Confident, poised and well groomed, if a little snooty, ST ANDREWS, Scotland’s oldest university town and a pilgrimage centre for golfers from all over the world, is situated on a wide bay on the northeastern coast of Fife. Of all Scotland’s universities, St Andrews is the most often compared to Oxford or Cambridge, both for the dominance of gown over town, and for the intimate, collegiate feel of the place. In fact, the university attracts a significant proportion of English undergraduates, among them Prince William, who spent four years studying here, where he met fellow student and future wife Kate Middleton.
According to legend, the town was founded, pretty much by accident, in the fourth century. St Rule – or Regulus – a custodian of the bones of St Andrew in Patras in southern Greece, had a vision in which an angel ordered him to carry five of the saint’s bones to the western edge of the world, where he was to build a city in his honour. The conscientious courier set off, but was shipwrecked on the rocks close to the present harbour. Struggling ashore with his precious burden, he built a shrine to the saint on what subsequently became the site of the cathedral; St Andrew became Scotland’s patron saint and the town its ecclesiastical capital.
On the three main thoroughfares, North Street, Market Street and South Street – which run west to east towards the ruined Gothic cathedral – are several of the original university buildings from the fifteenth century. Narrow alleys connect the cobbled streets, and attic windows and gable ends shape the rooftops, and here and there you’ll see the old wooden doors with heavy knockers and black iron hinges.
St Andrews Royal and Ancient Golf Club (or “R&A”) has been the international governing body for golf since 1754, when a meeting of 22 of the local gentry founded the Society of St Andrews Golfers, being “admirers of the ancient and healthful exercise of golf”. The game itself has been played here since the fifteenth century. Those early days were instrumental in establishing Scotland as the home of golf, for the rules were distinguished from those of the French game by the fact that participants had to manoeuvre the ball into a hole, rather than hit an above-ground target. It was not without its opponents, however – particularly James II who, in 1457, banned his subjects from playing since it was distracting them from archery practice.
The approach to St Andrews from the west runs adjacent to the famous Old Course, the oldest course in the world, and just one of seven in the immediate vicinity of the town. The R&A’s strictly private clubhouse, a stolid, square building dating from 1854, is at the eastern end of the Old Course overlooking both the 18th green and the long strand of the West Sands. The British Open Championship was first held here in 1873, having been inaugurated in 1860 at Prestwick in Ayrshire, and since then it has been held at St Andrews regularly, pulling in enormous crowds.
Alongside the fairway of the first hole of the Old Course. It is possible to play on St Andrew’s courses, including the venerated Old Course itself (for this you’ll need a valid handicap certificate and must enter a daily ballot for tee times; the green fees, for those who are successful, are £130 in summer). For full details contact the St Andrews Links Trust, the organization that looks after all the courses in town.
Arguably the best golfing experience in St Andrews, even if you can’t tell a birdie from a bogey, this fantastically lumpy eighteen-hole putting course is in an ideal setting next to the Old Course and the sea. Officially the Ladies Putting Club, founded in 1867, with its own clubhouse, it has grass as perfectly manicured as the championship course, and you can have all the thrill of sinking a six-footer in golf’s most famous location, at a bargain price.