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The tens of thousands of annual visitors to St.Andrews Castle marvel at the coastal setting, delving into as much – or as little – history as satisfies them and all leave happy. However, this site has a lot more hidden stories that are not often told.  With its links to the Cathedral, St. Salvators Chapel and the University, the ecclesiasticals in charge of St Andrews Castle have influenced town life for over 800 years. They were politicians, lawyers and clergymen who advised the monarchy of Scotland.


The site was first used as an ecclesiastical residence in the 12th century when Prior Roger de Beaumont was the first to live outside of the cathedral grounds. All we know is that he died in 1202.

During the wars of independence King Edward of England attacked both the castle and cathedral. Despite the victory at Bannockburn the English forces returned in 1336 and the first siege of the castle took place the following year. The siege of 1546-7 is so well documented that it is often forgotten that the castle had suffered in earlier times. The damage during the first siege was so bad that the castle had to be rebuilt. The 14th century fore-tower was built on all that remained of the original tower; a stone arch that is now barely knee high.

Visiting in 2010, we see a calm, rejuvenating scene based around a grassy courtyard with redundant water well. When in use this site would have been a hive of activity. There were external timber staircases to the upper levels and ancillary buildings, such as stables, attached to the walls. The Seagate was not a viewing point nor meant for nesting seagulls. It was a means of access to the sea which was the main transport route of medieval countries.  Imagine the noise and smells of horses and goods arriving, animals, servants and children moving about. That’s a castle in real life. Since the earliest days the bishops had educated the sons of nobility, such as James I and II. By 1411 this led to the creation of the university.

With the continuing need to defend itself and with changing fashions it is no surprise to find that the castle has changed shape. The 14th century pentagonal site has had rectangular towers changed to circular blockhouses. The dry moat has been partially filled in and associated buildings have come and gone. A 16th century town map shows a substantial three storey building that complements the multi-spired cathedral contained in its own grounds.

However, all designs of the castle aimed to display lordship in order to reflect the status of the residents who were the centre of Catholic Scotland (in pre-reformation times). According to one architectural historian lordship is defined by three elements; a great hall, private chapel and impressive entrance door. St Andrews Castle had all three.

At the end of the 17th century John Slezer, a military draughtsman, drew the neglected ruins and declared it would have rivalled the great hall of Stirling Castle, a kings’ residence. Unfortunately the great hall, damaged by pounding cannonballs in 1547, succumbed to the waves of a storm in 1801 and crashed into the rocks below. After the site was cleared and a strengthening wall built the townspeople could enjoy a beach, which the castle inhabitants never had.

One of the two main features of the castle is the bottle dungeon. Less well appreciated is that the castle was also a state prison in other periods. The first Archbishop of the castle, Patrick Graham, was deprived of his office and found himself a prisoner, possibly for political purposes. He was kept prisoner for the rest of his life on the grounds that he was insane – whether this madness took hold before or after his period in the bottle dungeon I cannot say.

In 1402, David, Duke of Rothesay was on his way to St Andrews to retain it for his father the king. He fell into a trap and was captured on the orders of his uncle, Duke of Albany. He eventually died in Falkland Palace at the age of 24 leaving a problem for the throne of Scotland.  Although the sons of nobility were educated in the castle other boys were not so lucky. James Hamilton, destined to be 3rd Earl of Arran, was held hostage for the better behaviour of his unreliable father. He was present during the 1646-7 seige when Cardinal David Beaton was murdered and his own father in charge of relieving the castle from the besiegers. Eventually he was declared insane when he attempted to get too close to the returned Mary, Queen of Scots.

During the Civil War the castle was used as a prison by the Covenanters. In 1646 a royalist supporter, Lord, James Ogilvie, was detained pending execution. It is alleged that his mother and sister visited the night before. Two women left but in the morning the sister was found sitting in James’ cell, wearing her brothers clothes. She was eventually released but her brother was well on his way to France. Ogilvie’s fellow prisoners were not so fortunate and executed.

The demise of the site came during and after the Civil War when episcopacy was abolished three times (1592, 1638 and 1689). Its revival in-between these times did nothing to protect the fabric of the building from neglect. As with the Cathedral, the townspeople had a convenient source of building material. So, as you walk about the town you now know why there is a similarity and character to the stonework!

The visitor centre regularly receives visitors claiming descent from the martyr George Wishart, his accuser, Cardinal David Beaton and the besiegers of 1546. The beautiful setting of both land and sea is reassuringly protected by law. From the towers there are privileged views during Leuchars Air Show. The sight of the Red Arrows flying overhead designing love hearts with red smoke is a memory to be cherished. Combine that with the sight of luxury yachts, seabirds and leaping dolphins and you have the magic of St Andrews Castle.