first visit

Monday, 9 March 2015

I first visited St Andrews in that quiet week between Christmas and New Year in 1993. I was 17. My father had driven us from Linlithgow, where we were staying with friends for Hogmanay. It was a peculiar visit, in that as it was out of term time. I didn't have a tour of the town but instead had a chat with an English literature lecturer in Kennedy Hall. It wasn't an interview, just a chat in an office that seemed to be lit only by one dim bulb, given by a tweed-clad academic whose name I've forgotten. The sky was grey that day, but it didn't rain. I remember the lecturer seemed bemused by my presence. This was before universities in Britain fought tooth and nail to get their students, before marketing and 'development' were a thing in academia. To court propective students must have seemed quite polytechnic, I suppose. I want to say we had a cup of tea, but I can't be certain. It frustrates me, because this is the sort of memory that I like to be crystal - that should exist on its own in my head without the need to nurture. Instead I'll fill the blanks with supposition an inference based on the stuff I really do know.

I do know that there was no one from the school of Modern History available for a chat. Did my father and I walk down the Scores to St Katherine's Lodge (former primary school of Field Marshall Haig) to see what the department looked like? Did we know it was there? I want us to have had a pint in the Central, but, shockingly, I'm pretty sure we we didn't. Instead we walked to Church Square and had Scotch broth and a scone at an old tea room that would in a year be transformed into the Doll's House restaurant. 

As visits to prospective universities go, it was unremarkable. I don't remember a moment of clarity when I realised that this wasn't just where I wanted to go, but that it was a place that I would stay long after my studies were completed. I liked the town, I know that. But the passage of time and the events afterwards have changed that fairly regular day into one of considerable personal significance. St Andrews in the early nineties was a smaller, far more parochial place. The local supermarket was William Lows and the only chain shop I can recall was Argos. There were more tea rooms, and fewer places to get a decent lunch (not that there are loads now) bar the omnipresent broth and scone. I want to say it was quieter, but it could be just that as time as moved on, the echos have faded. 

In any case, it's interesting to me that so unremarkable a day led to a remarkable chunk of my life. I'm not sure if this book was meant in part to write St Andrews out of my system, but it certainly didn't work. I visit now and every corner and wynd is laden with memories and ghosts of the past. I wander behind Gannochy and between Kennedy Hall and Castle House and that grey afternoon 22 years ago rises right back to the surface. In Cathedral's Shadow isn't about my time there, but it does dwell on how those tangled wee lanes can hold memory, how tactile and emotionally charged that stoic grey stone can be. Of how the memories of a place can grow and change, alive in their own way rather than just reflections of the past.

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