Do you think you know St Andrews in Fife? We certainly thought we knew it in a way that went far beyond the obvious elements of golf and university; of castle and cathedral. And then we read "Secret St Andrews" by Gregor Stewart, and realised that we didn't know the town nearly as well as we thought we did. We also realised that we badly needed to visit St Andrews again to start to uncover for ourselves all the hidden gems exposed between the covers.
We suspect that Gregor Stewart's fascinating book will have that effect on most of its readers. At one level the contents of the book are well summarised by the description on the back cover: "Although known worldwide as the ‘Home of Golf’, St Andrews was also the ecclesiastical powerhouse in Scotland for centuries prior to the Reformation. Author Gregor Stewart takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the town’s past, unearthing tales of double crossing and infighting while introducing the reader to the nefarious characters who were jostling for power. He reveals connections between St Andrews and the order of the Knights of St John, who owned buildings in the town, and James Gregory, who laid a meridian line from his laboratory that pre-dates Greenwich by 200 years and is now widely credited as the ‘place where time began’. The book also explores the macabre: St Andrews was a centre for execution, using an early version of the guillotine, and there are descriptions of the fates of those accused of witchcraft and heresy. Secret St Andrews delves beneath the surface of this attractive university town, revealing a lesser-known and less savoury history that even most local residents don’t know."
For us, what makes this book so special is the way that every page seems to be suffused with the author's enthusiasm for his home town. But enthusiasm would be nothing without the huge amount of hard work it must have taken to go so far beyond the obvious and really get under the skin of St Andrews. The photographs are helpful in giving a feel for the town to anyone who has never been there, and the text is well-written and engaging. It was a third element that really drew us in, however. Scattered through the book are a series of "Did You Know?" paragraphs. In some cases our own answer was "yes we did", but in many cases these fascinating snippets were new to us. We'd not know that according to local tradition the pier was rebuilt by Dutch women; or that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club select their captain by means of a fictional golf competition; or... well, you can read the rest for yourself! Great for visitors and residents alike.