St Andrews is a beautiful town in the North East of Fife, sitting just south of the razor bill of the links which bear its name. Its existence owes as much to its university and its sport as it does to the saint from which legend bequeaths its name. And isn’t that a tall tale of Constantinian proportions?
St Andrew, the man, was told in the Bible as being born in Lower Galilee, in modern-day Syria. It is a stone’s throw from the Golan Heights, but a million miles from the East Neuk of Fife. Yet there is a town in Fife which bears the great man’s name. As is usual for such connections, bones are involved.
Óengus the First was King of Pictland, in the 8th century, and he had a bit of a thing for St Andrew. Óengus was said to be a leading light in the cult of St Andrew, and the founder of the monastery of St Andrew in the town of Cennrígmonaid. Óengus deposited several relics of the saint, including – it has been asserted – his arm, his kneecap, some fingers and perhaps even a tooth. So far so cultish.
Óengus mac Fergusa, Óengus II, was King of the Picts in the 9th century. In 832 AD Óengus led a combined army of Picts and Scotii in to battle against the Sassenach, Angle, forces of England. The Angles outnumbered the Picts and the Scotii, so Óengus took to his knees and prayed to his lord.
He vowed to god that if his forces were triumphant, then he would dedicate the lands of Scotland to the name of St Andrew. White clouds duly formed a familiar diagonal cross against the clear blue sky on the morning of battle: the battle was emphatically won, and Scotland’s beautiful flag was born.
Lovely story; definitely true. Just as Constantine the Great, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, saw a cross in the sky on the eve of battle – his forces were battling those of fellow Roman emperor, and brother-in-law, Maxentius – and subsequently converted the Roman Empire to the love of Jesus Christ, Óengus converted Scotland to a dominion of St Andrew after his glorious victory. As you do.
It is hard to think of the tranquil streets of St Andrews as being born from such medieval slaughter, but that slaughter is key to their origins. Without the cult of St Andrew, and the devotion shown by the first Óengus, the monastery would never have been founded, the cathedral would never have been built, and the town would never have been established around it. Without the furthering of the cult by the second Óengus, the town would never have become such a popular spot for followers of the cult of St Andrew. The very prosperity of the town is based on warfare. That would change.
St Andrews settled in to a relatively secure rhythm, which continued for centuries. This security was paid for by the volume of pilgrims visiting the town to experience the supposed healing effects of the bones of St Andrew. In the middle ages, bones were felt to carry healing properties, allowing the visitor to relieve themselves of a variety of ailments. Touching such relics was thought to guarantee entry to the kingdom of the lord above, avoiding the perils of the kingdom of the dark lord below.
The peace was shattered during the Scottish Reformation, and the waves of reform and iconoclasm it brought with it. As with so many great places of worship, the Cathedral of St Andrews was rapidly stripped of its adornments and of its status as the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland. Towards the end of the 16th century, the cathedral was abandoned; from that point it began to make its inexorable path towards the ground. Not much of it remains today, but what does casts a striking silhouette.
The decaying state of the town caused even the venerable institution of the University to consider its position. It considered relocating to Perth towards the turn of the 18th century. And that would never do. Thankfully a new influx of pilgrims was set to buoy the fortunes of the town once more.
Golf. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that I find it a good walk spoiled. I don’t. I honestly don’t give any sport that level of thought or attention. What I do think is that the world over, the influence of golf has allowed for the preservation of our links. Without it, myriad beautiful coastlines may have become sacrificed in the name of housing and commerce, rather than being places of sheer beauty.
The town of St Andrews has had a number of competing names over the centuries: two of them I’ve mentioned; two of them have connections with the bones of St Andrew. The first name recorded as Muckross. Not as squalid as it sounds, it means boar’s head and refers to a peninsula. Over time this was replaced by the Gaelic Cennrígmonaid, denoting the moorland peninsula of a king. It is likely that the king in question was Óengus the First, founder of the monastery and church in St Andrews.
Connections with this church transformed the town to Cell Rígmonaid, ‘cell’ referring to a church in Gaelic. This anglicised to Kilrymont, now the name of a number of local roads. The final name came from the collector of the bones of St Andrew, St Rule. It resulted in the name Kilrule, a little used name. Incidentally, St Rule was also known as St Regulus, the name of a University hall of residence.
For many students, the town is not really there: it is viewed as the map on to which university life is projected, its folk only there to service the needs of the students. To many people of the town of St Andrews, the University is not really there: it is only the architectural backdrop of a town which is washed clean every season by a fresh flock of wealthy, ignorant invaders: golfers, tourists, students.
The beauty of St Andrews is abundant, but becomes lost so quickly. The town is riddled with ancient buildings and pathways, which at first captivate, but too soon become the norm. Medieval ritual sits side by side with modernity in a way which should shock, but is accepted dumbly. Once you accept that you live in a stage set, why would people in gowns bother you? Similarly, a 750 year old staff, used in graduations, or a 15th century (formerly) men-only society with an annual charity parade?
I was accepted in to The University of St Andrews in the Autumn of 2000, and I graduated four years later, in the Summer. I try to get back as often as I can, not to recreate or to relive my past, but to revel in its future. The Royal and Ancient Burgh of St Andrews is made youthful by its population. It is remade many times every year without fail. It is rendered fresh by the businesses which feed on the influx of students, golfers and tourists which flood the town all year round. And it thrives upon it all.