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