And I should say the dead of night. Thing is, St Andrews is truly a quiet town — us students, generally, bring the party. But at some point even the most late-night partiers crash, inebriated and overfull with toasties or cheesy chips or doner kebabs, into the soporific safe haven of what may or may not be their own bed. Once they’re out like a sack of rocks, the world pauses: they’re gone, as are the cyclists, cars, delivery trucks and vans, coffee shop go-getters, pub crawlers, red robes, beach-dwellers, hikers, dogs, old Scotsmen, seagulls (sometimes), wind. And all those places, the coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, Market Street shops, even the toastie bar and library and Empire, are shut down for the night.
Descending into town at, say, three or four o’clock in the morning is descending into a quiet like you’ve never known.
Noise cancelling headphones, a muffled lecture hall, the upper reaches of the library where talking is a sin — these are not quietudes like that which can be found on the streets of St Andrews when no one’s there. Ah, this is tough to describe, because chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen the bulk of St Andrews (that being: North Street, Market Street, South Street, the Scores, and all their requisite landmarks; East Sands, West Sands, the Links, perhaps, if adventurous enough, even the Badlands), so you’ve seen the scorched-stone Gothic buildings and the cobblestone sidewalks and wynds and the patterns of the town, Patrick Hamilton staring down at you frumpy in his immolation, you’ve heard the North Sea and the winds it brings, maybe a bagpipe or two. But you haven’t seen all those things when like an unrealistic movie set they’re airbrushed of people, when the only sound is the hard-heeled click or the rubber-soft tread of your lone pair of shoes on pavement.
It’s something else. It’s eerie. Perhaps because of the juxtaposition to daytime busyness. Then it’s a ghost town. Ideally, you’re going out in the dead of night in what everyone characterises as quintessentially Scottish weather: fog. Nothing’s more ghostly than lanternlight suspended in the distance like will-o’-the-wisps, than mist not just curling around but embracing the St Sally’s clocktower paled in the silent blast of floodlights, than fog damping noise in a natural way that only snow can best. What’s more, go along to the end of North Street, spy into the cathedral and see the fog, see the conjoined-twin crumbling spires lit also with floodlights but with the accidental holes in its facade flossed by fog, see the gravestones made indistinct by fog. Pass to the left, cut backwards a bit onto the Scores and there also is the castle in its great heap of a ruin (and find that grate at the corner of the sidewalk across the street which leads sinuously below ground and under and into the castle itself, a subterranean relic of siege warfare; wouldn’t it be extra eerie if the silence played tricks on your ear and issued forth from that long-disused tunnel some kind of sound the likes of which St Andrews hasn’t heard in centuries? Well, I haven’t heard this before, so I digress).
Turn back to the cathedral and follow the path along its left flank. Now on fogbound road you might hear something besides yourself or the imagined ghouls of siegetimes, that being the conch-shell faint wash and roll and spume of the North Sea. Continuing, you’ll pass the wavy benches spectating the muted cannonade (making no sense now, but, aha, you’ll see what I mean when you see them), when suddenly the path dips downward. Well, keep going. Particoloured buildings blanched by nighttime and fog on the right, a fence line revealing an encroaching seaside on the left. Sometimes, during the day, a seagull will be stationed on the end post, often a particularly large, thick-necked, watchful, inert seagull keeping to his or her self in the way Queen’s Guards keep to themselves at Buckingham Palace, but, at night, while you might hear a rogue gull or two crying from the cliffs or from some random chimneytop, there oughtn’t be any there at so late-early an hour.
Though St Andrews has abandoned sound for the night, this place you’ve come across does not often abandon its faint fishy odour. Stacks of empty lobster traps and small fishing vessels, many named, idle soundlessly after the day’s work.
By now you’ll probably see that you’ve wound up at the pier. Many things happen at this pier. It’s a dangerous place for drunks and for romantics. I remember, four years ago now, I came here, spring break, visiting, touring, still “deciding” on where to go to university. Before I got to the end of the pier I’d already decided, I think, but it was there overlooking the North Sea’s edge and the cliffs of the Coastal Walk and the beach and looking back the cathedral and town proper that I, formally, declared my intentions to go to St Andrews. During the day, though. Where we are now it is fog-quiet and ocean-deep-dark (reality made possible only by anglerfish-lanterns and perhaps the infrequently revealed eye-or-sickle of the moon). All I’m saying is you’re here now, and while, like me, you’ll eventually leave this place, it might be quite some time, if ever, that this place leaves you. Sometimes amid all the hustle-bustle hurly-burly of study-essay-drink-Union-event-travel-and-so-on it’s hard to really see where you are, but something about the spectral St Andrews nighttime brings it all into a strange sort of focus.
We strongly urge the reader if they do choose to venture out late at night to be careful, and always go with friends.
Photos by Hudson Cleveland and Felicity Crudge.