at St. Andrews. Construction on that magnificent edifice began in 1160 and ended in 1318, when it was consecrated in the presence of Robert the Bruce. The cathedral no doubt replaced a lesser house of worship. Indeed, tradition holds that St. Regulus arrived in the area that is now St. Andrews during the 4th century, bringing with him the new Christian religion and the relics of the Apostle Andrew. (Historians generally credit St. Columba with exporting Christianity from Ireland to Scotland in the 6th century.) Regardless of the accounting, by the 13th century there were several churches, an abbey, and a priory associated with the cathedral—and the relics of St. Andrew were the objects of pilgrimage safeguarded in high alter itself.

In 1472, the cathedral at St. Andrews was the Archbishop’s seat and thus officially the spiritual center of Scotland. By 1559, it had been largely destroyed by fervent reformers who regarded it as a Papist affront to their new, "pure" faith. For centuries, its stones were mined as a source of building materials for the adjacent town. Still, the Romanesque east front, a section of the west front, portions of the aisle, and a gatehouse survived more or less intact. And even as ruins, they are magnificent.

During my exploration, I noticed that students and instructors from the university could be seen sprawled in small clusters amid the ruins of the cathedral. They were obviously taking advantage of the spring sunshine and spectacular surroundings to provide an appealing setting for their studies. The Dean's Court is located immediately across from the ruined cathedral, and on the grounds of nearby St. Mary's College, a rose bush said to have been planted by Mary Queen of Scots still blooms—after nearly five centuries.

The precinct walls reflecting the earthly boundaries of this ancient ecclesiastic seat have also survived largely intact. A total of thirteen towers and four gateways, including the impressive Pends Gate are in good repair. The well-preserved precinct district and the town's medieval layout give St. Andrews much of its character.

The compact town center is neat and pretty, and virtually every building is "listed." Private homes, shops, and churches are often positioned at odd angles and fronted with ancient wooden doors. Several homes showcase tiny front gardens filled with flowers. The town center's three main streets—North, South, and Market—all run west to east, like wagon spokes leading toward the cathedral, and all are connected by a network of narrow alleyways. Sections of cobblestone pavement lend to the overall ambiance, inviting visitors to stop here or there to eat, drink, or shop.

My exploration of the old town was a joy, and 4 hours sped by quickly. Rejoining Himself at the Old Course, I arrived in time to photograph his conquest of the Swilken Burn Bridge and to witness his 30-foot par putt on the 18th green. All in all, it had been a remarkable day: He came away with from his challenge of the Old Course with a respectable 85, and I left with a heightened appreciation for history and traditions of St. Andrews—traditions that extends well beyond the boundaries of its famous links. And we both fulfilled a shared dream.

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