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. The Cathedral comprises a number of elements, including the remains of the cathedral itself, St Rule's Tower, and the superb St Andrews Cathedral Museum.
The museum occupies parts of the east and south ranges of what were originally the cathedral's priory, where the Augustinian canons who served the cathedral lived. The entrance is in the south east corner, where a glass covered walkway has been formed from a passage between the ranges. From here you proceed into the reception area and shop.
The museum is in two parts. One occupies the undercroft of the south range of the priory, underneath what was originally the cathedral refectory. This is reached beyond the visitor reception.
The second area occupies part of the restored ground floor of the east range of the priory, an area that would originally have housed the canon's warming house: about the only place where the residents could find relief from the cold in winter.
Most of the stonework on show in the museum has been unearthed in or around the cathedral itself, and it ranges in age from the Pictish era of the 6-900s through the medieval period to the Reformation of 1560, and beyond.
It is the broad timescale of the collection which makes St Andrews Cathedral Museum such a special place. Scotland is blessed with some very fine collections of Pictish carving, and medieval stonework has also long been appreciated and is frequently protected and conserved. But Scotland's record of treating post-Reformation gravestones is, at best, patchy, and it is still possible to find recent cases of stones from the 1600s and 1700s being moved or even broken up. Future generations will look back on today's mistreatment of old gravestones in much the same way we now view the activities of our ancestors who broke up Pictish symbol stones for use in field walls.
But at St Andrews we can see the fine carving of the monumental masons of the 1600s set in its proper context, as a direct continuation of a tradition that extended back for at least a thousand years before, to the 600s: and which carried on into the 1700s and 1800s. Above all else, St Andrews Cathedral Museum is a testament to the enduring skills of the mason.
The two parts of the museum contrast considerably in their look and feel, and to an extent in their contents. The undercroft in the south range is vaulted and stone walled, and though extensively restored has a very original feel to it. The old warming house in the east range is whitewashed, and when combined with the larger windows offers a much lighter and more airy feel: though the vaulting and structure is not fundamentally different from that in the south range.
The south range is home to most of the post-Reformation gravestones. Many are superbly carved. The cross was viewed as a sign of "popery" in post-Reformation Scotland, so was lost as a symbol used on gravestones for several hundred years. Instead many of the stones carry symbols used instead to indicate mortality, including skulls, crossbones, hourglasses and angels' wings. Much of the undercroft is occupied by recumbent stones laid in lines, much as they would have been in the graveyard, but rather better protected from the elements.
Also in the south range is an impressive collection of fragments, some of them substantial, of earlier carved stones. These include many pieces of Pictish slabs and crosses, as well as architectural elements from St Andrews Cathedral itself. For a change of scale, a display case in the undercroft houses a wonderful collection of casts of wax seals. Some are of seals originally used by the Bishops of St Andrews, but the collection includes many other examples from St Andrews and more widely from across Scotland.
The east range is home to many of the finest individual items in the museum's collection, from the whole period covered. These include a nice Pictish cross-slab and the shafts of two free standing medieval stone crosses. There is also some very fine statuary on view. This includes the remains of the effigy of Bishop Henry Wardlaw, who died in 1440, and a superb effigy of a master mason, also dating from the 1400s.
But without doubt the finest single item on display at the museum, and one of the finest examples of early medieval sculpture in Europe, is the St Andrews Sarcophagus. Fragments of this were unearthed when a grave was being dug near St Rule's Tower in 1833 and a subsequent search revealed larger pieces. There are no historical records of who was buried in the sarcophagus, but art-historical research suggests that it dates from the mid 700s, and it is therefore likely to be the last resting place of King Oengus (or Onuist), son of Fergus (or Uurguist), who is thought to have died in St Andrews in 761. It is believed that the sarcophagus was initially on display in a church or mausoleum on the site, before being buried some time later. The quality and detail of the carving is simply magnificent.