The town of St Andrews has all the makings of a Victorian Gothic novel: imposing stone buildings watch over the shores of the North Sea, and medieval ruins linger in the background of every evening stroll. Add in the role St Andrews played in Scotland’s long history of religious conflict, and you have the core elements of a classic dark tale. The University, which is almost inextricably linked to the town, has a similarly Gothic past. University buildings have witnessed everything from the gifts of a doomed young queen to the destruction of Catholic architecture at the hands of Protestant reformers.
With the help of professors and a Museum of St Andrews curator, The Saint uncovered the hidden histories of several prominent University buildings.

St Salvator’s Chapel

Photo: Harry Gunning
Photo: Harry Gunning

Founded in 1450 by Bishop James Kennedy, St Salvator’s College was originally a centre of theological learning. The chapel that remains today served as a place of worship for both students and locals. As decades passed, however, the chapel became embroiled in religious turmoil.

One University student, Patrick Hamilton, became notorious for his outspoken Protestant beliefs. History professor Michael Brown explained that Hamilton first composed a musical work and then followed it with a decidedly more inflammatory theological text. Catholic officials soon investigated Hamilton for unlicensed preaching as well as the spread of heretical texts, and he was sentenced to death.
In 1528, 24-year-old Hamilton was led to St Salvator’s Chapel. His sentence of burning at the stake was only worsened by the inclusion of wet wood in the fire, and it took hours for him to die. The alleged stoicism Hamilton showed during his prolonged death has made him a local legend, and he is memorialised today by the PH on his execution site. The myths surrounding Hamilton are also perpetuated by another feature of the chapel: a face carved into the tower, which in modern times has been said to portray the young martyr.
In 1546-47, the chapel was once again caught in the midst of conflict. Protestant reformers killed Cardinal David Beaton and stormed St Andrews Castle, setting the stage for a long siege. On one side stood the Protestants, including key reformer John Knox, and on the other stood French soldiers aiding the Scottish government.
At one point during the siege, French troops mounted guns on St Salvator’s College, a move that allowed them to fire into the castle’s courtyard. Continous fighting around the chapel destroyed its timber spire, meaning that the one seen today only dates back to the 1550s.
The siege of St Andrews ended with a French victory. Knox and other Protestant dissidents were sent to work as galley slaves, but their sacrifice spurred other Protestants to action. As Protestantism overtook the country, the chapel continued to serve as a point of contention.
In vein with Protestant tradition, Scotland’s new leaders disapproved of the ornamental style of Catholic architecture. Reformers took out their anger on the chapel, destroying statues and stained glass and even going so far as to attack Bishop Kennedy’s tomb.
Matthew Sheard, learning and access curator at MUSA, shared one mystery connected to the Reformation. The University’s maces, which are currently in the MUSA collection, date back to the fifteenth century. It is possible that they have survived so long only because they were hidden in Bishop Kennedy’s tomb during the Reformation. The issue, however, is subject to much debate.
Over the next several centuries, St Salvator’s Chapel underwent periods of decay followed by restoration. In the late 1700s, the roof of the chapel collapsed, and in the mid-1800s, a cloister was added. The nineteenth century saw further repairs, especially to Bishop Kennedy’s tomb, as well as the commission of new stained glass. Today, the chapel is the last surviving element of St Salvator’s College. With its long history as a centre of both religious teaching and dissent, the chapel stands as a key symbol of the University.

St Mary’s Quadrangle

Photo: Harry Gunning
Photo: Harry Gunning

South Street is home to St Mary’s, one of the University’s oldest colleges. Although St Mary’s was founded in 1538 by Archbishop James Beaton, his untimely death meant that successor Cardinal David Beaton oversaw much of the college’s early history. The same Cardinal Beaton was murdered just eight years later, and his killing marked the beginning of the siege of St Andrews Castle.

In the years between the siege and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, St Mary’s became a centre of Catholic teaching. In fact, the first book printed in St Andrews was a catechism created by theologians employed by the college in 1552.
By 1579, St Mary’s had been designated as the home of the University’s theological studies. Andrew Melville, who is familiar to students today as the eponymous figure of Andrew Melville Hall, studied at St Mary’s and returned in the late 1500s as its principal.
In its present form, St Mary’s College serves as the University’s School of Divinity. It is closely linked with the King James Library, which stands near the college in St Mary’s Quadrangle. The library is named after King James VI of Scotland, who provided much of the funding for its construction.
Originally, the library was built to hold the Greek and Latin books given to the University by Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary had strong ties to St Andrews, and Professor Brown notes that she visited the area almost annually throughout her reign. Despite the fact that Mary had a clear connection with the University, Professor Brown casts doubt on the popular legend that she planted a thorn tree still standing in St Mary’s Quad.
He said, “I suspect the story about the thorn just reflects the desire to attach everything to her, though it may date to the college’s foundation in her father’s reign.”
Another notable individual with ties to St Mary’s Quad is scientist James Gregory. In the 1600s, Gregory based his workshop in the King James Library. He studied astronomy and accomplished feats such as designing the reflecting telescope and calculating the distance between Earth and the sun. Unfortunately for Gregory, Mr Sheard explains that the University “treated him like dirt, with the result that he left for Edinburgh.”

Parliament Hall

Photo: Harry Gunning
Photo: Harry Gunning

The name of this South Street building offers a hint into its unusual past. Built in the 1610s, Parliament Hall served as the temporary home of the Scottish Parliament between 1645 and 1646. At the time, Edinburgh was facing an outbreak of bubonic plague, and the relatively new St Andrews building provided a welcome alternative.

St Andrews was also chosen because of its role in the Scottish Civil War, which had just concluded with a Royalist defeat. In fact, during one of its 1645 meetings in Parliament Hall, the Scottish Parliament sentenced several captured leaders of the Royalist army to death.
Parliament Hall is also known for its role as a testing site. Students hoping to earn a Masters of Arts degree sat on a stone stool known as the blackstone while their professors conducted oral examinations. Mr Sheard described these tests as “surely a terrifying affair.”

Younger Hall

Photo: Harry Gunning
Photo: Harry Gunning

The home of St Andrews’ Music Centre was built centuries after such storied buildings as St Salvator’s Chapel and St Mary’s College, but its short past is filled with many notable happenings.

James and Annie Younger, members of a wealthy brewing family, provided funding for Younger Hall. Architect Paul Waterhouse was chosen for the project (coincidentally, his wife was the Youngers’ daughter), and construction was completed in 1929. The Duchess of York, later HM the Queen Mother, opened the building that same year.
Unfortunately for Waterhouse, Principal JC Irvine hated the design of Younger Hall. Mr Sheard explains that this is why the building is set back from the road –– the principal didn’t want it to be seen when one looked down North Street. Principal Irvine’s dislike of Waterhouse’s designs led to the architect’s failure to receive another assignment.
As a result, St Salvator’s Hall, built in 1930, was designed by University Hall architects Mills & Shepherd. Principal Irvine was in luck as he had enough tact to choose a new architect without inciting the anger of donor James Younger.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.