The exciting story of the siege of St Andrews Castle

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© Letizia Morley 2017

This is the St Andrews Castle and Castle Sands on a tranquil late autumn day. The castle must have been pretty nice in its day but now is sadly badly ruined. There is a siege mine underneath that has a cool history.

The story is that in 1546, the cruel Cardinal David Beaton, whose residence was the castle, burnt the Protestant preacher George Wishart at the stake out in front of the castle. This very public execution was a spark to intensify the wars of the Reformation in Scotland.

The Protestant friends of Wishart  (including several lairds of the area), snuck inside the castle dressed as masons since there was construction going on at the time there. The Cardinal was stabbed and his naked body hung from a high tower window facing the front of the street. These Protestants began to occupy the castle and then were attacked by supporters of the Cardinal, primarily the Regent, the Earl of Arran.

The famous Protestant preacher John Knox, who was primarily responsible for the Scottish Reformation, was smuggled into the castle to be the minister for the defenders. The besiegers could not breach the walls after a long struggle and so began to dig a tunnel under the gatehouse to get in from below. When that was discovered, the defenders began to dig a counter-mine to meet it. Both mines were cut through solid rock. The defenders tried three times to reach directly to the mine since they were guided only by the sound of the pickaxes. Finally the fight was joined as the tunnels met yet the defenders were able to keep the invaders out. It took a French force to bombard the castle with powerful canons for the castle to surrender. The defenders were either imprisoned in France or sent to the galleys, as John Knox was.

The tunnels were only rediscovered in 1879 and you can go there today, and as I did last year, to creep down the clammy, cramped tunnels and imagine the hard labour it took to carve them. The attackers’ side is smooth, decently large (for a hand carved tunnel) and the defenders’ side is very narrow and jagged. Rank moss grows inside the tunnel and there is a constant drip of water from the walls. Not for those who are claustrophobic! You can see in the paving stones in front of the castle the initials of George Wishart made of cobble stones.