When walking down Market Street on a busy afternoon in St Andrews, a myriad of different languages can often be heard. While it may seem surprising for a small town in northeast Fife to have such a global population, in actuality, this international demographic has been central to the story of St Andrews for centuries. Today, most people are attracted to the town because of the university or golf course, however back in medieval period, visitors were drawn to the town for a different reason: that being pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage is a journey taken to express spiritual beliefs and devotion. In the Middle Ages, it was common for both men and women to embark on pilgrimages to sites of religious importance in an effort to absolve themselves from past sins and thus ensure their entrance to heaven. From the early twelfth century onwards, the town of St. Andrews was one such holy site that pilgrims flocked to for one specific reason: to revere the relics of Saint Andrew himself.
According to legend, the bones of Christ’s apostle, Saint Andrew, were carried to Scotland from Greece by the monk Regulus in the 350s. The far more likely story is that the relics arrived in St Andrews from northern England centuries later. While the relics only included three fingers, a kneecap, upper arm bone, and a tooth, this was enough to put the town on the map as a site for international pilgrimage as relics from Jesus’s twelve disciples were extremely rare in northern Europe in the twelfth century.
The arrival of Saint Andrews’ relics changed more than just the name of the town (as it was still known as Kilrymont until around 1200). In the years leading up to 1100, the number of pilgrims traveling to see the relics was so large that Queen Margaret of Scotland established a free ferry across the Firth of Forth to aid pilgrims on their journey northward. In the town itself, a hostel specifically for housing pilgrims was established at St Leonards. Pilgrimage even influenced the urban layout of the town. As the relics were housed in the Cathedral, the town’s streets were built to accommodate the circular procession of pilgrims up and down North and South Street, with Market Street providing food, trade, and entertainment for the people that came on pilgrimage.
Map of St Andrews from the early 1580s by John Geddy. While not entirely geographically accurate, the Geddy Map provides an idealized conception of the town and gives a sense of how the flow of pilgrims would have travelled to the Cathedral by progressing up South Street and down North Street.
“S. Andre sive Andreapolis Scotiae Universitas Metropolitana.” (National Library of Scotland MS.20996)
One such item that would have been sold by merchants to pilgrims on Market Street were pilgrim badges like the ones pictured below. These badges were produced in large quantities and often depicted Saint Andrew on his trademark diagonal cross, which is replicated on the Scottish flag. Pilgrims would buy badges to wear as souvenirs to mark the completion of their journey to St Andrews and indicate their special status as a protected traveler.
By the fifteenth century, the number of pilgrims traveling to St Andrews had greatly decreased. The popularity of St Andrews as a site for pilgrimage waned as other shrines throughout northwestern Europe were established. With its harbor, castle, cathedral, and university, by the fifteenth century St Andrews had become a bustling town that may not have been as attractive to pilgrims as a site of spiritual transformation.
While St Andrews may no longer be known as a site for traditional pilgrimage, to this day it still attracts people from all over the world. International students, golfers, and tourists continue to flock to this northeast corner of Fife, often following the same route across the Firth of Forth that hordes of pilgrims traversed hundreds of years ago.
Written by Cally Wuthrich, 4th year student of Art History and Management at the University of St Andrews and volunteer with University of St Andrews Museums.