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Visit the Scottish town that is at its best in winter – before the golfers return and take over

While visiting St Andrews out of peak season, Robin McKelvie finds a vibrant, independent-minded place without the crowds – and discovers there’s much more than sport to entertain in the ‘home of golf’

Saturday 27 January 2024 15:53 GMT
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The medieval St Andrews Castle can provide a rewardingly historic respite from golfing
The medieval St Andrews Castle can provide a rewardingly historic respite from golfing (Getty)

It’s a busy morning on the Fife Coastal Path, just south of St Andrews. A trio of deer make their way along this wild coastline, mirrored by a brace of North Sea bottlenose dolphins. A Highland cow joins me briefly on a grass-tufted cut through the ancient rock. I skirt a golf course, but there are no golfers. Welcome to St Andrews in winter.

“St Andrews is still St Andrews in winter, with most shops and restaurants open. You just get to enjoy them without the crowds,” says a smiling Douglas Clement, who joins me for a stroll along the East Sands that heralds my arrival into town. Clement is the living embodiment of there being more to St Andrews than just golf: “As a caddie, clients often complained there was no local distillery, so I set up my own.”

Clement’s Kingsbarns Distillery is no longer alone, with Eden Mill and Lindores opening their own distilleries nearby in a bona fide Fife whisky renaissance. Eden Mill boast a sparkling shop on Market Street; I pop in for one of their delicious sherry-tinged drams.

There is no denying that the money that pours from the eight municipal golf courses – Europe’s greatest public golf complex – helps fuel the distilleries (and much more), but, even in summer, golf is not allowed to dominate. No matter who you are, you cannot play the famous Old Course on a Sunday. Instead, it is turned over to meandering families and dog walkers.

East Sands makes for exceptional coastal walks (Robin McKelvie)

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St Andrews may be eulogised as the “home of golf”, and the R&A – the local golf club who have gone on to preside over the global game – may be one of the world’s oldest clubs (founded in 1754), but they are really the Royal and Not So Ancient, as St Andrews was the site of Christian burials even centuries before the eponymous saint’s relics came here in AD 877. The Vikings were regular visitors too: indeed, man has thrived here by the wide, protective bay, tucked between two broad sand beaches, since Mesolithic times.

The University of St Andrews wasn’t conjured up just to play Cupid to Will and Kate, either. Founded in 1413 as Scotland’s first university, principal professor Dame Sally Mapstone aims to grow the 10,000-strong student body by 50 per cent by 2030 – remarkable in a town of only 17,000 inhabitants.

It is not just the university’s rich history that breathes beyond the greens in St Andrews. Yes, there is a golf museum, but far more captivating is St Andrews Castle, where bloody murder kickstarted the brutal Reformation in the 16th century. I delve down a siege tunnel that offers a chilling descent into the past. The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral are best enjoyed in winter when you can wander alone with ghosts.

I’m still not tempted to pick up a golf club... not now I’ve discovered another St Andrews

The chill of gravestones, and an east coast sun with only ever just enough warmth to prevent your bones freezing, eases with the warmth of the town’s trio of shopping streets. St Andrews doesn’t do McDonald’s, Burger King or Wetherspoons. There is Pizza Express but it’s empty, gazing next door jealously at recently expanded local indie Little Italy. I find Scottish punk brewer BrewDog quiet, but local guys, the St Andrews Brewing Company, are struggling to pour pints fast enough.

St Andrews does do chains – I wander by Costa, Starbucks and Pret, but for every one of these there is also something independent like Spoiled Life. Boutique fashion and Scandi-Scot chic houseware tempt here, alongside the best matcha latte this side of Milngavie. White Company opened in 2023 as the latest upscale store, but there is far more local flavour with Orkney’s Sheila Fleet, Johnstons of Elgin and the Isle of Skye Candle Company.

Local Blue Badge guide Val Eglinton weaves me around the shops. She is a walking advert for St Andrews. “I moved away, but it’s such a special town it drew me back,” she says. “I love that unlike many ‘tourist towns’ in Scotland, St Andrews is open for business year-round.”

Scottish lobster is the star on Haar’s menu in Dean Bank (Robin McKelvie)

On a crisp December day, I snare a lunch slot without a reservation at Haar; in summer, when the golf wealth engulfs St Andrews, getting a table is nigh on impossible. It’s a place to savour Dean Bank’s sublime culinary creations. Such is the rising out-of-season demand since the pandemic, though, that this MasterChef: The Professionals finalist has just opened a new venture in town: Dune, which specialises in cocktails and sharing plates.

I walk the vast, empty West Sands and yomp sections of the Fife Coastal Path untrammelled by another human soul. I do find welcoming company just off the path at my hotel. The Fairmont St Andrews is a real retreat just to the south, with views to the spire-studded skyline and smoked lobster from St Andrews Bay; there’s crab from Fife’s East Neuk, too. I even catch life-affirming flickers of the Northern Lights wandering across the hotel’s golf courses, on the way down to the sea cliffs.

On my last morning, I finally succumb, descending by the flurry of golf shops tucked away like a private club around Golf Place. I stride by the grand headquarters of the R&A and arrive at the Old Course, the world’s most feted course.

Where golf began: it’s hard to pass up the opportunity for a few holes on the Old Course (Robin McKelvie)

Mark Twain need not worry though – he famously declared golf “a good walk spoiled” – as I’m only here for the Old Course Hotel. No golf, just a massage at the only Kohler Waters spa outside the US, followed by lunch at The Jigger Inn, both housed in the cosseted – and mercifully quiet – world of the Old Course Hotel.

Niall Campbell, the Old Course Hotel’s concierge, who has worked here since 2008, beams: “Winter is a great time to visit St Andrews as it’s far less busy.” The famous links course is reflected in his eyes and there’s no escaping the lure of the town’s best-known sport: “It is actually a great time for golf, too, as we’ve got fast-draining courses and there are far fewer golfers about.”

I’m still not tempted to pick up a golf club. Not now I’ve discovered another St Andrews alive with dolphins, swathes of history, boat-fresh seafood and superb independent shops; a St Andrews that is at its best outside of summer.

Travel essentials

How to get there

Take the Caledonian Sleeper and wake in Leuchars; it’s 10 minutes to St Andrews by bus or taxi. LNER operate three trains a day to the town.

How to stay there

Stay at the Fairmont St Andrews for sea views, a swimming pool, local produce and – yes – golf.

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