Scotland Travel: St Andrews

My last trip in Scotland was also the trip I had anticipated the most. You see, I had been planning to adventure to St Andrews for quite some time. I had been so enamored with this place I even considered going abroad there. Something about this tiny town just appealed to me– the quietness, a university that ranks as one of the best in the world, the beach and shoreline, its connection to golf history. It was probably a combination of these factors that led to St Andrews being placed at the top of my study abroad visiting list, and perhaps was one of the main driving forces for my decision to go to Scotland. So what did I think of St Andrews after all of this hype? It was cold. So, so cold. A lot of what I expected came into fruition. I wandered gleefully around the town’s medieval streets, cobble-stoned pathways, old cemeteries, and even along the frigid the shoreline. But St Andrews came with some unexpected twists as well. For example, it was horribly cold. So cold that it even snowed on the shore, and the famous Old Course was caked in a layer of snow. Maybe going at a different time of year, with some company, would have done well to improve the quality of this trip.

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St Andrews, located about an hour up the coast from Edinburgh in the county of Fife, is a tiny town situated on Scotland’s eastern shoreline (bordered by the North Sea). It is home to one of the United Kingdom’s highest ranking and oldest universities, the University of St Andrews. Similar to Oxford, this medieval university had buildings scattered throughout the town’s small city limits. Unlike Oxford, I wasn’t as disappointed because I was venturing to St Andrews for more than just the school. A view of the town, and part of its shoreline, is shown below (circa March 2013).

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The day began with a long bus ride from Edinburgh to St Andrews, the morning after a fresh snowfall. Stepping off the bus at my destination, I was initially struck by a burst of bitingly cold air. Situated on the sea– in Scotland– in March, you can imagine just how cold the temperature could plummet. Understandably, my gut reaction was to run inside the closest pub and grab something warm to eat. After mustering the courage to venture outside again, I meandered down one of St Andrews’s main streets (one of three). The street was only about a 5-10 minute walk, and spans the entire length of the city, from the famous Old Course to the old cemetery at the edge of the coast. Here, I found a breathtakingly haunting, serene cemetery among the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, shown below (circa March 2013). Headstones hundreds of years old lined the cemetery grounds, as well as tombs that were of a style unlike anything I had seen in the United States.

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One thing that struck me about this small coastal town was its stunning surrounding geography. The ocean, the snow-capped mountains that lined the distant sky, all blended together to create a picture-esque beauty. It was quite possibly the closest I would get to experiencing the “Scottish Highlands”, which I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to see. From the cemetery I ventured along the shoreline, searching for St Andrews students who could point me in the direction of the academic buildings. Instead, I found a large number of Scottish and other British tourists, who were all incredibly kind and helpful people. An image of St Andrew’s shoreline, with a ruined castle, is shown below.

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Eventually, I had wandered my way back to the other side of town, where the famous Old Course could be found. Said to be the site of the birth of golf, the Old Course is renown by golf lovers throughout the world. This history makes St Andrews one of the golf capitals of the world; in fact, seven golf courses including the Old Course comprise what is known as the “St Andrews Links”. While these are public courses,  playing on one of these historic sites is a top honor. St Andrews’s connection to golf even gained it the moniker of “The Home of Golf.”  As a causal golf player myself, I was excited to experience this Mecca of the golf world. However, there wasn’t actually much to see once I arrived. A layer of snow covered the field, so the bright green grass seen in pictures of St Andrews was noticeably absent. I did get the chance to stand on the course’s famous bridge, which was pretty cool in itself. Obviously, the winter weather prevented any chance I could have had of taking a swing on the St Andrews links.

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After realizing the British Golf Museum was closed, I decided to live out my inner passion (and dating game show answer) of taking a long, contemplative walk on the beach. I chose a shoreline perpendicular to the town, known as the West Sands Beach, and started off. In the words of the great Ron Burgundy, I immediately regretted my decision. Walking along the beach in frigid temperatures, it turns out, is not the greatest idea. No longer was I sheltered by the warmth and protection of the nearest Starbucks, but exposed and forced to fend for myself against the cold, unforgiving wind that swept along the St Andrews shoreline. While I can sit and complain about the cold wind until I’m blue in the face, the truth of the matter is that the West Sands Beach does provide some fantastic panoramic shots of the town. Plus, there was a certain kind of elegant peace being alone and among the cold on on a beach in Scotland. The view from the shoreline is pictured below.

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After my cold exploration of the shoreline, I took back to the city streets to find warmth and comfort in the nearest Starbucks. After gaining enough strength to venture out into the elements again, I took to finding the main buildings of the University of St Andrews. Of course, this was a difficult task as the school is disbursed throughout the town, so my quest involved asking a number of (incredibly kind and polite) Scottish students as well as sliding down slippery, icy alleyways. Eventually, I found one of the university’s main quads, pictured below. Like Oxford, it did not quite meet my over-glorified, Hogwarts-like expectations, but I wasn’t all that disappointed. St Andrews was a beautiful medieval school in its own right, and a place I feel is definitely worth a visit.

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As I prepared to depart St Andrews, the charming little town left me with one final, glorious sunset. Quite possibly the prettiest sunset I had seen in the entire time that I lived in Europe. The bright colors of the sky swirled and mixed over the town’s buildings and cobbled streets before finally meeting in ocean below. It was almost something poetic. And while I had to run to catch my bus back to Edinburgh, in that moment, part of me did not want to leave. A sight that beautiful only comes around once so often, and I didn’t want to rush the moment. Alas, my time enjoying the lingering sunset was cut short by my travel arrangements, but I was left with a lovely impression of St Andrews.

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All in all, St Andrews was a cute little town. The home of one of Britain’s most prestigious universities, St Andrews also is “The Home of Golf” and the city where “Harry Met Kate.” Sure, going in March after a snowfall is not the best time of year to visit– in fact, venturing to Scotland in the winter in general is probably going to be quite cold. But because the town was “off” from tourist season, there was a certain serenity I doubt one could find during the summer. Maybe I will venture back to Scotland in warmer times, to see the Highlands especially– but  maybe even stop in this little shore town again. Probably not though. But St Andrews still ranks highly on my top places in Scotland that I would recommend visiting.

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