St. Andrews in Print

A couple of years ago I read three books in rapid succession set in medieval St. Andrews. It was interesting to see what the town and the university were like in a different time, a period following the Protestant Reformation, when the world had been turned upside down. Catholicism had been turned out, and a new order was in place. Still the university was considered a secular institution, and continued on its path, quite different then than what we see now. The university was very different in the sixteenth century and; students were far younger studying a set curriculum, not surprisingly focusing on the Classics and religion.

The university was a small institution with enrollment in the low hundreds rather than the 6000+ it now draws. Some features we see today were there then: the Chapel, St. Mary’s Quadrangle, and part of the Quad. The house Giles Locke lived in at first I take to be the building connected to the chapel by an arch that forms the entrance to the Quad. The university was formed by three “colleges” as it is now, St. Salvator’s (the first), St. Leonard’s, and St. Mary’s (the best preserved). Red gowns didn’t come into use until after 1600.

Fishing and trade, particularly with the Lowlands, were still economic forces in the town, though the Scottish Reformation in the 1560’s had put the town and the University into something of a downward spiral economically which was to last for a couple of hundred years. St. Andrews had been the ecclesiastical capital of medieval Scotland, and an important destination for pilgrims interested in the relics of St. Andrew. That, of course, changed with the fairly violent Reformation. The University survived, because it was a secular institution, not tied to the Catholic Church, though founded in 1413 by Papal Bulls.

But murder is still murder, and that generally means a mystery. The three books I’ve read in this series of five by Shirley McKay centers on Hew Cullan, a young man who returns to St. Andrews and his family home nearby after three years of studying law in France. His friend, Giles Locke, a professor and physician (by the standards of those days) aids Hew in his investigations of events in a busy town and its university. The growing unrest between the Catholics and Protestants is a feature of in the story line, reaching the point where he comes face to face with the main actors in the Scottish Reformation, the most turbulent and violent time in St. Andrews’ history.

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