A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This autumn, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, the Scottish Lowlands & Midlands, including Borders, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and St Andrews.
The town of St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland is an eternal shrine: at one time for the world’s Christian pilgrims, and now for the world’s golfing pilgrims.
St Andrew is a figure integral to Scottish identity. One of Christ’s twelve disciples, he was the fisherman of Galilee crucified on a ‘saltire’ cross. According to legend, in 345AD, the Greek bishop Regulus acquired the relics of St Andrew: three fingers, a kneecap and a tooth! He brought them to the eastern coast of Scotland and created a shrine for the saint. It became a major site in Christendom. Apart from Santiago de Compostela in Spain (St James), it was the only place in Europe where pilgrims could venerate the remains of an original Apostle. Queensferry, near Edinburgh, was established by Queen Margaret in 1070 to specifically take pilgrims across the Forth to St Andrews. In the 12th century, St Andrew replaced St Columba as Scotland’s patron saint. His feast day of November 30th became a national day and the saltire became Scotland’s national flag.
St Andrews Monastery
A monastery was established by Celtic monks (Culdees) in St Andrews around 700AD. In 943, the Scottish King Constantine retired here to become a monk. He brought with him the relics of Columba, the Celtic saint. In the 12th century, the Augustinians rebuilt the monastery, the largest in medieval Scotland, and moved the Celtic monks to St Mary’s Church. In 1559, John Knox preached a fiery sermon at Holy Trinity Church in the town and it encouraged the local congregation to pull down the monastery. It is mostly in ruins now with the grounds turned into a graveyard. However, the 12th century tower of St Rule’s church remains. It is the town’s oldest building and can be accessed using a token purchased from the visitor centre. It is worth climbing for the magnificent view.
St Andrews Castle
St Andrews Castle was built in the 12th century as a residence for the Archbishop of St Andrews, then Scotland’s leading churchman. King James III was born in the castle in 1453. In the mid-1540s, the castle was a pivotal location in Scotland’s religious reformation. Protestant preacher George Wishart was burnt at stake for heresy outside the castle gate. Protestants then captured the castle and assassinated the Archbishop of St Andrews, Cardinal Beaton, his body being thrown into the infamous ‘Bottle Dungeon’. The Catholic Scottish Crown with French naval support besieged the castle which became a refuge to about 150 Protestant rebels. Reformer John Knox was invited to become pastor to this first ‘congregation’. Mines were dug in and countermines were dug out, but the castle was eventually captured and the Protestants defenders forced into slavery. The office of the Archbishop of St Andrew’s ceased in 1689.
St Andrews University
St Andrews University was established in 1412. It is the oldest in Scotland and the fifth oldest in the world (after Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge). It was founded by Bishop Wardlaw and the Augustinian order for students driven from the Sorbonne during the Papal schism and from Oxbridge by the Anglo-Scottish Wars. There are three ceremonial colleges: St Salvator’s (1450), St Leonard’s (1512) and St Mary’s (1546). 15% of students are from North America. Perhaps the most famous alumni are Prince William and Princess Kate. Will & Kate met in 2001 when they were both living in the St Salvator’s residence hall, which is split into male and female living quarters. The two were both majoring in art history. Kate said that when William first introduced himself, she went bright red and scuttled off! The Northpoint Café in the town claims the couple met there for coffee while courting.
St Andrews Golf
The game of golf has been played since 1400s. In the mid-16th century, the Archbishop of St Andrews gave the townspeople golfing rights on the links. Dating back to 1552, the Old Course is one of the oldest and most famous golf courses in the world. In 1754, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club was founded, its clubhouse still at the Old Course tee. There have been 29 Open Championships at St Andrews. They are now held here every five years (except for 2020). Those with a passion for the history of golf can seek out the famous Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole, scene of many a legends’ final bowing-out. Meanwhile, at St Andrews Monastery graveyard, you can find the final resting places of golfing pioneers, including the legendary father and son team, Tom Morris senior and junior.
There are seven St Andrews Links courses: Old Course (1552) (Championship); New Course (1895) (Championship); Castle Course (2008) (with spectacular views sited on the cliffs); Jubilee Course (1897) (Championship. Considered the most challenging); Eden (1914) (On the river Eden estuary with challenging bunkers); Strathtyrum (1993) (On the Strathtyrum estate. With few bunkers, it’s more about technique); Balgove (1972) (On Balgove farm. 9-hole preferred by families or beginners). In addition, nearby are several other famous courses including Kingsbarns (1793) (Championship); Fairmont (designed by Sam Torrance); Duke’s Course; Crail; Elie; Lundin; Leven; Scotscraig and Anstruther. St Andrews is truly the Mecca of golf. The legendary Carnoustie is not too far away, either, just across the Tay estuary near Dundee.
Overlooking the Old Course tee is the Martyrs’ Monument. This was completed in 1843 by William Nixon after fundraising by Scottish Free Church leader Thomas Chalmers. It commemorates the four men executed in St Andrews during the 16th century for their Protestant beliefs: Patrick Hamilton for promoting Luther’s doctrines, Henry Forest for owning a copy of the New Testament in English, George Wishart for defying the Catholic Church and Walter Myln for advocating married clergy.
West Sands Beach
The famous running scene set to the Vangelis soundtrack in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire – about the Olympian sprinters Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams – was filmed at West Sands Beach. A plaque set in stone marks the event. It doubled as Broadstairs Beach in Kent. Liddell did actually compete in races at St Andrews and there is a memorial window to him at the ‘Chariots bar’ in the Scores Hotel.
As you might expect in a place which attracts discerning visitors from around the world, there are plenty of good restaurants in St Andrews. Recommended among them are the Peat Inn, a former ‘restaurant of the year’, the Road Hole Grill at the Old Course hotel, and the Rocca Grill on the Links Road. For a really friendly welcome, the Dunvegan is legendary, and plenty of legends have eaten there too: just check out the photos on the walls!
St Andrews: join the club!
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. More recommendations will appear next week.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Lowlands/Midlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)