The town of St Andrews, situated on the east coast of Scotland, in the “East Neuk” (Scots for “corner”) of the county of Fife, has a historical and cultural importance out of all proportion to its size – today, it has a mere 16,680 inhabitants. The town played an important role in Scotland’s turbulent political and religious history during the Middle Ages, and the most visible legacy of this is the ruins of the Cathedral, which was originally constructed in 1160, after relics of the apostle St. Andrew were transported there (although how this occurred is unclear). The town became a bishopric in the 10th century, and by the later 12th, its saint had been adopted as the patron saint of the Scots. The Cathedral was conceived as the largest building in Scotland, and remained so until the national revolution of 1560 led to its being sacked by followers of the religious reformer John Knox. As one commentator remarks, “the Fife weather continued the work”, so that today only fragments survive – along with the 11th century tower of the cathedral’s predecessor, St. Regulus.
St. Andrews grew to become an ecclesiastical, academic and trading centre; the medieval street plan and fortified gates still exist. However, after the Scottish Reformation, the town’s importance was greatly reduced and it fell into a long period of decline. But it revived in the nineteenth century, attracting tourists and new residents thanks to two significant local “industries”; higher education and golf.
Scotland’s first university was founded in the town in 1410 and was granted full university status by Pope Benedict XIII in 1413. It responded to a need; as there were no universities in Scotland, and the country was often at war with England, Scottish students wishing to pursue higher studies were forced to go to mainland Europe, especially Paris. The University of St. Andrews can thus be seen as pioneering Scotland’s separate educational system, which survives to this day. Its fortunes mirrored those of the town, with a period of growth followed by decline, and then expansion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Ironically, in recent times, the university has sometimes been regarded as not Scottish enough; a tourist guide describes its “elegant, ivy-clad buildings and delightful quadrangles and gardens” which lead to it being “often compared to Oxford and Cambridge for its defining presence and the collegiate feel it gives to the town”. The university tends to admit a significant number of affluent English students educated at independent schools, and it has some quaint traditions which make some Scottish critics view it as a socially élitist, English, Tory, public-school enclave. Yet the university’s admissions body has taken steps to counter this negative image by encouraging applications from local students and those from more modest backgrounds. St. Andrews University also has strong connections with the United States. In 1759, Benjamin Franklin, then Envoy of the United States in London, was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University in recognition of his scientific research, and the City of St Andrews granted him the Freedom of the Burgh. Since then, many American students have studied in the town. Today, when universities have to think internationally, St. Andrews is building on this tradition, and its high-quality research, energetic fund-raising campaigns and efforts to broaden access can make it seem more like an Ivy League-style institution than a Scottish branch of “Oxbridge”.
Americans also visit St. Andrews in large numbers whenever a major golf tournament is staged there. The first record of golf being played in the town dates from 1552, and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A) is regarded as the premier club in the world and the sport’s governing body. It published the first ‘Rules of Golf’ in 1897 and manages the Open Championship, which has been held at St Andrews 27 times. Despite the fact that the town’s economy benefits from the spending of wealthy golf tourists, the St Andrews links courses are on publicly-owned land and are open to everyone – in line with the sport’s egalitarian tradition in Scotland. Women too can play; in September 2014, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, under pressure from politicians and the University’s Vice- Chancellor, Louise Richardson, voted in favour of admitting female members – after 260 years as an all-male institution.