St Mary’s College in St Andrews

On a visit to St Andrews, just by chance, we stepped through an archway and discovered the ancient quadrangle of St Mary’s College.  What a lovely place, and what a long history!

St Andrews Colin 6Ever since 1579, the lovely chambers and gardens of St Mary’s College in St Andrews have welcomed students of theology;    but the history of this place stretches back even further, to the founding of the university itself.

St Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland.  By the early 15th century it was already a highly respected centre for education and enlightenment, attracting learned men from all over the country.  In 1411 Bishop Wardlaw of St Andrews granted a charter to establish a university, and the institution of a society of Doctors, Masters and Scholars “organized against heresy” was confirmed by the anti-pope Benedict XIII.

St Andrews Jo 27St Andrews Jo 42The first lectures took place in private homes, but in 1418, Robert of Montrose, the Prior of St Andrews, donated land for the building of a college which was dedicated to St John;  this is where St Mary’s College now stands.   Bishop Wardlaw added buildings to house a teaching faculty for the Arts, and these were known as the Pedagogy.   Other colleges soon took root alongside, among them St Salvator’s and St Leonard’s.

The University was already well over 100 years old when Archbishop James Beaton set up the “New College” on the site of St John’s in 1538, with the mission of providing instruction in “Theology, Canon and Civil Law, Physics, Medicine and other liberal disciplines”.   The oldest college building, which lies to the west of the present entrance, dates from 1539.   It wasn’t until the 19th century that the New College became known as St Mary’s.

The Founder’s House

The West Range and the Founder’s House were built by Archbishop John Hamilton in the mid-1500s.  The house has a rather precarious-looking belfry, and a stone over the doorway bears the much-weathered Hamilton coat of arms.

Founder's Tower (1)

St Mary's Collage 1

The sundial is dated 1664 and is inscribed ‘DWC’ for Dr Walter Comrie, a former Principal of the College.

The sundial is dated 1664 and is inscribed ‘DWC’ for Dr Walter Comrie, a former Principal of the College.


St Mary's Collage 2

By the entrance to the Founder’s House grows an aged hawthorn bush, said to have been planted by Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1560s.  Like all old retainers, it is leaning slightly and propped up with sturdy crutches, but it looks to be in good health and still bears fruit every autumn.

The stone bird bath was placed here by Muriel Duncan, the first woman lecturer at St Andrews, during the Great War.   On our visit, a hedge sparrow was taking an early morning dip.

To the north, The King James Library incorporates the remains of Bishop Wardlaw’s Pedagogy;   here, in the hall on the ground floor, the Scots Parliament was held in 1645.   The Library and Reading Room now house the books used for teaching Divinity.

A further range of buildings once made up the southern side of the square, but sadly this was destroyed by fire in 1727, and only an isolated gateway still stands.    In front of it is a recent statue of Bishop Wardlaw, his arms and crozier raised as he addresses an imaginary audience.

St Andrews Colin 8 (1)


You can’t miss the massive Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) which stands in the centre of the quadrangle.   This species of evergreen oak, also known as the holly oak, was introduced into Britain in the late 16th century.   The specimen at St Mary’s was planted in the mid-1700s and it has grown to a great size, spreading a wide canopy of shade.   Its evergreen leaves that are waxy like those of a rhododendron, and it bears tiny little acorns.

The teaching of theology and Biblical studies still continues in St Mary’s College to this day, reflecting the ancient links between the University town of St Andrews and the Church of Scotland.

Thorn tree (left) and Holm oak (right)


Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf and Verity Sansom


Pends (2)Coming soon… Some ghosts of St Andrews!

I have only just discovered that St Andrews is a notorious hotbed of the paranormal.   After all, with these wonderful old buildings, how could it not be?    Watch out for my upcoming feature, in time for Hallowe’en!

Photo:  Archway into the Pends, a narrow street which was once the entrance to the monastery


  1. Wonderful, I missed that, I had a look in another collage courtyard, so it was lovely to see your photos 🙂

  2. What a beautiful, calming place to study.

  3. Fascinating place. Do you have any idea why the belfry was built like that? And I had no idea there was an evergreen oak. I will have to look that one up.

    • I know, it’s so steeped in history! That’s a good question about the belfry – and I don’t know, but it may be something practical, such as the ropes for ringing the bell needing to dangle over the outside of the wall! I was amazed at the holm oak – I don’t remember seeing one before, and this one is so impressive.

  4. I’ve been to St. Andrews many times, but you told me things I did not know. Great post & blog. G

  5. I’m putting St Andrew’s on the university list for the daughters! (And looking forward to the ghosty post!).

  6. To wander around such a secluded, historical precinct ..How enticing! How peaceful! Great find! Thanks, Jo!

  7. Next time you’re in St Andrews, go back to St Marys Quad and make an immediate left – that will take you into the King James Library and you may be able to get into Parliament Hall (used for actual Scottish Parliament in 17th century when there was plague in Edinburgh, now used by Debates Society) as well. Two must-sees for any history lover in St Andrews. Here’s the university’s page on the KJL, with video:

    • Thank you for that, Jenny! I will certainly make a note of it. We were not at all sure just what parts were open to the public, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of going into any of the buildings, so that’s good to know. What a truly beautiful place it is! I would love to see the Parliament Hall.

      • I’m not sure where/when some of those things are open to the public, but worth seeing if they *are* open.

        Thank you so much for all your posts, but particularly the ones about St Andrews! I so much enjoy seeing your beautiful photos, they remind me of how lucky I was to be able to study there.

      • Thank you to you, too, as you alerted me to one or two of the reputed hauntings for my next feature (coming up soon!) I’m so glad that my posts are bringing back happy memories. I can quite understand how you look back on your time there with so much pleasure.

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