Falling in love with St. Andrews, Scotland

‘Bums!”

Katy Barker, whom I’ve just met, is instructing me to look at the rear ends of four men whom I don’t know at all.

St. Andrews is about 55 miles northeast of Edinburgh.

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“Bummmms!” she bellows again, mimicking the proper way to take a good long gander. “Now, chase!”

In the course of one hour, I chase. I skip. I pas de basque my patootie off, which is good, since it’s weighted down with the giant slabs of shortbread I’ve been eating ever since arriving for a weekend in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Along with 16 other students, I’m taking an intermediate Scottish Country Dancing class in the activities room of the local sports complex. The particular dance we’re doing is called “Flowers of Edinburgh,” which Katy has explained like this: “First, the ladies want to check out the men’s bums. Then the men want to check out the ladies’ faces. Then it gets a little bit interesting because the men check out the men’s bums, and the ladies check out the ladies.” (Because of an uneven split of the sexes, some of the men are, in fact, ladies. “This is my man sash,” my partner Louise says cheerfully, gesturing to the satin ribbon brandished across her chest.)

On the dance floor, Katy’s instructions translate into a spider-web pattern of couples weaving behind and in front of each other, changing partners and regrouping in quartets, all to lively fiddle music. It’s sort of like “Riverdance” meets “Hee Haw,” but in a good way.

“If you give people a little story, they remember the steps better,” Katy explains later. Sometimes the story has to do with dukes or kings, but often it has to do with a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge. “Scottish dancing,” Katy says, “is all about . . . you know.”

We know. St. Andrews is, after all, where Prince William met Kate Middleton, when both were freshmen at university here, living in St. Salvator’s hall. Tucked on the east coast of Scotland, a few bus transfers from Edinburgh, the town is where the blue water meets the green countryside and the air smells like sea salt and lilacs.

To me, at least, St. Andrews is all about romance.

Or not. If you ask some people, St. Andrews is all about golf, which is the opposite of romance. St. Andrews is where the modern sport was invented. It has been played here for half a millennium. People from around the world make pilgrimages, dressed by Calloway and toppered with tam o’-shanters, to play on the Old Course — the oldest golf course in existence — for more than $200 a round. These people’s wives (and some husbands) have high tea at the Old Course Hotel, eating scones, listening to a harpist and smiling benevolently at their spouses, who are outside kissing the Swilcan Bridge by the 18th hole and pretending to be Jack Nicklaus.

Other people might say that St. Andrews is all about history, with its castle ruins and roaming bagpipers, and the way the sound of the 550-year-old chapel’s morning bells ricochets throughout the town.

Still others are into St. Andrews only for its looks: the rocky cliffs jutting out over the North Sea, or the wide sandy beach where “Chariots of Fire” was filmed and where university students in their bright red robes wander on the weekends.

But for me, St. Andrews means romance, because St. Andrews is where I fell in love.

Granted, it was a quadratic sort of love, split among three people and one cooking utensil.

During my junior year of college, I did a semester abroad at the University of St. Andrews. At foreign student orientation I met Danielle from Connecticut, Eric from Iowa and Emilia from South Carolina. For six months, I spent Saturday mornings watching the polo team exercise their horses on the beach with Emilia, Monday evenings studying Shakespeare with Danielle, Wednesday nights eating sweet popcorn at the tiny North Street cinema with Eric. On Sundays, the dining halls closed, so we prepared meals together in a wok that came with four red bowls and four sets of chopsticks and was co-owned by Danielle and me. We purchased the wok set partly because it was on sale, but mostly because it was made for four.

St. Andrews has a lot of flavors: subtle leeks bought fresh at Tesco’s, crumbly shortbread from Fisher and Donaldson’s, sticky toffee pudding from the Rule pub, pungent haggis on Robert Burns’s birthday. But because of the six months I spent with the Great American Wok Club, to me St. Andrews will always taste, regrettably but fondly, like stir fry.

St. Andrews is, without question, my favorite place in the world — at least the version of St. Andrews that exists in my memory. I hadn’t been back in years — nearly a decade since we all studied together. Now I’ve returned, a solo traveler, curious to see whether it’s possible to fall in love with the town when the people who made me love it are gone.

But first, my butt hurts. Scottish Country Dancing is no joke on the calves and glutes; the morning after my class I am jet-lagged and sore. Jenny, the proprietor of my bed-and-breakfast on Queen’s Garden, has laid out a full Scottish breakfast, and I am eating the pain away.

Over poached eggs and stewed fruit (Jenny also points out the “wheaties, frosties and trailies” cereal options; the Scottish have a lovely way of making everything a dimunitive), I ask the communal table for low-impact tourist suggestions.

“You could go to the Kate Kennedy procession,” suggests Simon Smith, a computer programmer with thin-rimmed glasses and a goatee. Simon and his girlfriend, Caroline Ingram, attended St. Andrews several years ago and are back for a reunion ball.

Kate Kennedy is . . . ?

“It’s a society that only allows men,” says Caroline, rolling her eyes, which conveys exactly how she feels about that. Kate Kennedy was the beautiful niece of a beloved 17th-century archbishop who was murdered in his prime. Kate’s visits to St. Andrews were always marked with celebration; the exclusive and posh Kate Kennedy Club has been reconstructing them for more than 80 years with a lavishly costumed parade in her honor.

“I was recruited for Kate Kennedy,” Simon remarks conversationally, which causes Caroline to roll her eyes again.

But the procession doesn’t begin until 2, so I begin the morning by walking to the St. Andrews Cathedral ruins, the remains of the 12th-century church that once anchored the town.

St. Andrews was originally called Kinrimund. It acquired its new name in the late Middle Ages based on the legend that the area is the resting place for the bones of St. Andrew. For decades it was the ecclesiastical center of Scotland. The priory wall surrounding the cathedral is said to be the oldest and longest medieval wall in Europe, and the tower inside it is the best vantage point within city limits.

Near the cathedral ruins are the ruins of a castle, which housed the cathedral’s powerful bishops and several generations of Scottish kings. Inside, there is a dank bottleneck dungeon and a claustrophobic mining tunnel used by 16th-century Protestant rebels to gain entry into the castle walls during the Scottish Reformation. They killed the resident cardinal and hung his body from the walls.

Presentation-wise, neither the cathedral nor the castle can compare with the lovingly restored castles in Glamis or Edinburgh, which are furnished with tapestries and heavy, knobby furniture. The St. Andrews structures are just crumbled walls overlooking the water — roofless outlines representing only the vaguest memories of what the sites once were.

But there is something infinitely more romantic about ruins than about completion. Ruins evoke emotions of the saddest love stories: “Wuthering Heights” or “Braveheart,” Mel Gibson charging through the Scottish countryside, back when he was more cute than bonkers.

After the ruins, I decide to walk to St. Salvator’s Chapel, a 15th-century church that’s still used for services on Sundays and for weddings — usually involving tartans, usually accompanied by bagpipes — throughout the weekend. Before I can go inside, I am distracted by a whooping cheer from the chapel courtyard.

“Gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to — ”

With this, a figure appears: pale blue dress, long brown hair, rouged cheeks, lipstick. It is a man.

“This year’s Kate Kennedy!”

The Great American Wok Club missed the Kate Kennedy procession when we studied here. It was held the weekend we’d all decided to go to Glamis. And for not the first time this weekend, I profoundly miss my friends. The absurdity of the spectacle being played out before me — Scotland’s upper crust, the future rulers of the country, gussied up for pantomime — should really be marveled at with other Americans.

In the courtyard, the preparation for the parade is still underway, and everyone is getting in line.

“Queen Mary?” asks Digby Don, who is organizing the procession. “Where’s my Queen Mary?”

“Here,” answers a tall boy in a red wig, riding on horseback.

“J.M. Barrie? Rudyard Kipling, you stand here. The Murderers Three? Is anyone here a murderer?”

The procession is meant to represent every individual who contributed to the development of the university or of Scotland in general — an ever-expanding lineup that includes, somewhat inexplicably, John Cleese and Benjamin Franklin.

Kate Kennedy is always played by the freshman pledge whom the other members of the society deem the most promising. This year it’s a boy named Edward Battle, who has delicate features and a slim build.

“They always choose someone rather pretty,” explains Emily Dixon, one of the female students whom the Kate Kennedy Club has selected to pass out programs and fliers for the procession. These girls are known as Kate Kennedy’s Kittens, which Dixon admits is a rather unfortunate name. However, she notes, she and her fellow Kittens are all wearing dignified school robes, while their counterparts are parading around town as John Cleese doing the Minister of Silly Walks, so who is really to say which is more ridiculous?

In honor of my absent friends, I end the night at Kinness Fry Bar, for one of St. Andrews’s more renowned and utterly questionable food products.

Kinness is a St. Andrews institution because of its cooking philosophy, which is shockingly simple and astoundingly brilliant: If you bring it, they will fry it.

“I’ve been asked to do shirts, pants, shoes,” says Dragosh Parasca, chief fryer. He has to refuse the inedibles for health reasons. “But I have fried apples and lemons. We can’t do the [Cadbury] Cream Eggs because there is a chance of them exploding.” Under a heat lamp at the entrance sits an assortment of the more typical requests: deep-fried haggis, deep-fried blood pudding, deep-fried sausages.

I decide to stick with the Kinness specialty: a deep-fried Mars candy bar, which is exactly as unholy as it sounds and four times as delicious.

Parasca also insists that I order a chocolate pizza, which contains pizza dough, maple syrup, Rolos, bananas, chocolate flakes and cheese. He tells me that it’s more healthful than the Mars bar I’ve just finished eating, which makes me want to cry.

It’s funny, the things that you remember about a place. Before I’d left for this trip, I’d e-mailed Eric and Danielle and asked for their best memories, hoping that I could recapture what had made the place so charmed nine years ago. Eric had suggested visiting the all-night pizzeria that he and I used to frequent, phoning each other after midnight and begging for company on the cold, damp walk to South Street. Danielle talked about early-morning runs on the beach.

But when I am back in St. Andrews, their suggestions aren’t as appealing as I thought they’d be. For one thing, the pizza that Eric and I used to eat was gross. We went to that pizzeria only for its late hours and the fact that there was a bench outside where we could sit and reminisce about green bean casserole and backyard wrestling — relics from our shared Midwestern roots. And while running is normally as fun for me as toilet cleaning, Danielle had made it entertaining by singing Barenaked Ladies songs and discussing the plots of intricate BBC dramas.

In a rather obvious observation that can be applied to almost all travels, it was the people who made that time special, not the place.

This time in St. Andrews, the things I’m most enamored of are the things I’m discovering on my own. Kate Kennedy, for example, or stopping for dinner at Dunvegan’s pub, a golfers’ favorite hangout that’s plastered with the photos of its clientele (Sean Connery, George H.W. Bush, Neil Armstrong). On the night I go there, it’s overrun by a group of very merry Swedish men on their 12th annual pilgrimage to St. Andrews. “Ve don’t know vat our vives are doing,” Per Jansson explains happily. “Dey are at home.”

On my last free morning, I rent a bicycle and ride out of town, over hills and through patches of heather, until I’m surrounded by barley fields and pastures of an astonishingly rich shade of green. Off a little farm road, there’s a field full of Highland cattle — great shaggy cows with russet-colored hair, enormous horns and plaintive moos. The farm is owned by a man named John Stewart, whose family has worked the land since 1924. When I ask nicely, he takes me into the pasture for feeding time.

“C’mon, girls,” he coaxes the cattle, and soon we’re surrounded by mama cows and their newborn calves — wee little teddy-bearish creatures with chubby legs that gambol and play together like puppies.

Afterward, John suggests an alternate route for the ride back to St. Andrews, telling me to look to the left at a certain point in the path.

When I follow his instructions, I’m literally speechless. It’s the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen — a panorama of sandy bluffs, manicured golf courses, the cathedral ruins and the wide, expansive sea.

And just like that, with no influence from others and for all the right reasons, St. Andrews and I are in love.

 
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