Dominated by the crumbling ruins of a once-fine cathedral and castle, St Andrews has a long and rich history. This is the home of Scotland’s oldest university, and the lovely old college buildings stand shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional town houses and shops.
By day it’s an idyllic place to visit, but at night, especially in autumn and winter when the sea mists creep in, spirits are said to walk the narrow streets.
Whole books have been written about the ghosts of St Andrews. It seems that every building has its own spectral inhabitant, just waiting for an opportune moment to ooze out of the stonework. A few areas in particular are noted for ghost sightings – so much so that many residents tend to avoid them after dusk.
Here are just four places where, if you glance over your shoulder, you might just find that you’re not alone…
ST RULE’S TOWER
In 1393, the Prior of the monastery at St Andrews was Robert de Montrose. He is reputed to have been a good man, fair and responsible, with a generous heart. Occasionally, however, he needed to discipline one or two of the more rebellious monks in his care (I guess you could call them loose canons). One of these, by the name of Thomas Plater or Platter, didn’t take kindly to being reprimanded, and planned his revenge. He crept up on the Prior late one evening as he was retiring to bed, and stabbed him to death.
There’s a variation of this story, which tells how the Prior liked to climb to the top of St Rule’s Tower on a moonlit night. (Imagine how wonderful the stars must have looked!) One evening his assassin quietly followed him up there, murdered him, and threw him over the side. It’s a deliciously scary story, and from experience I know just how high the tower is – but it must be said that there is no firm historical evidence to back it up.
Fast forward to the 1940s, when a visitor to St Andrews was climbing St Rule’s Tower to take in the view. It was daytime, but the inside of the tower was poorly lit. He stumbled in the dark, and looked up to see the partly-shaded figure of a man wearing a cassock, standing a few steps above him. The monk-like figure spoke kindly and offered his arm in assistance, but the visitor politely declined and continued up the stairs.
It was only when he came down again and spoke to the tower’s custodian that the visitor realised what he might have seen. The custodian told him that he had admitted no one else into the tower and had seen no one emerge from it.
More recently, some people believe they have seen the murdered prior leaning from the parapet, and then falling… and photos taken by guests on a ghost tour of St Andrews appear to show a shadowy figure in the topmost window.
ST ANDREWS CATHEDRAL AND ‘THE HAUNTED TOWER’
The Cathedral grounds are enclosed by a high stone wall with a number of small two-storey watch towers set into it at intervals. In the 15th century, these were joined by a parapet walkway. After the Reformation and the subsequent abandonment of the Cathedral, one of the towers seems to have been used as a family mausoleum, with burials taking place in the lower chamber. Some years later, it was sealed off and forgotten. It’s quite easy to spot this tower, as it is the only square one – all the others are round.
In the graveyard around the tower, and also on the parapet walk above, the apparition of a ‘white lady’ has been seen by several reliable witnesses, including students and more elderly residents of the town; on one occasion she passed through an iron gate, scaring the daylights out of a group of fishermen on their way up from the harbour. Some sightings date back to the 1800s, while others are much more recent. In fact, she has been seen so often that some people stay clear of the area after dark, and the tower has become known as ‘The Haunted Tower’. To some, she appears to be holding a book, and wearing a long white dress and a veil; others report that she has long black hair, and is very beautiful.
In the 1860s, stonemasons working on the wall came back with claims that they could see into the sealed crypt through cracks in the stonework, and they told some hair-raising stories about mummified bodies. With their love of Gothic horror, this was guaranteed to appeal to the Victorians. The crypt was opened – some say in the dead of night, although this can’t have been practical – and a number of bodies were found, in a surprisingly good state of preservation. Among them was the body of a young woman with black hair. According to reports, she was wearing a long grey dress and white leather gloves.
THE NUN’S WALK AND THE PENDS
The Pends is a lovely old street which was once a vaulted entrance into the monastery. Its roof and top storey are now gone, but when you walk down there you still feel as if you’ve stepped through a doorway into the past.
Several witnesses, walking back from the shore late at night, have reported a sense of being followed; one man could see a dark shape on the opposite side of the street, which appeared to be moving and keeping pace with him. Having walked quickly through the Pends, he looked back and waited for his follower to emerge – but no one came.
A veiled nun is reputed to haunt the aptly-named Nun’s Walk, which leads from the Pends to St Leonard’s School; several people claim to have encountered her, and a dog owner described how her two terriers, which had previously been playing happily, suddenly whined and cowered as they appeared to watch something invisible pass down the lane.
And while you’re watching for phantom pedestrians, keep an eye open also for a spectral coach, reputedly that of Archbishop Sharp, a harsh and unpopular churchman who had sided with Charles II after the Civil War. The Archbishop was murdered on his way to St Andrews in 1679, but his coach appears to have reached its destination without him, as it has been seen on moonless nights gliding silently down South Street and the Pends, drawn by four huge black horses.
ST ANDREWS CASTLE
But dreadful things happened within these walls. It has a bottle dungeon, and sadly that doesn’t mean the prisoners enjoyed free beer.
In the mid-16th century, while Mary Queen of Scots was still an infant, Scotland witnessed terrible conflict between members of the Catholic and Protestant faiths. A number of Protestant preachers, among them a man named George Wishart, stood bravely against the might of the Catholic church. Wishart was captured and executed at St Andrews by Cardinal Beaton, the Pope’s representative in Scotland; but just a few months later Beaton himself suffered a dreadful death in St Andrews Castle, at the hands of a vengeful Protestant mob.
Not surprisingly, Beaton’s spirit doesn’t rest in peace. One visitor to the Castle has reported seeing ‘a man in fancy dress’ (assumed to be the ornate gown of the Cardinal), while in 1978 a visiting teacher saw a shadowy figure moving from one window to the next in the gatehouse, on an upper storey which no longer has a floor.
If the ghost of Cardinal Beaton really does walk around the walls, he is not alone. In the 1920s, a surprised visitor watched as “an older woman in clothes from a vanished age walked across the courtyard from the gatehouse, passed the well, and then carried on right through the sea rail, ‘turning to her left where no foot can now tread.’” (from ‘Haunted St Andrews’ by Geoff Holder).
These are just a few of the many ghosts that are said to haunt the houses and streets of St Andrews. If you want to be totally spooked, St Andrews Ghost Tours offers a range of guided walks for intrepid visitors in search of the supernatural. Join them if you dare!
Have you had any ghostly encounters in St Andrews or elsewhere? Do share your experience!
- ‘Haunted St Andrews’ by Geoff Holder
- ‘Ghosts of St Andrews’ by Richard Falconer
- ‘A Haunting of Ghosts’ by Helen Cook
- ‘Bygone Fife from Culross to St Andrews’ by James Wilkie
- ‘St Andrews Ghost Stories’ by William T Linskill
- Guide to St Andrews
Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf and Verity Sansom