Only a few weeks after my move to Scotland, I was lucky to have my first visitor from the States. My sister had a few days’ stopover in Glasgow, and, along with my partner, Richy, we decided to escape the city on a short road trip north.
In late autumn, weather begins to rule your travel decisions even more than it usually does in temperamental Scotland. Original plans to explore the rugged west coast were abandoned when we heard the rain report. Instead, we set out east towards the Kingdom of Fife and the town of St. Andrews.
Northeast of Edinburgh on the North Sea, St. Andrews is part historical village, part buzzing university town, part coastal resort and the world’s home of golf. Most tourists are either there to play 18 holes on the legendary Old Course or are visiting the ancient university. We were there for neither, but there was still plenty to do. If you find yourself with 24 hours in St. Andrews, here are four alternatives that will easily fill your time:
Walk an Empty Coast
Chasing the sun east through scenic Scotland countryside, we arrived in St. Andrews and headed straight to the sea. We bundled up against the chilling wind and stepped onto the sprawling West Sands Beach. This time of year the beach was empty apart from a handful of walkers and a few wet and happy dogs. Looking back towards town, you could see the old stone buildings of the village perched on the edge of the sea. East and North was nothing but water, sand, and wide open space—a perfect landscape to revive you after a few hours in the car.
Photo by Richy Ainsworth
West Sands Beach, St. Andrews
A huge draw for visitors to St. Andrews is the ruins of the castle and cathedral, both dating back to the late 12th century. Later, after lunch, I turned a corner from a cobbled street and was suddenly caught by the sight of a half skeleton standing tall against a blue sky and grey sea. What is left of the ancient cathedral is a dominating force of the stark landscape. At the edge of the North Sea, you can walk freely through the ruins and its surrounding grave sites in an eerie quiet, easily shutting out the modern world. Three arched windows in a solitary wall caught the light of dusk, and, looking through, it felt like they might be portals to an older world.
Cathedral ruins, St. Andrews
From the cathedral, you can wind your way out of the grounds and down a sloping path to a small fishing harbor. It was easy to feel at the mercy of the elements standing at the edge of the sea wall. A few brave kayakers pulled up to the dock, and I pulled my jacket in tighter to brace against the wind.
(Though we walked by the castle on our way back into town, its entrance was ticketed and had just closed for the day.)
Photo by Courtney St. John
St. Andrews Harbour
Much of the food in this part of the country (and in much of rural Scotland) is focused on fresh. Fresh from the sea, farm, or garden. Just outside town, Balgove Larder is a perfect example. A working farm that produces food for its shop, cafe, butchery, and steak barn just minutes away, Balgove believes we should consume our meals as close to the source as possible. Over lunch in a casual, cosy stone-build shop, we munched on hearty salads, red pepper and pumpkin soup, home reared roast beef, and freshly made nutty breads and butter. Their homemade non-alcoholic ginger beer was the tastiest drink I’ve had in a long time. After the meal, we occupied another hour meandering through the shelves of Balgove’s food shop and gift store admiring everything from their bacon selection to coffee table books and homemade wooden serving spoons. A goodbye to the baby highland coos playing in the paddock along the driveway and we headed back for town.
Later that night (much later, thankfully for our bellies), we continued the ‘local’ trend at Mitchell, a deli and restaurant in the heart of St. Andrews. It’s not a true Scottish experience without Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties, and I’m happy to say I’m an unexpected lover of the national delicacy. Mitchell’s comes in an indulgent whisky cream sauce. On the menu was also plenty of fresh Scottish seafood: Cullen Skink (a haddock and potato soup), halibut and salmon. With a couple of glasses of wine and a festive, twinkle-lit dining room, it was a good place for holing up on a cold almost-winter’s night.
Explore the Streets
We lucked out with a clear, dry day for our one afternoon in St. Andrews, and, without a hard and fast itinerary, a good chunk of our time was spent wandering through the cobbled streets and stone cottage alleyways—still holding the same layout as in medieval days.
After our visit to the cathedral, we turned inward toward town from the coast and snuck through the main university quad. Founded in 1413, St. Andrews University is the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. Today it’s an iconic institute with students coming to study from all over the world. I stood ogling at the ancient archways and wondering what it must feel like to be a modern –day student on a campus that historic. Surreal, to say the least.
Stone house along a cobbled street, St. Andrews
The rumor is that St. Andrews has the most pubs per square mile in Scotland. First off, that’s no small accomplishment in this dear country. And second, it didn’t appear, in my eyes, to be true. Either way, if you’re exploring coastal St. Andrews at the time of year when the sun sets before 4 p.m. and the wind is bone-chilling, you’ll definitely be in need of a late-afternoon warm-up. There are plenty of decent places to choose from, and our exploits ended with a couple pints at a no-frills pub patronized by a mix of a few older men and a handful of young ivy-leaguers.
Drive the East Neuk
After a hotel breakfast of eggs with smoked salmon and haddock the next morning, we were Glasgow-bound once more, this time via the coastal road that winds through a string of fishing villages making up Fife’s East Neuk. Storm clouds had pushed out our fair weather from the day before, and we were in a hurry to get home, so our scenic detour was short, but it’s well worth the extra time to boycott the more direct inland route in exchange for the winding road through Crail, Anstruther and Pittenweem. Pass through picturesque harbors, park and explore seafront shops, join in a conversation with a friendly Fifer. This colorful corner of Scotland is worth a linger.
Forth Rail Bridge, North Queensferry
And then we were in North Queensferry, at the foot of the Forth bridges, the final stop on our 24-hour tour. The World Heritage listed Forth Rail Bridge, built in 1890, was the world’s first major steel structure. Standing under the mammoth construction provides a humbling perspective for what was a massive achievement to build in its time. A monument at the viewpoint remembers the 75 people who died when an earlier version of the bridge collapsed in 1879.
Just a short span away is its modern brother, over which we’d drive, leaving the Kingdom of Fife behind and heading home to Glasgow.
Extend your trip
If you have more time in St. Andrews and Fife, check out the following:
Walk tall – running 117 miles around the coast of Fife from the Forth Estuary to Tay Estuary, the Fife Coastal Path ventures through fishing villages of the East Neuk and St. Andrews. Enjoy the walk in sections or attempt the entire journey.
Dance the night away – Join in at Forgan’s in St. Andrews for one of their famous ceilidh dances to round out your traditional Scottish tour.
More of the East Neuk – There are plenty of reasons to extend your visit to the East Neuk. In summer, catch the ferry in Anstruther to the Isle of May, a small nature reserve that guards the entrance to the Firth of Forth and a history dating to 2,000 BC. Or stop by the locally famous Crail Food Festival in June.