A saint worth his saltire
28 November, 2013
This week took me to the windswept shores of St Andrews in Fife – a coincidence, given that this weekend is St Andrew’s Day.
One of the Twelve Disciples, St Andrew is believed to have been crucified by the Romans at Patras in Greece. According to legend, he declared himself unworthy of crucifixion on an upright cross and chose the diagonal cross – or saltire – which now bears his name. Tradition states that he was executed on 30 November, hence the choice of day to mark his life.
My historical colleagues tell me that St Andrew’s connection with Scotland relates to the legend that some of his remains were kept at the site that is now St Andrews. A chapel was built to house these holy relics and became a place of pilgrimage.
St Andrew was named as the official patron saint of Scotland at the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. In 1390 he appeared on Scots coinage for the first time. The relics which initially led to his saintly status were likely destroyed during the Scottish Reformation in the 1560s.
By then, St Andrews had long been established as the headquarters of the Scottish Church, with a magnificent cathedral begun in the 1160s. The archbishop’s residence was nearby, at St Andrews Castle, heavily fortified yet still vulnerable to attack – as Cardinal Beaton found to his cost when he was assassinated there in 1546.
The clifftop castle, and the beach before it, are ideal places to look at wildlife. Many sea birds are attracted to the area, especially the Eden Estuary.
On my visit I took time to do some bird-watching. My first sighting was of a white-tailed sea eagle. This magnificent bird, sometimes known as the ‘flying barn door’, is huge, with a wingspan of more than 2.5m.
The sea eagle is the UK’s biggest bird of prey. It was hunted to extinction in Scotland in the early 1800s: the present population has been re-introduced from Norway, an ongoing programme begun in the mid-1970s.
Another unusual sighting was a snow bunting, feeding on the beach. Quite intent on its task, it allowed me to get quite close.
A winter visitor, the snow bunting breeds in summer around the Arctic circle, the most northerly breeding ground for a bird of its size. Flocks of buntings are sometimes called ‘snowflakes’ – in flight, they do resemble a flurry of snow. Each bird flies in an undulating, rolling manner, seeming to dance along, rushing forward then leap-frogging the bird in front. When they land, they flash white in tail and wing.
Other birds I spotted at St Andrews were some geese flying overhead, a red-breasted merganser, redshanks and oystercatchers feeding along the incoming tide, and a passing peregrine, which spooked the smaller birds into flight.
Dolphins are also often seen here, although I had no luck. Keep a look out if you are visiting the castle. You might also keep an eye open for any trace of saintly bones.