Private Guided Tour of St. Andrews, Scotland

Relic Chapel of St. Andrews during a private guided tour of St Andrews (Jennifer Miner)

Relic Chapel of St. Andrews

A private guided tour of St. Andrews, Scotland, is a great option for families interested in historic travel, cultural travel, and simply an engaging, spirited walk through the city. Our family travel adventure in Scotland included a private guided tour of St. Andrews, which first became a town in 1140 AD. Granted, it had been settled even earlier by nomadic people who became farmers, and the earliest known monastery there was started by a royal Pict in the eighth century…but much of what St. Andrews looks like today can be seen in the relics and tumbledown stone buildings of the 1100s.  Besides, as our Kensington Tours private guide told me in an aside, it may be easier for kids to grasp the enormity of the time that St. Andrews has been a European hub, if we can explore the actual, physical remains of its “later,” twelfth century incarnation. And explore them, we did.

In Los Angeles, some of our friends scoff at the age of our house: built in 1980, so old! Why not renovate? Time, and what it means to be “old,” takes on a different meaning in Europe (and, actually, almost any country outside of the United States). Impressing the enormity of time on my children is an important part of historic European travel for me, along with exposing them to a variety of cultures and gastronomic adventures.  St. Andrew’s’ history is seen easily by travelers, but understanding exactly what it is we’re looking at can take a little work. For instance the big green swath by our hotel is no iconic Roman Coliseum, but it is in fact the Old Course, one of the first gold courses in the world. Shena Porteous, who provided our private guided tour of St. Andrews, walks with us along the Old Course to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. She relayed how it was built circa 1754 and to this day remains a mens-only club (an indignant huff was shared with my daughters). However, the Old Course itself is open to the public.

Old Course and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (Jennifer Miner)

Old Course and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews

The University of St. Andrews

Sensing my kids’ waning attention, Shena shifts gears and takes us to the university. The University of St. Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland, founded around 1410. it’s also an excellent school, and really hard to get into. Our private tour guide told us that the University of California has an international exchange program with the University of St. Andrews. But our private tour of St. Andrews wasn’t a college tour, per se; our guide sizes up my teenage daughter and (accurately) starts telling her about how Prince William and Kate Middleton met as students here. My daughter loved hearing about this, and in turn excitedly tried to educate Shena about the fact that Kate Middleton was pregnant at the time. I’m sure our tour guide appreciated the help!

University of St. Andrews, Scotland during private guided tour of St Andrews (Jennifer Miner)

Main Campus of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland

The University of St. Andrews is an important stop for any tourist exploring the town, even those of us who are less enamored of England’s royal family than are our teenagers. Unlike the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, women have been welcome to join the university since 1889. Ah, academia, always the forefront of progressive ideals.

St. Salvator's Chapel in the University of St. Andrews, Scotland (Jennifer Miner)

St. Salvator’s Chapel in the University of St. Andrews

The University of St. Andrews’ chapel, the Chapel of St. Salvator, has a long and interesting history, with just enough drama to keep my kids engaged and enthralled. It’s an outward-facing chapel — i.e. facing the street rather than the campus — and outside, at the entrance to the University of St. Andrews there, the initials “PH” are laid into the stones. These are the initials of Patrick Hamilton, a member of the University and practicing Lutheran who was burned at the stake in 1528.  Convicted and sentenced to death for his beliefs, Patrick Hamilton was the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation. Today, students oftentimes avoid stepping on the letters (it’s considered bad luck). Our private tour guide was bemused to note that my younger daughter thought the adjacent street’s name was hilarious. That street’s name? Butts Wynd. Shena agreed that the university students probably get a kick out of that, too.

Private Guided Tour of St. Andrews - University of St. Andrews in Scotland (Jennifer Miner)

Patrick Hamilton’s initials outside the University of St. Andrews

St. Andrews Cathedral

My kids know I’m a huge nerd for ruins. Fortunately, after a few years of impressing upon them the cool factor of being able to touch stone monuments built centuries ago, some of this excitement is rubbing off on them. St Andrews Cathedral is monumental ruin, a testament to the Protestant Reformation of Scotland, and a very popular tourist attraction. It’s not as overrun as, say, Westminster Abbey or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but a visitor would be hard-pressed to feel alone on the site.

Our Kensington Tours guide strolled with us through St. Andrews Cathedral, describing it as having been the largest, most prestigious church in medieval Scotland. Its history goes all the way back to the year 700, though the church itself wasn’t built until the twelfth century. Before that, it was known as Cennrigmonaid, a monastery. Construction started circa 1160, and a hundred years later St. Andrews Cathedral was damaged by a storm, then another century later — in 1378 — a fire destroyed much of the non-stonework elements of its architecture. Finally, in 1559, John Knox preached so angrily that his congregation rushed out of his parish church to the cathedral, attacking it and destroying much of its rich furnishings. John Knox had preached against all the fine raiments and decor of St. Andrews, believing is a more austere expression of Christianity. The cathedral fell into ruin after this. What we see now, dates from the 1300s and 1400s.

Relic Chapel, graveyard, and West Entrance of St. Andrews Cathedral (Jennifer Miner)

Relic Chapel, graveyard, and West Entrance of St. Andrews Cathedral

Most people walk in through the remains of the West Entrance today; the missing walls and bare stonework we see were once covered extravagantly with tapestries. As we walk through the West Entrance, take a moment to imagine the processions of upper class Scottish citizenry that once passed through this entrance, used, then, for special occasions.

After passing though the West Entrance, we see the Nave, where people once worshipped. There were once many altars here, with screens separating the different chapels. Today, grass grows up, and birds fly through the empty places.

Private guided tour of St Andrews - The Nave of St. Andrews Cathedral (Jennifer Miner)

The Nave of St. Andrews Cathedral:once splendid, now in ruins

Other areas our guide told us about are the Presbytery at the far east end — the high alter once stood here — as well as the oldest building in the town, St. Rule’s Church (circa 1123).  The Relic Chapel of St. Andrew, Cathedral Priory, and transepts are also within the precinct walls here. The graveyard started as monastic, and the medieval graveyard here was also used for fairs and markets as well as burials after the Reformation of 1560.

Before heading to our next stop on this walking tour, our private guided tour of St. Andrews’ guide allowed us some time to explore St. Andrews Cathedral as we liked; wandering thoughtfully (the adults) and climbing or freaking out their mother (the kids) was a lovely way to digest what we’d learning about the ground on which we stood.

the vault of a tomb in St. Andrews Cathedral (Jennifer Miner)

This is the “freaking out their mother” part I was referring to; the vault of a tomb

St. Andrews Castle

Less that a thousand feet from the Cathedral, St. Andrews Castle also stands in ruin. We can imagine the bishops that once lived here walking their daily commute from home to the cathedral — and defending themselves from commoners fed up with their extravagant lifestyle. St. Andrews Castle was partially wrecked and rebuilt several times during the Wars for Scottish Independence, with ownership trading hands between the Scots and English.

There are two points of interest here that especially appeal to kids, and help bring the castle’s history to life. The first is called the “bottle dungeon.” Since St. Andrews Castle was also used as a prison, the “bottle dungeon” is of note as where the men and women of least social status got dumped. This is a erlenmeyer flask-shaped pit dungeon, into which prisoners (religious deserters, often) were tossed. What a way to go. The entrance to the top of the bottle dungeon is appropriately gloomy and dark.

Bottle Dungeon hole in St. Andrews Castle, Scotland (Jennifer Miner)

Nervously looking into the bottle dungeon hole; that was a grim way to meet one’s fate

The other element that kids (my kids, anyway) find intriguing is the mine/countermine. This is one of the most important medieval siege work remains in all of Europe! As our guide told us, there was a siege in 1546-1647. Cardinal Beaton was assassinated, and his killers holed up in the castle. The siege lasted a year; and at one point the besiegers started digging a tunnel to get into the castle grounds from outside its fortified walls. This was the mine. Inside the castle, the defenders started a countermine — and initial veered to the left too abruptly. They went back and restarted digging out a new countermine tunnel. Travelers and the curious can crawl their way through the countermine, but it’s a tight fit. People who’re scared of small spaces, or who get easily creeped out, shouldn’t do this.

Countermine and a Miner in St. Andrews Castle (Jennifer Miner)

Peekaboo! Countermine and a Miner in St. Andrews Castle

We can still see the pick marks left by the medieval mine and countermine diggers, or sappers. The entrance to the mine can be seen (but not accessed; only the countermine is accessible) across the street from St. Andrews Castle, on the far side of the road. It’s marked by a manhole cover.  Anyone traveling with kids should point this out to them; it’s really interesting to think about all the action and drama of the 1500s, right where tourists are standing around snapping photographs, today.

We also enjoyed exploring other parts of the castle, like the Kitchen Tower and Sea Gate (it’s the Sea Tower that holds the bottle dungeon, since the tower as a whole was prison accommodation for people of all social classes during the medieval era). But honestly, from what I could see, the bottle dungeon and the mine and countermine are highlights that best bring to life the time that St. Andrews Castle was the center of action for the Scottish Reformation. Making ancient history seem real and relevant for children helps round out family travel anywhere, let alone the ruins of St. Andrews.

St. Andrews Castle in Scotland (Jennifer Miner)

St. Andrews Castle in Scotland

Now, our Kensington Tours private guide, Shena, was more than happy to show our teenager the most fun parts of the city for shopping; we ended up strolling up North Street and down South Street. And she abbreviated our time spent on the Old Course upon learning that we weren’t avid golfers. As the maternal head of a family, with a keen personal interest in historic and cultural travel, this was an important part of our stay in St. Andrews. The highlights of the private guided tour of St. Andrews for me were the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews Cathedral, and St. Andrews Castle.

Our guide adapted to our needs and truly added richness to our time spent on St. Andrews, Scotland. For a family vacation that includes only a few days in St. Andrews, having a private guided walking tour of St. Andrews helps everyone get a deeper concept about the old, historically important, and beautiful city.

Kensington Tours Private Tour Guide Shena Porteous (D. Miner)

Kensington Tours Private Tour Guide Shena Porteous, and the Miner gals

Kensington Tours provided a private guided tour of St. Andrews for my family during our vacation in Scotland.

28 Responses to “Private Guided Tour of St. Andrews, Scotland”

  1. 1
    France Finesse says:

    Looks like a fun trip – great photos too!

  2. 2

    1) This really thought St. Andrews to life for me! Before your trip, I really only thought there was a big church and a golf course here! 2) Kensington Tours absolutely rocks. A tour I took with them in the South of France was every bit as illuminating and flexible. I look forward to more European tours with them. 3) You and your girls are absolutely adorable. 4) “Countermine and Miner”: nice. :)

  3. 3
    Linda Bibb says:

    Sounds like your guide really knows her stuff. I’d like to explore the Cathedral; I’m a sucker for ancient sites like those.

  4. 4
    Penny Sadler says:

    This looks wonderful. I love tours with really good guides.

  5. 5

    That looks awesome!! It’s always good to find a good guide, and can really enrich an experience…

  6. 6

    LOVE Scotland! And it’s only from learning from those in the know that we can truly get a sense of place. I, too, love the countermine and miner! lol!

  7. 7

    I’m looking forward to Scotland… hopefully in the spring!

  8. 8

    Gives rich new meaning to the world old. An amusing aside about the University. My daughter has an American friend, a fellow New Yorker, who will be attending the university as a freshman this year. He plans to spend his junior year abroad in the US.

  9. 9

    A good tour guide can be such a fantastic way to take in a place with such a wealth of history.\

  10. 10

    I always wanted to go to Scotland because of their rich culture and tradition aside from their fascinating history. The edifices built long ago have amazing designs that it shows how creative people can be at that time. It would be such a wonderful experience to go to that place and marvel at their culture and art.

  11. 11

    I will bookmark this for my trip to Scotland soon. Thanks!

  12. 12
    Adam says:

    Scotland’s history is just so interesting!! I need to visit soon.

  13. 13
    Dale says:

    As a Brit I’m not surprised to see just how well these fantastic ruins are being maintained and because of that they look fantastic and will stand for a long time as a fantastic direct link to the history of Scotland; it’s such a shame that some other countries with histories just as rich don’t have the finances or desire to preserve monuments of equal importance.

  14. 14

    Scotland does know how to respect and maintain their ruins. I love having private tours, you have the guide all to yourself and you can stop to see places that sometimes they don’t take everyone on.

  15. 15

    How fun! My American friend went to St. Andrew;s, and I always gushed over her alumni mags – it really is that beautiful!

  16. 16
    Travelogged says:

    I loved St. Andrews too — such a special place!

  17. 17

    I enjoyed reading how your private guide was able to personalize your tour and point out interesting facts that you daughter would appreciate- like where Kate and William met.

  18. 18

    Jennifer, those pictures are amazing.Those makes me want to go to Scotland now

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  23. 23
    Saul Kellway says:

    What a good way to get to know a place – any place.

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  28. 28

    This post made me so nostalgic! I did my Masters in St Andrews, and I can safely assure you that, yes, the students do also get a kick out of the street name, Butts Wynd.

    Love your pictures of the inside of St Salvator’s (Sallies!) – used to sing in the choir there ever single Sunday, and it was somewhere I never got tired of looking at.

    Such a fantastic town. Your photos have made me miss it so much!

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