Once the residence of bishops and archbishops, St Andrew’s Castle stands majestically overlooking St Andrew’s Bay, on the East coast of Scotland. Within these walls, Scottish kings held elaborate feasts, high-ranking prisoners were kept, and the bloody murder of a cardinal took place. During its long history, St Andrew’s Castle have accumulated a great many stories and seen a multitude of battles. In many ways, one needs to explore St Andrew’s Castle to even begin to understand Scottish History as a whole.
Not-So Humble Beginnings
There has been a castle standing at the site since the times of Bishop Roger (1189–1202), son of the Earl of Leicester. It housed the burgh’s wealthy and powerful bishops while St Andrews served as the ecclesiastical centre of Scotland during the years before the Protestant Reformation. In their Latin charters, the Archbishops of St Andrews wrote of the castle as their palace, signing, “apud Palatium nostrum.” Even the ruins we can see today, are magnificent, so it must have been a very impressive structure, right from the beginning.
Small parts of the original castle still stand today. A section of the Fore Tower dates from the 1200’s and large sections of the outer walls date from the 1300’s.
When War Came to St Andrew’s Castle
During the Wars of Scottish Independence, St Andrew’s Castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times as it changed hands between the Scots and the English.
Soon after the attack and virtual destruction of Berwick in 1296 by Edward I of England, the Castle was taken and made ready for the English king in 1303. In 1304, Edward I of England stayed at the Castle and held a parliament in the nearby priory. In 1314, however, after the Scottish victory at Bannockburn, the Castle was retaken and repaired by Bishop William Lamberton, Guardian of Scotland, a loyal supporter of King Robert the Bruce.
By the 1330s, the English had recaptured it again and reinforced its defences in 1336 but were not successful in holding the Castle. Sir Andrew Murray, Regent of Scotland, recaptured it after a siege lasting three weeks. Shortly after this, in 1336–1337, it was destroyed by the Scots to prevent the English from once again using it as a stronghold.
The Rebuilding of St Andrew’s Castle, Scotland
After the destruction caused by the wars, St Andrew’s Castle was in desperate need of repairs and partial rebuilding. Bishop Walter Traill set to work in 1385, building new curtain walls, five towers, and residential accommodation for himself and his household. It was also Traill who created the deep ditches, cut into the bedrock, to further protect the Castle against attack. These ditches can still be seen today – in fact, most of what we can see at St Andrew’s Castle today, is Traill’s work.
In 1401, Bishop Walter Traill died at St Andrew’s Castle. Not much further work took place until the early-1500’s, when Cardinal Beaton upgraded the Castle’s fortifications. He added a second skin on the south front (to protect against bombardment) and strengthened the Fore Tower.
After Beaton’s murder, the new Archbishop Hamilton repaired the Castle again. His was the last work done at St Andrew’s Castle and included rebuilding of the north wall and repairs to the south wall. It was at this time that the main entrance to the Castle was moved to its current location, away from the Fore Tower.
Murder at St Andrew’s Castle
In the 16th century, politics and church were very much intertwined (as it has been for centuries before that). In 1538, David Beaton became Archbishop of St Andrew’s and a cardinal of the church – the first Scotsman in 150 years to hold that title.
Beaton was a dominant figure in Scottish politics and made many enemies, particularly among those in the Protestant circles. In March 1546, Beaton had the Protestant preacher, George Wishart, burned at the stake in front of St Andrew’s Castle’s walls. This act inflamed the already divided population, and two months later, a group of Fife lairds decided to take revenge. They disguised themselves as stonemasons and gained access to the Castle. Once inside, they overcame the garrison and seized the cardinal. After stabbing him to death, they hung his naked body from the Castle walls.
Mine and Countermine at the Castle
The Earl of Arran, Regent of Scotland, ordered the murderers of Archbishop Beaton to be dislodged from the Castle and laid siege to it. However, he didn’t want to attempt anything too violent as his son was being held hostage in the Castle.
Trying to hasten the end of the siege, the attackers began to dig a tunnel or mine, hoping to bring down the walls by igniting gunpowder under the foundations. Their plan was foiled by the defenders who, directed only by the sounds of excavation, dug a countermine. After several false starts they intercepted the mine and thwarted the attack.
What is interesting, is the “look” of these two tunnels. The tunnel dug by the attackers are wide, high, and well-made. It even has beautifully carved steps, as you descend deeper into the mine. The tunnel dug by the defenders, on the other hand, is much rougher, narrower, and lower. This just shows that the attackers had much more time to do their work. The attackers were panicked and, in a hurry, to find the tunnel of the attackers. They had much less time to make their tunnel larger and more comfortable. There is a very steep ladder where the two tunnels meet, so visitors can walk (or crawl) all along the 50 meters of tunnel.
What Not to Miss at St Andrew’s Castle, Scotland
The Castle ruins are magnificent and well worth a visit. I suggest allowing at least one to two hours to explore the entire complex, including the mine and countermine. There are several features not to miss:
- Look at the Fore Tower from the outside. Here are a few things to take note of. Firstly, note the long, narrow slit to the right of the upper window. This was one of the slots that held the beams that raised and lowered the drawbridge, when this was the entrance to the Castle. Also note the two vertical gaps below the windows. These were the sides of the original gateway.
- Explore the bottle dungeon in the Sea Tower. It was cut into solid rock and measured 7.3m deep and 4.6m wide, at its widest point at the bottom.
- Walk (or crawl, where needed) along the mine and countermine. The entrance is on the east side of Fore Tower and is among the most important medieval siege works to be found anywhere in Europe.
Historical Sites Nearby
- St Andrew’s Cathedral ruins are located a 5-minute walk from the Castle.
- St Rule’s Church is located next to the Cathedral.
- The Holy Trinity Church can trace its roots to the 12th It is located a 7-minute walk from the Castle.
- Dunfermline Abbey and Palace are 37 miles south-west of St Andrew’s Castle.
- Site visit and observation
- Site information boards
- HES Guide to St Andrew’s Castle, Cathedral and Historic Burgh
- Wikipedia website