Sitting at the eastern end of St Andrews' two main streets is the imposing, if slightly confusing, collection of ruins that together make up St Andrews Cathedral. This was the largest church in medieval Scotland, and probably also the most magnificent.
The Cathedral effectively ceased to function after being attacked at the beginning of the Reformation in 1559 and thereafter it served primarily as a quarry for the rest of the town. This helps explain why such an enormous structure should have been reduced to such fragmentary ruins over the centuries. It doesn't however, help explain why the ruins you see today are so confusing.
The reason for this is that what you find today are the remains of not one but two churches on the site, plus a third outside the precinct walls. As a result the tallest surviving structure is not actually part of the cathedral at all: rather it is the 100ft or 33m high St Rule's Tower, which predates the start of the building of the cathedral itself by about 40 years. St Rule's Tower stands a short distance south east of the east end of the nave of St Andrews Cathedral. Access is via a door in its west face, and through a turnstile operated by tokens that can be obtained from the cathedral visitor centre. Access is included in the cathedral admission price.
The climb to the top of St Rule's Tower involves a very tight metal spiral staircase, which leads up to a set of intramural stairs, which themselves lead up to one of the narrower stone spiral staircases you will find in Scotland. Passing people descending while you are ascending this spiral staircase can be interesting and it pays to listen out for anyone already on the stair coming towards you before you commence either your climb or descent. The total climb to the top of the tower involves 156 steps.
But the views from the top are worth every step of the climb, and more. Although St Rule's Tower is today the tallest surviving structure on the cathedral site, it would have been easily overtopped by the cathedral's now long gone central tower. The views are utterly breathtaking. To the west the cathedral ruins are laid out before you, while beyond them is the town of St Andrews itself. To the east the views are of the town's harbour and continue round to the high ground to the south east and south.
The more distant views include St Andrews' world famous golf links to the north west of the town, while across the River Eden estuary are the hangars and runway of RAF Leuchars. Still more distantly north it is possible to catch glimpses of Dundee, and on a clear day the coast to the north east of the mouth of the River Tay can be followed around as far as Arbroath, some 17 miles distant.
A religious community was probably first located on this site in about 732AD, when relics of St Andrew were brought to what was then known as Kilrimont or Cennrígmonaid by Bishop Acca of Hexam. There is an alternative and probably more fanciful story, that Saint Rule (also known as St Regulus) brought five of St Andrew's bones here by boat in the years after 300AD, having sailed from from Patras in Greece and eventually surviving a shipwreck near the site of today's harbour.
Either way, the settlement that became St Andrews rose through the dark ages to an eminent position in the Scottish Church, a process that was accelerated when Viking raids led to the removal from Iona of St Columba's relics in 849AD, and with them much of Iona's power base. In about 1123 the Celtic monks here, the Culdees, built St Rule's Church. This comprised the chancel whose roofless remains can be seen to the east of the tower today, along with the tower itself: whose considerable height was intended to act as a beacon for pilgrims coming to the shrine of St Andrew here.
The Culdees didn't have long to enjoy their new church, however. In 1144, in a move that reflected a wider shift away from the Celtic Church and towards the Roman Church in Scotland, St Rule's Church was granted to the Augustinian order. The Culdees were displaced, eventually finding a permanent home in the most easterly of the three churches on the rocky promontory occupied by the cathedral. This, the church of St Mary on the Rock, is now barely visible above ground level on a site overlooking the harbour outside the precinct wall of the cathedral.
The Augustinian Canons extended St Rule's Church, adding a larger choir to the east of the tower and a nave to its west, plus, probably, domestic and other buildings on its south side. By about 1160 it had become clear even the enlarged St Rule's Church was not big enough to meet the Augustinian's needs and ambitions, so work began on building what became St Andrews Cathedral. St Rule's remained in use during at least part of the 150 years it took to complete the cathedral, but by the end of the process it had been reduced to the pre-1144 structure of just a large tower and a small chancel: in effect what you still see today.