St Andrews Castle
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: 16th century counter-mine, medieval bottle dungeon
It would be a mistake to think of the Bishop in terms of his religious power; churchmen in Scotland were far more than spiritual leaders; they were often major players on the political stage, and frequently acted as military leaders too.
St Andrews saw its fair share of important visitors. James I was educated here; his instructor was Bishop Henry Wardlaw, who went on to found St Andrews University. In 1445 James III was born in the castle. St Andrews also served as a fairly notorious gaol. Prisoners were simply dropped into a 24 foot deep bottle dungeon, cut from the solid rock below the north west tower. There, in an airless chamber, they could be ignored or forgotten. Among the more famous prisoners was Archbishop Patrick Graham of St Andrews, who in 1478 was found to be insane, and was imprisoned in his own castle dungeon. In later years the dungeon was used to hold religious reformers, and John Knox was moved to write that 'Many of God's Children were imprisoned here'. Knox himself would have a close relationship with St Andrews Castle, but we'll come to that in a moment.
After the Battle of Flodden in 1513 Archbishop James Beaton built two huge gun towers, or blockhouses, and added gun emplacements for cannon, turning a medieval castle into an up-to-date fortress based on artillery.
The clash of new Protetant ideas and traditional Catholic religion was not a peaceful one in Scotland. The hierarchy of the established Catholic church was determined to stamp out the Protestant Reformation by any means necessary. In March 1546 a Lutheran preacher named George Wishart was imprisoned in the Sea Tower, and then burned at the stake in front of St Andrews Castle, a spot now marked by a simple design of paving bricks spelling out his initials. When I visited, a car was parked partly over the memorial bricks, the driver oblivious that they were parking on the spot where a man died in flames.
Wishart's execution was ordered and witnessed by the powerful Archbishop of St Andrews, Cardinal David Beaton, nephew of the earlier Archbishop James Beaton. But Cardinal Beaton's triumph was shortlived. A band of Wishart's supporters, prominent local lairds, snuck into the castle dressed as stonemasons. They took the castle garrison by complete surprise, murdered Archbishop Beaton, and hung his naked body from a window high in the castle tower. They then occupied the castle and proceeded to form the first Protestant congregation in the country. Together they hoped to hold the castle against troops led by the Regent, the Earl of Arran.
The defenders dug a counter-mine, hoping to intercept the attackers' tunnel. They were guided in their efforts solely by the sound of the attackers' digging, so they made three false starts before they oriented their counter-mine correctly. You can tell a lot about the situation by the fact that the attackers' mine if wide, well-carved, and easy to navigate, while the counter-mine is narrow, winding, and roughly carved. The defenders were in a desperate race against time to intercept the mine, and they knew it! Today you can walk - or waddle like a duck in low places - up the length of the countermine.
The end of the siege came when a French fleet arrived off St Andrews. The French bombarded the castle, and additional cannon were set up at St Salvator's College and the Cathedral priory towers. Not surprisingly, the defenders were forced to surrender. Most were sent to work on French galleys as oarsmen. As for the mines, they were forgotten to history until 1879, when cellars were being dug for a nearby house.
Today St Andrews Castle is in the care of Historic Scotland. There is a modern visitor centre and displays on the history of the site. Families will enjoy visiting; children in particular will enjoy exploring the counter-mine. It is a bit slippery in places, but perfectly safe. Our daughter enjoyed the mine tunnel, and climbing up the tower. And the castle is only a short walk along the cliff-tops to the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, another must-see historic site. I loved the castle, and St Andrews as a whole, and I highly recommend a visit.
About St Andrews Castle
Address: The Scores, St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, KY16 9AR
Attraction Type: Castle
Location: No onsite parking. Parking is limited on nearby streets.
Website: St Andrews Castle
Phone: 01334 477 196
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
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Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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